Global

Dartmouth's President, a Global Health Leader, Offers Perspectives on Helping Haiti

World Health Organization

Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College, is a co-founder and former executive director of a global-health organization that has worked in Haiti for more than 20 years.
January 14, 2010

Dartmouth College is one of several American universities to announce it is sending faculty members with medical and global-health expertise to Haiti to help with relief efforts following this week's devastating earthquake.

But the Ivy League institution's president, Jim Yong Kim, may be unusual among higher-education leaders in the depth of his ties to the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Dr. Kim, who became Dartmouth's president in July, is a co-founder and former executive director of Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization that supports health programs in poor communities worldwide. The global-health group has worked to provide medical services to the poorest Haitians for more than 20 years and is one of the main organizations on the ground treating those injured in the earthquake. Its co-founder, Paul Farmer, was appointed in August as deputy to former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti.

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Dr. Kim.

Q. You've been to Haiti some two dozen times through your work with Partners in Health. Could you talk about your experience?

A. I first went to Haiti in 1988, and it was a shocking experience for me. I had been to a lot of different places before, but I had never seen a place that was just so deeply poor. When I first went there, in the first walk that I took to one of the small villages that we served, I felt like I was walking on the face of the moon. The entire area had been deforested, and it had been deforested because the last line of income production for people who are so poor is to cut down trees and make charcoal. Since then I've traveled all over the world in my work in Partners in Health, in my work in the World Health Organization, and to this day I have never seen a place as tragic as Haiti.

Q. What about recently?

A. There was a lot of hope. President Clinton was the envoy to Haiti. My longtime colleague and best friend, Paul Farmer, was his deputy envoy. They were talking about a $3-billion package to build back basic services: public health, education, utilities, just basic things that Haiti needed. And then this happened. The one country in the world that couldn't afford it, it did happen to them. This is why Haiti in many ways is the source, has been the source, of my passion to work in global health. Every time I used to go to Haiti, I used to feel, "This is so unfair. By accident of birth, I happened to not be born in Haiti. And these children, by accident of birth, happened to have to live in this place that's just had so many calamities, so many bad things happen to it."

Q. Could you talk about the work you did with Partners in Health in Haiti?

A. Partners in Health works in a lot of countries, but the work we've done in Haiti is the foundation of the work we've done everywhere. What we try to do is to build effective and comprehensive health-care services that are linked to community development, literacy, housing, job security. It's really a very comprehensive approach to community development that just happens to be built on a backbone of health care.

Q. Dartmouth and other universities, particularly ones with medical centers and global-health programs, are in the process of sending faculty members to Haiti. How well are universities positioned to help with disaster relief?

A. Just as supplies are going to sit on the tarmac, it's really possible for physicians to arrive in Haiti and sit on the tarmac and not have any effective way of helping out. At Dartmouth, we've been very fortunate to have been asked specifically by Partners in Health to supply specific kinds of physicians—trauma surgeons, orthopedic surgeons. When our physicians land on the ground, there are going to be very specific roles for them to take on. I think it's great that so many physicians are anxious to go down there, but it's going to take some time to establish facilities for physicians to be effective. Colleges and universities can certainly help, but they have to be sure when they get there, they are going to be help and not just clog up the system. Haiti right now needs a very focused and coordinated response. And just flying in because you feel bad is probably not a good idea.

Q. What can colleges—and students and faculty and staff members—do to help, even if they don't happen to be at an institution with a medical or public-health program?

A. Let me give you three quick ideas. The first is, there is a desperate need for cash in the best organizations. Again, the one I know is Partners in Health, but there are others that students can donate to, and I encourage them to donate. Many, many lives are in the balance, and what we do over the next few days to few weeks is going to be critical for the quality and effectiveness of our response. So, just donate. Get into the experience of when these things happen, when your heart is full of sorrow and sympathy—do it.

The second thing, I think students should educate themselves about the history of Haiti. Haiti was the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. In 1804, it defeated Napoleon's army basically with sticks and uprooted them from their colonial anchorage in Haiti. And many people, historians, would argue that the Louisiana Purchase happened because of the loss of confidence of Napoleon in losing Haiti. American history, and certainly the history of the Western Hemisphere, has been deeply affected by events in Haiti. And then Haiti has had a series of just awful political situations. One of the modern leaders of Haiti, who came into power on a campaign focused on negritude, on blackness, turned out to be Papa Doc Duvalier, one of the most despotic leaders in the Western Hemisphere. So, Haiti has just had problem on problem on top of problem. And on top of that, an earthquake.

And the third and most important thing—this problem is going to get much worse before it gets better. So, give now, inform yourself about Haiti, develop a passion and a compassion for the problems of Haiti, and then stay involved.

Here at Dartmouth, one of our great presidents, John Sloan Dickey, would say constantly to his students, "The world's troubles are your troubles. But there's nothing wrong with the world that can't be fixed by better human beings."