One Year Later, Sean Penn Continues Work in Recovering Haiti
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that ravaged the Caribbean island nation of Haiti. The disaster, which killed a quarter-million people, left nearly a half-million injured and more than a million homeless, inspired a massive response from the entertainment community. Some of the worlds biggest entertainers -- from Madonna and Justin Timberlake to Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen -- turned out to contribute their voices to the 'Hope For Haiti Now' telethon and charity album, which reportedly netted more than $66 million for a variety of charities, including the United Nations World Food Programme, Red Cross, OXFAM America, Clinton Bush Haiti Fund and UNICEF.
But no celebrity worked harder in support of the Haitian people than Sean Penn, PopEater's Celebrity Humanitarian of 2010, who spent the majority of 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 in Port-au-Prince. Penn spoke to us via e-mail in December about where the recovery efforts stand and what the future holds for the ravaged country.
"The [current] 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 on the ground in Port-au-Prince. "There are 1.2 million people displaced, and only small pilot projects in the foreseeable future. The current challenge is the definition or the selection of beneficiaries [for funds both raised and promised], meaning among these extremely vulnerable populations, we can expect nothing more than demonstration models in 2011."
In March, Penn was named an International Organization of Migration-designated camp manager at the Petionville Golf Club facility, which, according to AOL News, is "one of the most complex temporary camps in Haiti" with more than 55,000 residents. J/P HRO, the organization Penn founded with Sarajevo-born philanthropist Diana Jenkins, has provided mobile medical units that regularly treat 350-400 patients a week in neighborhoods near Petionville and in camps that do not provide medical services. The organization has also opened a women's clinic -- one fully run by Haitian women -- that has provided 7,000 women with medical care and has offered family planning, hygiene and prenatal education services to nearly a thousand more. A temporary school has also been built in camp, and the organization has been recognized by IOM (the United Nations agency responsible for camp management and coordination) for its rubble removal method.
The two-time Oscar winner, who next stars in acclaimed director Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life,' believes that one of the more pressing needs in the country right now is greater oversight of the money pledged early last year at the U.N.'s Haiti donor conference.
"Quite frankly, in a time where most call for either a recount 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."
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 told us, "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."
Discussing his work in Haiti earlier this month with The Hollywood Reporter, the actor said he hopes to spend as much of this year as possible in the island nation. He will likely, however, have to return to acting sooner than he expected. "I didn't have commitments, except for way in the future; I had nothing pressing," he told THR of how he was able to spend most of 2010 in Haiti. "I got practical issues [now] ... I had just got taken for one-half of everything I had in the divorce [from actress Robin Wright], so it's not like I don't have to work."
But Penn's commitment to Haiti remains unwavering. "There is no exit for me until there is more life than death. I can always see light in any situation," he told Vanity Fair last summer. "I can see the light very clearly in terms of the 'big picture' for Haiti."
When we spoke to Penn just days before Christmas, he wasn't with his family, but had just arrived in Washington, DC, and was "door banging" to raise awareness and funds for J/P HRO. The actor has been lobbying tirelessly on behalf of the Haitian people for a year now, including a stop before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and continues to do whatever he can to remind people that the recovery effort there has only just begun.
One year later, there is so much more that needs to be done. Watch:
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