(Forbes, October 2016)

This piece is coauthored by Jenny Eaton Dyer, Ph.D. Jenny is the Executive Director of Hope Through Healing Hands, a Nashville-based global health organization, founded and chaired by Senator Frist, committed to improving the quality of life for communities around the world using health as a currency for peace.

How is it possible that the people of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere have to shoulder repeatedly the impact of one natural disaster after another?

And what can we do as one of its closest neighbors – and by far the wealthiest country in the hemisphere – to best empower the people of Haiti to respond and to rebuild and indeed eventually to prosper after disaster strikes?

These are the questions we ask today as we see a people struggling to recover from a devastating hurricane earlier this month and an ominous rise in cholera outbreaks.

These are also the questions that a delegation of faith-based influencers from Hope Through Healing Hands and CARE asked last month as we visited Haiti to see what’s working and what’s not in terms of social and economic progress since the destructive 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010.

Just three days after our departure, we watched in horror as more than a thousand people over a few hours lost their lives to Hurricane Matthew – the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in over 50 years.

When disaster strikes we must respond immediately. Hope Through Healing Hands, CARE, and others around the U.S. are aggressively doing so now. These acute responses reflect the absolute necessity of sharing broadly what we know about helping build and enhance the resiliency of our vulnerable neighbors.

A fundamental foundation for such resilience is the family. Our focus for this Learning Tour was the role of women: as individuals, as the heart of families, and the soul of communities.

What we saw in Haiti was encouraging.

We saw the results-oriented and measurable impact that forward thinking entities like

Project Medishare, Dash, and J/P Haitian Relief Organization, with their deep-seated roots in communities, are having in empowering women to lead.

We saw the long-term success of three programs heavily supported by the job-focused Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which was established and led jointly in 2010 by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (Frist served on this board). We learned how these programs powerfully equip women in particular to respond, recover, and rebuild their families and communities in the wake of the very events that have unfolded over the past three weeks since our departure. Haiti has made important progress since I delivered emergency surgical care in the days after the 2010 earthquake, in which over 200,000 people lost their lives and many of the population centers were decimated.

Dr Bill Frist attending a woman and her child in Haiti

For instance, consider the remarkable Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) program supported by CARE. A small group of 15 to 25 women (and a few men) meet regularly, support each other, and collectively save to start and support their small businesses. They can take small loans from that pot of savings, with loan profits later distributed back to members.

They can even buy ownership shares in the association itself.

These women live in extreme poverty, but with this program, in community and solidarity, they are working together to create a brighter future. CARE provides the structure. The women provide the commitment to grow.

In Port-au-Prince, sitting in a large circle of participant women, we watched three women each with a different key (for mutual accountability) simultaneously unlock a communal money box, count the money bill by bill out loud, and then collect the weekly savings from each of the other women. Some bought shares; some paid back loans. Several shared their emotional stories of how powerful the program has been for their families, and for lifting them out of poverty.

Mimorose Jentille passionately told of turning to the savings and loan program to be able to afford hospital services as an emergency arose during childbirth.

Betty Cadet shared how she launched her water treatment business with a VSLA loan and uses profits to feed her children and send them to school.

And Anasthalie Leon relayed to us how she started her business selling cold drinks out of a cooler, then turned to VSLA to buy a refrigerator and expand her business in very hot and humid Haiti. She added she again turned to VSLA when her refrigerator broke down and she simply could not afford to fix it on her own.

In a country where the average GDP per capita is only $800, very few have access to structured financial institutions for credit, savings, or loans. But these women’s stories are not unique. Over the past 25 years, over five million women in 35 countries have joined this program to improve the well-being of their families and create financial independence for themselves. Globally, the loan repayment rate is 99%. That creates resilience. It works.

We know when women learn to manage their finances, they seize the opportunity, and stability for the household ensues. Women wisely spend the money on care for children, health, education, and the home. Which puts in perspective why, in light of this current natural disaster, we are smart to invest heavily in family and maternal and child health.

Yes, we witnessed many challenges. Haitian women in particular suffer from gender-based violence and discrimination due to political instability and chronic poverty. Though some progress toward gender equity has been made in recent years, women face higher rates of unemployment, suffer poorer health outcomes, and are less likely to own land or hold political office than men.

We still haven’t gotten updates from Mimorose, Betty, or Anasthalie, but last week we heard positive news from some of the other women we met in Haiti: resilient women leading tough families who are surviving disasters.

We saw firsthand that when given the tools, these women lift themselves and their families out of devastation. These are the women that will make poverty history, end child deaths, and wisely choose to time and space their children for safer pregnancies and births for both themselves and their newborns. These are the women who bring about a demographic dividend, revolutionizing low income nations, to emerge into growing markets for sustainable growth.

And this is just the beginning. Much work needs to be done to return Haiti to the recovery path it had been paving since I first visited there in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Remember that when the headlines about Hurricane Matthew fade, tens of thousands of Haitians will still be displaced from their homes, living in makeshift shelters with the threat of another cholera outbreak looming over the flooded island.

These proud and resilient people do not want our words, but a genuine helping hand that allows them to rebuild in the wake of tragedy is welcome.