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Hollywood star shows how aid can help Haiti

Sean Penn's tent city for victims of January's quake is no publicity stunt. As Guy Adams reports from Port-au-Prince, it's the best relief operation in town

The life of a Hollywood star isn't all red carpets and luxury hotels. Not if you're Sean Penn, who woke at sunrise yesterday in a tiny tent on a mosquito-infested hillside overlooking the city of Port-au-Prince, rolled up the sleeves of a filthy shirt, holstered his Glock pistol, and set about trying to make life better for some of the two million people left homeless by the earthquake that hit Haiti's capital six months ago.

Penn's been doing the same thing virtually every day since late January, when he heard singing coming from an open-air church on the fairways of a ruined golf course in Pétionville, once one of the city's most affluent neighbourhoods. After wandering over to take a look, he decided it would be an ideal location for his newly created J/P Haiti Relief Organisation to build a camp for displaced victims of the worst natural disaster in modern history.

Today, that camp is home to more than 50,000 people, making it one of the biggest of the tent cities in Haiti, where the earthquake on 12 January destroyed about 280,000 buildings, killing 300,000 people and leaving – at a conservative estimate – a million and a half more without homes.

Penn has become one of Haiti's most hard-working advocates, pausing in his rescue mission only to make very occasional fundraising trips to Washington, where he addressed Congress and the UN, before returning to the coalface, digging trenches, hauling sacks of food and delivering medicine to help the inhabitants of his tent city – which aid workers informally call Camp Penn – to survive outbreaks of malaria, diphtheria and TB.

On Friday, he was roaring around the hillside on a red quad bike, directing volunteers as they handed out plastic sheeting to 7,500 families hoping to protect their makeshift homes from the worst of the coming rainy season. It's all part of a new day job he began shortly after separating from his wife Robin earlier this year, and has publicly promised to continue "until there is more life than death in Haiti" and the stricken Caribbean country "doesn't need me any more".

Yet this isn't just the story of another well-meaning celebrity trying to save the world. Nor is it the tale of how the leftish 49-year-old – a political activist throughout his acting career – decided to reinvent himself after his marriage failed, even if when Vanity Fair asked him to explain why he came to Haiti, Penn said, with characteristic bluntness: "I was for 20 years in a relationship with Robin. I didn't have time to commit to anything, for real, in places like Iraq... But now I'm single. I can lend a hand."

Instead, the remarkable thing about Penn's Haiti tent city is how well it works. With a fraction of the money of mainstream relief organisations and almost no experience of the aid game, the Hollywood actor has created what is widely regarded as the most vibrant and by some distance the best-run humanitarian project in Haiti.

Walk around Camp Penn and you will notice more schools, more hospitals, more latrines, and more water stations than at any of the 1,300 similar tent cities that dot the country. The camp is tidier (they have daily litter collection), safer (you see regular police patrols) and better designed than any other. Its inhabitants may not have their lives back yet – not by a long way – but they at least feel as if things might be heading in the right direction.

"The difference between this camp and all the others? Where do I start?" asks Florian Blaser, a German doctor with Médicins Sans Frontières who has worked at facilities across the country. "There are no gangs roaming the streets. There are plenty of hospitals, so people have proper access to doctors. Children have at least four schools to choose from. You go to other places, and the earthquake victims are just existing. Here, they are thriving. There's a real sense of community."

When The Independent on Sunday visited, a long line of residents waited patiently, in 100F (38C) heat, to pick up aid. A party atmosphere prevailed, with vast speakers attached to an iPod belonging to one of Penn's volunteers blasting out Jay-Z. "In other camps, handouts can be chaos," said Mark Sweeting, a volunteer for USAID, which has a health clinic on the site. "Here, people are relaxed. And J/P HRO's volunteers are doing some amazing things. Nine premature babies have just been born in the camp in the past few weeks, and seven survived. That's an amazing achievement."

Penn's success matters, because across the rest of Haiti, relief efforts aren't all turning out so rosily. Although billions of dollars in aid was pledged after the disaster, only a fraction has been spent. Rebuilding has barely started. Questions are starting to be asked over how major charities and organisations such as the UN are spending their cash. A report by ABC News this week claimed that just 2 per cent of the $1.1 bn (£730m) that the 23 biggest charities in Haiti raised after the disaster has been released. Just 1 per cent has been spent on operations.

Yet while NGOs pay thousands of dollars a month to billet staff in air-conditioned houses (the cost of leasing a home with a pool in Port-au-Prince has doubled since the quake), the Hollywood A-lister and his volunteers sleep in identical tents next to the club's former tennis courts.

The thinking behind Penn's approach isn't just about spending money wisely. It also reflects a desire, surprisingly rare in the aid industry, to be seen as something approaching an equal by people he helps. Traditional agencies might parachute into disaster zones with aid deliveries, and then vanish for days. Penn strongly believes that he can only help a community if he lives in it and understands what makes it tick.

"It's a family here," says Alastair Lamb, a former RAF officer from Balham who is co-director of Penn's camp. "Sean is the visionary behind this, and his big thing from the start has been that he wants to retain cohesion, and a sense of community, and eventually to return people to where they came from. We are not a colonising force. We sleep in tents, just like them. We don't live in houses miles away. Those kinds of things make a big difference. They mean we understand the place, and can make better decisions because of it."

Compared to rival aid organisations, which employ dozens of full-time staff, Camp Penn has just four employees, whose salaries are financed directly by Penn and his co-founder Diana Jenkins. The donkey work, so to speak, is carried out by 70 volunteers, of whom roughly 50 are medical staff on fortnight-long flying visits. "He's created a platform for people who have the same sort of pragmatic, idealist, attitudes to problems as he does, to can come out here and just get stuff done," adds Lamb. "There is no 'system' to what we do. No rules. When we arrived, our starting point wasn't what we've done before. We had a totally fresh approach."

Speak to inhabitants of the camp and affectionate tales of Penn's eccentricity abound. "I came to his field hospital because my son had broken his arm," said one local, Ernest Missolme, who runs a stall selling cooked sweetcorn to fellow residents. "The two-way radio in the tent was playing very loud, and I could hear that there had been some kind of incident. Sean's voice was shouting, 'If you guys don't come down here and get back-up, I'm going to take him down myself!' I later heard that some guy had been walking around the camp with an M16 assault rifle. Sean and two UN guys pulled out their guns and arrested him."

The incident bore witness to the fact that, in Camp Penn, the Boy's Own stuff doesn't just happen for the cameras.

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