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Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone’s Haiti Story

September 30, 2011 5:00 PM ET
sean penn haiti port-au-prince
Sean Penn at a makeshift camp for people left homeless by the earthquake in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: In RS 1137, we published “Beyond Relief,” a report that examined the failure of international efforts to rebuild Haiti following last year’s devastating earthquake. Sean Penn, a leader in the reconstruction effort, sent us a lengthy and passionate critique of the story. His full letter is presented here. To read our response, click here.


Shame on me. It is not narcissism that leads me to this statement, for I have no shame in recognizing the well-populated club in which I now see I can count myself as having been a member for most of my adult American life. As a person invested in, and having benefited from, the film industry since about 1980, of course, I’d had some peripheral awareness years ago that filmmaker Jonathan Demme was a voice in our own wilderness screaming, “There is a country of people down here in total poverty (call that: no emergency rooms when their children are sick with fever) only a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami Beach!” “Come on, Johnny!” I thought, “don’t gimme no cause célèbre!” It took a fluke of timing and a major fucking earthquake, some 30 years later, to rattle my cage, while some 230,000 Haitian men, women and children were rattled to a sudden and horrible death for no reason but poverty and neglect. “Come on, Seany, give it up for Johnny’s cause célèbre!” So while the most accessible way for me to approach what follows is largely to personalize it, it is by no means personal. This is simply shame . . . shared. And pragmatic hope . . . encouraged.

When the United States military pulled up stakes after their 22,000-strong peak deployment of approximately three months of assistance following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it would be the first time in generations that the Haitian population would say their goodbyes to U.S. troops with a “five-fingered” wave. Under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, their humanitarian mission was not only performed with great humanism, but left behind the map to a logistical and decisive approach for emergency-relief success – a map that may well have been advisory in the building of sustainable development. Among those who shared in, or inherited, that position of leadership were the government of Haiti (GOH) and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). There was also an assortment of international non-governmental organizations (NGO), all depending on the support and faith of nation donors and private investment. Many of these organizations had a presence prior to and during the earthquake, and many lives of their heroic colleagues were tragically lost to the quake itself.

Within the two most politically significant organizations that suffered such losses, the GOH and MINUSTAH, both lost not only close friends and loved ones, but also many in primary positions of leadership. Despite that, most in Haiti with whom I have worked, initially as founder/country director and later as CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization, continued to offer extraordinary skills, experience and passionate commitment. As with any disaster, organizations large and small will always find themselves traveling a virtual mine field of bureaucracy and unforeseeable challenge. Note that reconstruction at Ground Zero did not even begin until five years following the 9/11 disaster, and only in recent months has there been any visual progress made. Also, with the exception of schools built under the leadership of Paul Vallas, now a J/P HRO board member, not a single public building has been rebuilt in hurricane-damaged Louisiana. Sadly, in many cases, the greatest challenges come from within, and in such a mine field are patience, decisiveness, coordination and collaboration – the four balls of a juggler, not mutually independent, but each necessarily and singularly fierce.

Haiti’s most recent earthquake measured 1 million on the magazine-sale scale. That’s fierce too. The August 18th issue of Rolling Stone magazine had hit the stands, its cover boasting a photo of four bearded men, the death of Amy Winehouse and the Rupert Murdoch scandal feature – a story that by rights should have called upon all self-respecting journalists at News Corp. to instantly resign in protest as their bosses reign over the destruction of journalistic ethics, quality and law. But it is not the four beards, the untimely death of a talented young singer or the gangsterism of Rupert Murdoch where Rolling Stone is shaking the most fragile ground, or risking its own journalistic ethics. It is in its special report, “Beyond Relief,” by contributing editor Janet Reitman. The piece is an intended indictment of post-2010 earthquake relief, reconstruction and development efforts in Haiti, describing them as a “disaster of good intentions.”

I picked up a copy of the magazine off the rack during a layover at Miami International Airport. I had taken a red-eye flight from Los Angeles for my return to Port-au-Prince. At that point, our own predominantly Haitian-staffed NGO, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, was continuing to sweat and sacrifice, as the staff had apparently not yet received the Rolling Stone cover verdict that their work side by side with so many others and so many international organizations and those of their fellow Haitians had “failed.” They were also to be a bit shaken that such a message had been sent by Rolling Stone to donors at such a critical turning point in Haiti’s potential future.

For our own part, J/P HRO’s engineering crew had re-established entire neighborhoods, removing over 120,000 cubic meters of rubble and demolishing hundreds of irreparable buildings, much of that rubble recycled and trucked into the slum of Cité Soleil to be used as fill beneath three new schools in assistance to the Digicel school project (mentioned in the Rolling Stone article). Our medical teams and clinics had treated over 115,000 patients, and pushed by truck and helicopter over 100 metric tons of cholera meds throughout the country, including mountainous regions so remote that inhabitants had never seen a white face before. Our school of 260 children was advancing, and we had ultimately helped to relocate over 30,000 people from camps to homes while coordinating camp services as management in that same period. We have trained and employed 250 Haitians on staff, as well as many hundreds of additional jobs our programs created, both through cash-for-work and cash-for-production programs. All of this principally funded by private donors.

As I sat in the terminal, pulling the foil from a packet of mints before retrieving the magazine from the vendor-stamped plastic bag, I did not know that none of our progress, nor those extraordinary accomplishments of other top organizations, including the GOH and the Clinton Foundation (maligned in Reitman’s piece by an unnamed source), would be acknowledged. I boarded my flight to Haiti, clipped on my safety belt and began turning the pages of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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