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Against all odds, a Maine nonprofit helps the poorest people in the western hemisphere

“A little bit of money can save lives”

PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly two decades ago, a nonprofit called Konbit Sante started in Portland with a straightforward but exceedingly difficult mission. It would work “to support the development of a sustainable health system to meet the needs of the Cap-Haitien community with maximum local direction and support.”

Cap-Haitien is a city on the north coast of Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. The work undertaken by Konbit Sante grew exponentially more challenging after January 12, 2010, when a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, killing some 250,000 people, injuring 300,000 and touching the lives of millions. After such an overwhelming disaster, there was a glimmer of hope that this troubled country might be given a chance to build a better society and lift at least some of its people out of their desperate poverty. Those hopes have been dashed.

Today, there is a public health system in Haiti, but it offers nothing like the care any American would expect to receive. “It is grossly underfunded and undersupported,” says Nate Nickerson, the executive director of Konbit Sante.

In fact, not much works in Haiti. The economy is a wreck, the government rife with corruption, the landscape savaged by plunder and environmental mismanagement. And yet, Konbit Sante does not give in to despair.

“I always say that all the money in the world isn’t going to save Haiti,” says Nickerson. “On the other hand, the paradox of it is that a little bit [of money] that’s really targeted and goes to the right place can save lives.”

As an example, says Nickerson, Konbit Sante and its partners in Cap-Haitien “spent a few thousand dollars introducing a machine that can be used with newborn babies. It dropped the mortality rates for newborns in this big public hospital by half. So targeted small amounts of money can have a huge impact for a large number of people.”