Celebrity Humanitarian of the Year: Sean Penn
In the aftermath of the quake, many performers turned out to contribute their time and talent to raise money for the millions of Haitians left homeless and in dire need of basic necessities and medical care. None, however, have gone as far as Penn, who has spent the majority of the last year living in a tent in the island nation and serving as a camp manager in a temporary, makeshift city on the grounds of what was once the Petionville Golf Club.
The actor, our Celebrity Humanitarian of the Year, spoke to PopEater via e-mail from Washington, DC about the current situation in Haiti as well as what the country needs most moving forward in order to rebuild. "As long as parallel organizations [to his J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO)] focused on shelter and economic development find every reason to not act boldly -- the life saving, the provision of clean water, the neighborhood returns, we'll all continue to be a small part of this very large situation," Penn said. "What we need is funding so that our pro-activity can enhance its influence."
Just one week after the Jan. 12 quake, which killed a quarter million people, left nearly a half million injured and over a million homeless, Penn sprung into action. With Sarajevo-born philanthropist Diana Jenkins, he founded J/P HRO. The pair recruited crisis-response expert Alison Thompson to assemble a team of relief volunteers, and from there departed for Port-au-Prince, bringing a dozen doctors with them.
"What you will hear is that there are now frameworks in place, and project plans by multi-nationals, which adhere to the protocols of those frameworks. The projects are shelter-focused with connective tissues to basic services, but even the most well-funded among them are poised to take very small cautious steps in terms of permanent housing," Penn told us of the current situation in Haiti. "There are 1.2 million people displaced, and only small pilot projects in the foreseeable future. In the current emergency, highlighted by the epidemic of Cholera, and the first wave of social unrest, the progress will remain largely untended by any substantial preventative measure."
As a camp manager, Penn concerns himself with issues both pressing -- "Expect next year's hurricane season to again threaten somewhere in the area of a million people who will still be living in tarp shelters and otherwise unsanitary and highly vulnerable conditions," he warns -- and long-term. Asked about the current political environment in Haiti and where the recovery stands now, Penn warned that, more than anything, greater oversight of the money pledged earlier this year at the U.N.'s Haiti donor conference is needed.
"Quite frankly, in a time where most call for either a re-count or a complete do-over of the election, it's my view that the Haitian people would be better served by complete do-over of the donor's conference. Rather than smoke-and-mirror pledges of money, the international donors would be held to the same value of their initial pledges," he said. "But they'd also have to specify what area of infrastructure they'd take responsibility to implement, and by what date, so the value of their pledges would come to completion. We need this accountability in housing, schools, hospitals, and nationwide access to clean water."
In Penn's Petionville camp, J/P HRO has opened a women's clinic -- one fully run by Haitian women. The clinic has provided 7,000 women with medical care and offered family planning, hygiene and pre-natal education services to nearly a thousand more. A temporary school has also been built in camp.
Mobile medical units provided by J/P HRO regularly treat 350-400 patients a week in neighborhoods near Petionville and in camps that do not provide medical services, and the organization has been recognized by IOM (the United Nations agency responsible for camp management and coordination) for its rubble removal method. Nearly a year after the tragedy, rubble removal continues to be a constant and on-going process in Haiti, where 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings -- the Presidential Palace, National Assembly building, Port-au-Prince Cathedral and the country's main jail among them -- were either severely damaged or destroyed entirely.
J/P HRO has removed over 45,000 cubic meters of rubble, clearing the way for Petionville camp residents and other internally-displaced persons to return to their communities as the rebuilding of the country continues, and has relocated thousands vulnerable to landslides and flooding during the rainy season in the Caribbean.
Earlier this year, he told Vanity Fair, "There is no exit for me until there is more life than death. I can always see light in any situation. ... I can see the light very clearly in terms of the 'big picture' for Haiti." His faith in the future of the ravaged nation can be seen in the accomplishments of J/P HRO, which were provided to PopEater by press representatives for the organization.
Since his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Penn's J/P HRO organization has:
►Treated approximately 50,000 medical patients in its primary hospital
►Delivered over 270 babies
►Distributed over 2,000 hygiene kits to promote health and wellness
►Treated approximately 3,000 patients in mobile medical units
►Delivered more than 100,000 pounds of medical supplies
►Distributed 10,000 water filters and buckets (in collaboration with Waves for Water and Buckets Across Haiti)
►Distributed 12,000 tents to families across Haiti left homeless by the earthquake
Asked if there was any one thing he felt wasn't being given enough attention in the worldwide conversation on the disaster in Haiti, Penn replied: "Yes. I believe it's time for our country's donors to be educated about where their dollars go and, in the future, be able to guide those dollars to the organizations that truly represent their intentions."
With the exception of time spent on set filming the 'The Must Be the Place' and in Washington, DC, where he's lobbied on behalf of the Haitian people before the Senate Foreign Relations committee and was, more recently, "door banging" to raise awareness and funds for J/P HRO, Penn has spent nearly the entire year on the ground in the battered nation. With the Terrence Malick-directed 'Tree of Life' (which co-stars Brad Pitt, a man well-known for his own humanitarian work) completed, 'Place' in post-production and no other films on his plate, Penn is free to spend 2011 much like he spent 2010: on the ground in Haiti, doing whatever he can to remind people that the recovery effort there has only just begun.
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