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Tame the `Elephants' in Haiti

When elephants fight, the grass dies.

WHAT African axiom occupied my thoughts much of this past weekend as I visited emergency feeding sites, hospitals, and rural clinics in Haiti. Practically every recent word about Haiti has been devoted to hopeful political developments. As chairman of the Congressional Hunger Caucus, I needed to see for myself what many anxious relief workers have confided to me about the physical conditions of ordinary Haitians.

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While the political scene in Haiti guardedly improved over the July 4 weekend, with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the de facto government signing an agreement providing for the elected leader's return, humanitarian conditions in Haiti have never been worse. We can make a life-or-death difference for thousands there by not losing focus on humanitarian conditions in the next six months.

Haiti has long been one of the world's poorest countries. More than 85 percent of Haiti's 6 million people live in absolute poverty. Infant- and child-mortality rates are similar to Sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy, at 54 years, is two thirds of that in other Caribbean nations. I observed hundreds waiting in food lines for a dollop of oily grain. People bathed and drank in open sewers. They gasped for air in stifling hospital wards. As one psychologist told me, Haitian children have been socialized fo r scarcity. Frankly, there is nothing left to scavenge. The situation has deteriorated from extreme poverty to a state of virtual famine in some parts of the country.

What are the needs that must be addressed before we are able to promote an enduring solution in Haiti? Are they resources like those asked of me by Mme. Claudette Munro, who after running an inner-city hospital in New York City, now occupies her retirement years by administering a hospital in the mountainous northwest of Haiti so devoid of supplies that its only ambulance sits upon blocks, missing all four wheels?

Is it basic employment programs so absent that Haitians have resorted to burning their few remaining trees into charcoal for fleeting pennies? Or is it second-hand scales desperately needed by rural clinics so that they can determine which starving child should receive emergency food before another? It is all this and one more: The need for urgency by the international community, donors, and Haiti's political figures.

The catalyst that saved lives in Ethiopia and Somalia was worldwide attention matched by action to help. Haiti, our neighbor in this hemisphere, needs the world's help now. The international community, private donors, and especially you and I, must make an exceptional effort to increase humanitarian aid, using networks already in place. This will provide for a strengthened humanitarian effort in Haiti by US, allied, and Haitian private voluntary organizations.

Haiti needs the same urgency demonstrated in Operation Provide Relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. Whatever the evolution of the economic and political situation, emergency measures on the humanitarian priorities will be essential in the weeks and months ahead if we expect Haiti to have a fighting chance. In addition, any long-term aid package crafted for Haiti must have a significant human-needs component to target hunger and health challenges. The malnourished and the sick simply cannot wait f or the political stability and establishment of a "jump-started" economy.

Many lives have been lost in Haiti; much of the grass has died. The days of the fighting elephants, one hopes, will end. It is time for Haiti to be green once again.

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