Leave Aid to the Professionals

25 Jan

Port-au-Prince. 23 January – Earthquake + 10 days: Connectivity here is a constant issue, but I am able to download email. The twitterverse is all a-buzz about some article in The Lancet.  I haven’t actually read it in situ, but a colleague was good enough to forward it to me via email. (Thanks, “Canadian Idiot”)

(Huge disclaimer here: because of poor connectivity and – oh yeah – a huge workload, I’ve not been able to read up on all of the rebuttal in the aid blogosphere. Apologies if I’m covering ground already gone over by others…)

The Lancet: At first read it’s maddening. It feels like this guy is taking the easy, cheap shots at NGOs who are trying very hard to do something to help under amazingly difficult circumstances. And they are amazingly difficult circumstances: Although it’s getting better, there is basically no food. I had granola bars and Guinness for supper last night; there are staff – both local and also expat – who are afraid to sleep indoors. When I type on my computer and it jiggles the table, those sitting at the same table visibly jump and cringe; some staff randomly burst into tears; roads are terrible, and getting to coordination meetings in Port-au-Prince can take up to two hours, one way, depending on traffic.

Thanks to the international media (see below), there is a huge outpouring of goodwill, globally, in the form of cash for disaster response. But somehow our accepting that and coming here to ramp up disaster response operations is somehow… a bad thing?

Then, there’s the rapper: Wyclef Jean complained on Oprah  (aid experts unite) about air-drops during week one: “My people are not animals…” And I would, of course, completely agree. They’re not animals. And I’d agree that air-drops are or should be a last-resort means, and are not standard relief distribution procedure. But then this is hardly a standard situation, and Wyclef-Jean’s people are not exactly queuing up in neat lines at NFI and food distribution points. Back-of-the-cocktail-napkin estimates* say that better than half of distribution events in Haiti since the earthquake turn violent, that violence ranging from beneficiaries beating each other up over bags of rice, to full-on looting of the truck, to shots fired and people killed. And his suggestion that perhaps he should coordinate distribution in Haiti is straight up the dumbest thing that I’ve heard in a very long time. Arrogance and naïveté in equal portions. … Maybe I should produce his next album?

And finally there’s CNN: It’s an incredibly difficult working environment. At earthquake + 12 days, we’re just starting see through the fog, figure out what’s going on. And I mean really going on: Not just the 30-second snippets of Anderson Cooper rescuing a small boy from random violence or Dr. Gupta pilfering meds from the Port-au-Prince airport. I mean, I can appreciate that they need to “get the story.” And I can appreciate that “the story” has to be somewhat sensational, or it’s not going to sell. Further, it can’t be the disaster itself – there’s got to be some controversy. That the government of Haiti is horribly corrupt and incompetent is old news. Which leaves the NGOs. And if logistics and communications aren’t up, if thorough randomized assessments aren’t done and perfectly formatted with great graphics and emotive photographs, if long-terms recovery plans aren’t articulated, if supply chains aren’t established… all by the end of week one… then it can only be that the NGOs are dropping the ball.

I find it somehow troubling and ironic that at this stage in the Myanmar Cyclone Nargis response, INGOs were for the most part still two weeks away from even getting into the country. But here in Haiti, by sheer virtue of the fact that you can come without a visa, CNN has come and gone and pronounced the response an early failure.

Guys – I get that you have a job to do, and that you think you’re doing the world a favor… but seriously: that pisses us off.

Back to Lancet: Has humanitarian aid losts it’s humanitarian ethos? Well, first of all, no kidding. That is not news. But really, is that even a relevant question? Dr. Gupta and Anderson Cooper would have us go in, take command and control, sort it out, get the relief out there. Wycliff-Jean wants to run the show: apparently aid work is so easy and basic that any singer with precisely zero qualification other than being from the affected country can do it. But if we roll in damn-the-looters-straight-ahead, then we already know that (no matter how much we can’t help but like him) Bill Easterly or someone else will have all kinds of uncomplimentary things to say about how we haven’t taken sufficient time to engage local stakeholders in a process that bestows ownership… yadda yadda yadda. If we take the time to do assessments and plan and apply for funding as part of a competitive process to donors like OFDA or ECHO, then we’ve lost our humanitarian ethos, or maybe we’re just incompetent or not moving fast enough. But if we do nothing, then Haiti will be stuck with “Disaster Relief: ARKANSAS.”

And anyway, there’s such a thing as the humanitarian imperative. We can’t do nothing.

I won’t claim to know anything about Haiti pre-earthquake. Honest-to-god, I don’t have enough information to have an opinion, let alone argue a position on developed country aid to Haiti compared with, say, Yemen over the past decade. I know that there was an earthquake that decimated the capital city and has left thousands dead, millions homeless, caused untold human suffering, and will take years to recover from.

On one hand I’m tempted to write, rhetorically: “Okay, CNN, Lancet, Wyclef-Jean/Oprah, David Brooks, and the rest of the peanut gallery… what would you have us do???”

But then, on the other hand…

Enough! This is a complicated and difficult situation. Your yammering is not helping.

Do your singing, your theorizing, write your columns, be on TV doing dramatic things…

But leave the aid effort in Haiti to the professionals.

*And, no – there aren’t any cocktails. Just the napkins.

9 Responses to “Leave Aid to the Professionals”

  1. anne 25 January, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    that’s awesome. Aid experts Unite! love it.
    I increasingly see these guys (easterly, kristoff, journos) as VULTURES and PARASITES to the aid system.

    • J. 25 January, 2010 at 9:21 am #

      For the record, I don’t have an issue with Easterly (although I frequently disagree with him). I am inclined to agree with you regarding The Kristof, though…

  2. Ian 26 January, 2010 at 12:10 am #

    way to go bro!

  3. morealtitude 26 January, 2010 at 6:41 pm #

    Hah hah hah- dude, AWESOME article- funny, to the point, well-needed, and totally right on the money. Loved it.

    Favourite quote: re: Wycleff Jean- “Maybe I should produce his next album?”

    Messers Cooper and Gupta really need to chill the hell out.

    Hope all’s well out there bro. Enjoy those cocktail napkins.


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