“We Cannot Abandon Haiti to Celebrities and Amateurs”

11 May

Earlier today a famous aid blogger that you all read sent this link to me by email.

Hallelujah! Sean Penn has arrived in Haiti! Things there aren’t moving along quite fast enough for him. All the professional aid organizations are busy coordinating and doing assessments and following good process and adhering to Sphere standards and industry best-practices – in other words, wasting their time not actually finding immunoglobulin for some kid named Oriel.

And so he’s gone there to, like, SORT. IT. OUT. Read the article.

A couple of quotes in particular stand out:

“Penn feels personally responsible — for the boy [Oriel], for the entire camp, for the city.”

You have got to be [expletive] kidding me. That is some of the most bald-faced self-aggrendizement thinly disguised as a deep well of melancholic concern for the poor that I have read in a very long time.

“Penn is hardly new to heroic endeavors. He’s flown to the eye of a hurricane, to the front lines of war. A few years back, he traveled to Iraq and Iran and wrote about both countries for the San Francisco Chronicle.”

Oh, well then. He’s flown to Iran. And he’s written for the San Francisco Chronicle. Those are some pretty heavy credentials. Guess we (the professional aid community) had better sit up and take notice.

“No stunts. No gimmicks. His staffers say the actor is simply following his heart.”

“He has staffers…” What’s your overhead rate, huh, Sean?

“It’s new for Penn to sit through metrics and charts and aid-worker speak. He doesn’t have much patience for priority lists aid agencies want made. He just wants things done now. The room is packed; it’s hard to hear speakers in the back. But not Penn. His voice is booming. His language is not pedantic.”

… my head is seriously hurting right now…

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Honestly, I don’t know who I’m more annoyed with in this case. Sean Penn himself and his incredible ignorance and arrogance, or CNN for a) following him there, and b) publishing this story.

Seriously, CNN – ever think of doing a story on an actual aid workers?  People, quite unlike Sean Penn, who are not making this up as they go? I know that’d be a stretch for you. Not your normal thing, I know. But you know, there actually are actual aid workers in Haiti. Wouldn’t be that hard to find one. Just sayin.’

* * *

Last September the human rights blog Wronging Rights put up this post in reference to a breathtakingly ethnocentric headline in the Independent.ie: “We can’t abandon Africa to cannibalism and genocide.” (!) The post spawned a brief but highly amusing multi-party twitter contest to come up with creative alternatives…

I know I’m well past six months too late. And 140 characters is nowhere near enough to do the subject matter justice, but I would nonetheless like to place my final entry in that contest now:

“We cannot abandon Haiti to celebrities and amateur aid workers!”

37 Responses to ““We Cannot Abandon Haiti to Celebrities and Amateurs””

  1. edwardrees 11 May, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    Ah ha. Love it. Totally agree.

  2. Carla Murphy 11 May, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Hey J, I’m gonna play devil’s advocate here. INGOs go out of their way to court celebs (the latest is Christina Aguilera in Haiti for WFP but the list is endless). I understand they see it as the best way to raise the organization’s profile and get some of those celeb and friends-of-celeb dollars but the downside is, well, Sean Penn and CNN’s fawning. Or Bono and the NYT’s fawning. Or Angelina Jolie and People mag’s fawning, etc. Development work will be seen and pitched to the public as “easy,” and “do-able” and “a great way to get into Heaven.” Lay down with dogs…. Don’t mean to be that crude but you get me.

    • J. 11 May, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

      I agree. That aid orgnizations let celebrities get to third base with them for the sake of publicity is one basic failing of the industry as we currently know it.

      But in this case, as I understand it, Sean is in Haiti totally of his own volition, and not with any connection to any NGO or aid organization. He is there doing his own thing. He is, quite literally, making it up as he goes.

  3. Aynsilly 11 May, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    Don’t forget, among his credentials, he’s played the oppressed so can really relate to suffering. Remembers what it was like to repeat lines that man-on-death-row/Harvey Milk uttered.
    Great that he’s committed to a cause and can help with awareness but not program delivery!

  4. Shoes from the Hood 11 May, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    My favourite line: “This country is not ready for an emergency,” Duh!

    “Penn, who will turn 50 this year, found it liberating to move without paparazzi or fans asking for autographs.”

    So, celebrities, come to Haiti for some instant anonymity, and favourable CNN coverage…

  5. Anne Jackson 11 May, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    I have no reason at all to doubt your credibility or experience — it’s right there in your about page. I couldn’t help but feel grateful when I saw Sean on CNN the other night.

    I was in Haiti with a very small NGO a month after the quake. We tried to get through the system with the IOM, even met with Giovanni, who Sean spoke of in the report, to get aid to several IDPs, one in particular.

    We are still looped in the email chain with the IOM (who had NO logistics a month after the quake on how to find and report back any IDP outside of a 10 mile perimeter from the airport). We developed it for them. Click on your iphone. Find the coordinates. Assess needs. Report back. UN goes to assess. They actually are using that method (Developed by 9 youth pastors and a writer) now.

    Anyway, all we saw the time we were there that unless you were within a very short perimeter of the HQ where IOM was set up, you didn’t get aid unless someone found you and was able to give it to you. We bought out the rice, beans, formula and oil at the one remaining grocery store mainly used for relief workers and distributed it to a small camp peacefully.

    Please know – I am ALL about following rules and procedures. With the floods in Nashville I wanted to scream at all the people attempting to make water rescues on their own. I have disaster relief training through the Red Cross. I get it.

    But in Haiti, what Sean said is EXACTLY what we saw (and as more people go with this NGO, continue to see). Aid is stuck. Funds are stuck. Food is stuck. Medicine is stuck. Everything is stuck at the airport. I have pictures of it. And it hasn’t moved.

    I am so thankful he is letting the American people know how desperate it is, how the disease is still spreading. Is he a relief worker, no. But he sure is advocating for a place that is already forgotten in many of our minds.

    Peace to you-
    Anne (haiti.flowerdust.net)

    • J. 12 May, 2010 at 1:59 am #

      Anne – not to quibble, but I was in Haiti on day 10 after the earthquake and saw truckloads of goods, including medicines, leaving the airport. I have pictures, too. I personally witnessed daily food and NFI distributions throughout the many camps in Petionville – well beyond anything that could reasonably be considered a “tight” perimeter. As well, I personally observed food distributions in Cite Soleil and Carrefour – also not exactly close to the UN Logs Base.

      How one could be of the opinion that *nothing* is getting through after the massive WFP-supported food distributions that ran for two full weeks beginning in late January and reached some 2,000,000 people is quite simply beyond me. And in my opinion it is also flat disrespectful to those NGO staff – the vast majority of whom were local – who worked themselves ill, literally, and in some cases conducted those distributions at greeat risk to their own safety.

      I appreciate the frustration of many with regard to Haiti. Is the overall aid effort there perfect? Far from it. Has targetting and coverage been uniform? Mostly – it is obviously impossible to completely meet all the needs of everyone. It is possible to find examples of things falling through the cracks , example of poor coordination? Of course.

      But none of those things mean that the system is broken or not working. What Sean Penn and a great many others fundmentally fail to understand is that aid work is difficult, complicated work. Good coordination, properly executed evaluations, and well-reasoned strategies and plans all save lives in the long run. Going to Haiti and mucking around, making it up as he goes, doing it all ad hoc, and for god’s-sake dragging a contagious child around to already vulnerable hospitals in search of meds that will help one whilst the remaining 50,000 for whom he “feels personally responsible” presumably wait their turn for his personal attention… may make a good story and may sound heroic to some. But it basically represents a return to how aid was done two decades ago. And it leaves the rest of us not only having to pick up the slack for what he’s not accomplishing (we could really use some help resolving the land issues, for example – not sexy, for sure, but will help far more people than a single dose of imunoglobulin…), but we actually have to now work around him.

      I guess there’s good and bad in there, huh? The aid effort in Haiti will continue despite Sean Penn…

  6. joe 12 May, 2010 at 4:11 am #

    I’ve no dogs in this fight, but it reminds me of this interview I was listening to yesterday. http://bit.ly/bzNvLs

  7. c-sez 12 May, 2010 at 4:20 am #

    From the CNN article

    “The boy had started feeling symptoms six days earlier. Doctors quickly realized that he had diphtheria. No hospital wanted to admit the boy, Penn says. They did not have the capacity to prevent infection. Penn hand- carried him to General Hospital, the city’s main medical care facility, where doctors finally agreed to place Oriel on life support.”

    jesus fucking christ. So numerous medical professionals were apparently unanimous in their [both brutal and heart-breaking] triage based on the cruel facts of their capacity to stop this kid being patient zero in a new outbreak, and Penn charges in like a rhino and carries the kid into the main hospital regardless?

    “Penn cannot comprehend why, with an abundance of aid agencies working in Haiti, prevention like this has to be so difficult. He is not one to shield his anger, or mince words. “If the boy were to die,” he says, “this would be murder.”

    Somebody deport this fucker back to the US before he kills (more?) people.

  8. Carla 12 May, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    I really like this blog but no one will listen to this complaint, here. I’m not sure if anyone’s listening to the running list of heartfelt complaints on HuffPo from aid workers and activists writing from Haiti. I’d love to see those metrics. Anyways, my point is, I’d want to ask: How do I as an aid worker get mainstream media/the general public to listen to me? What strategies has your community devised to get your points of view across to the public? Is that something you even think about?

    • Rachel 12 May, 2010 at 8:02 am #

      Hi Carla,

      Check out this Time magazine article, published today. Tales fromeee th Hood is quoted.


      People are listening. It may seem frustratingly slow. But they listen.

    • J. 12 May, 2010 at 8:04 am #

      Carla – I think it’s safe to say that if we knew the answers to those questions, the aid world would probably be a very different place right now.

      Social media – twitter, etc. – is showing some early signs of possibility. Check out these posts from @morealtitude:

      1) http://morealtitude.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/new-media-near-real-time-literature-for-aid-work/
      2) http://morealtitude.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/afrika-can-haz-t-shirtz/

      Snark – sadly, to some – is also looking like it might be a way forward… essentially publicly shame people into stopping the madness. See this post from @saundra_s:


      But to the essence of your question, again, I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. There is still too much “culture of nice”, particularly in North America to allow professional aid NGOs the space they need to take on the issues around bad aid, as professional aid NGOs, without fear of offending their donor base. Until we find a way out of that thicket, my sense is that we’re more or less stuck in the informal realms of internet-based social media.

      • Carla 12 May, 2010 at 8:17 am #

        Thanks, I’ll check the other links (I’d already checked the one about ‘snark’).

        Re: the “culture of nice,” it seems professional NGOs need someone who’ll provide enough political cover that they don’t have to be so nice. You know, if they were organized, that could be the diaspora. There’re plenty of Haitian-American doctors and nurses… what do they think of Sean Penn’s work? Their voices carry both professional and cultural legitimacy. They’d get the points re: endangering lives expressed here, across, and professional NGOs wouldn’t have to worry about blowback.

        I know I’m a journalist but I also think politically. You have to, right? Int’l development is just another name for governing a country. Aid is just another name for affirmative action for companies based in the donating country. And so on. I’m all for thinking politically. Everyone else is.

  9. GPJ 12 May, 2010 at 7:36 am #

    I noted with interest that the CNN article doesn’t mention CRS, who have actually been running the golf club for months now, and who have had two full time professional aid workers, who actually know what they are doing, running interference so that Mr Penn’s wilder ideas haven’t caused disaster.

    I’m mixed – great to see the energy and interest (and of course funds) that he brings, but also notable that he completely failed to take the advice of trained and experienced professionals to use his celebrity status and funds to leverage their expertise on the ground. One had hoped for better from someone who claims to have the well being of Haitians as his top priority.

    While I was in Haiti (from Jan to March) my rough estimate was that at least a couple of thousand man hours of professional, trained aid-worker time that I was aware of was spent heading off enthusiastic but misguided people with the best of intentions. Imagine what could have been achieved by those people without the distractions.

  10. Catherine 12 May, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    Nor did it mention that MSF – who knows their shit about medical care is also in his camp. Most places don’t stock the medicine needed for this problem the boy had in Haiti because its so unusual. Tragic but unusual. I ran into a bunch of Penn’s volunteers in Petionville Golf Club. They had come in for one day, spoke no french, and were going to ” counsel” the traumatized people. His staff are enthusiastic amateurs who are actually making things harder for the people of Haiti. He needs to hire some professionals if he really wants to make a difference. Or does he prefer to be the ” savior of Haiti” like a traditional colonial white man?

    • Elizabeth 14 June, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

      Given that so few Haitians speak French, that part really doesn’t matter. And good luck finding mental health professionals who speak Kreyol!

  11. lu 12 May, 2010 at 8:53 am #

    so let’s see if i have this right:

    a citizen of a western country feels that they must Do Something and instead of donating money, rocks up in haiti, starts their own ngo, and then criticises the people who have been doing this for years (and learning from what went wrong and what went right). not to mention, carries a contagious child all around the city, possibly infecting (and ‘murdering’) more people?

    sounds a lot like the jason dude and his 1 million t shirts idea to me… i guess this is what happens when celebrity is added to the mix. still the same thing though, isn’t it? people feeling as though they have the golden ticket, they’ve discovered the elusive solution to why aid doesn’t always flow as smoothly as it should, and are going to Fix It, goddamnit!


    • J. 12 May, 2010 at 9:13 am #

      Alright, Lu – that’s the last straw from you. We have to tweetup in person. Sometime.🙂

      You’re absolutely right. More or less the same mentality that we saw with 1millionshirts is what is at work here.

      Sean Penn misunderstands the issues, and as a result misunderstands what the problems are. As a result of that he wants to fix something that’s not broken = a solution in need of a problem. … = bad aid.

      • lu 12 May, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

        gladly, would be great to swap stories over a cold beer or cup of tea!

  12. anon 12 May, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Penn is a poster child (along with Madonna, Angelina, and Brad) for celebrities who need to just shut the fuck up and act. Let them find another outlet for the guilt that comes from receiving way too much money from acting like you are somebody else.

  13. IR 12 May, 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    Would be interesting to hear how much work Penn had done in Haiti prior to the earthquake!

  14. placenta sandwich 12 May, 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    Seriously, CNN – ever think of doing a story on an actual aid workers? People, quite unlike Sean Penn, who are not making this up as they go?

    Hey, isn’t that a little unfair? I mean, if Anderson Cooper can become an aid worker overnight, why not Sean Penn?

    • J. 13 May, 2010 at 11:03 am #

      Oh yeah, you’re totally right… what on earth was I thinking??? We cannot abandon Haiti to CNN.

  15. Shoes from the Hood 13 May, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Thanks to the link (http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheat-sheet/item/sean-penn-cops-plea/no-contest/) Alanna twittered earlier today, we now know Sean Penn’s time in Haiti counts as part of his court-ordered community service.

    Can I just voice the thin hope here that nobody will be inspired to start a volunteer programme for parolees in disaster zones?

    Parole Relief – Relief Parole

    But maybe I’m too late and those programmes already exist…

  16. avam 15 May, 2010 at 6:09 am #

    How true. And even – “We Cannot Abandon ANYWHERE to Celebrities and Amateurs”.

    A 2009 book came out about this very topic – “Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over The World and Why We Need an Exit Strategy” by British journalist/writer Marina Hyde. It is excellent (very very funny) and definitely worth reading (re celebrities & aid) – glowing reviews by ‘New Statesman’ and ‘Scotland on Sunday’ among others.

    (Some context – the writer works at the UK’s ‘Guardian’ newspaper as well as reviewer for BBC’s Newsnight Review [just fyi for any non-brits – they are both well-respected news sources]. She often parodies celebrity involvement in politics/aid etc and was recently nominated as Columnist of the Year in the 2010 British Press Awards.)

    For most people she doesn’t really say anything new on the subject as much as say it with scathing humour!

    Links here:
    (UK Amazon Link) http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0099532050/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-1&pf_rd_r=1Z1ZVAQ16E610JGEXP4Z&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=467198433&pf_rd_i=468294

    (US Amazon Link) http://www.amazon.com/Celebrity-Entertainers-Took-World-Strategy/dp/0099532050/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273927193&sr=8-1

    See also: http://www.columbia.edu/~xs23/catala/articles/2006/Sharon_Stone/Sharon_Stone.htm (reprint of Prof Sala-i-Martín’s article from WSJ re Celebrity involvement in Aid following the absurd Sharon Stone ‘intervention’ during Davos 2005)

    and, from 2006 (BBC Business) “Should celebrities decide what’s a good cause?”


    Most tellingly, the 2006 article ends with the following (and unwittingly very prescient!) comment from Peter Gabriel:

    “Professor Sala-i-Martin agrees that celebrities can do some good. But he is still worried that as a result some aid flows are not based on rational decisions, but the whims of a superstar. A star, he says, that is not accountable to anybody. Peter Gabriel agrees: “Maybe we need to use the internet as a celebrity judgement aid.”

    • J. 15 May, 2010 at 8:55 am #

      Avam – thanks for your comment. I nearly titled the post “We Cannot Abandon the Third World to Celebrities…”, but in the end went with “Haiti.” You’re right, of course – we cannot abandon ANYWHERE….

      Thank you for the reading recommendations. I was completely unaware of a book on this topic. I’ll definitely check it out!

  17. avam 15 May, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    No worries. It’s very funny (she is clearly not in thrall of celebrities to say the least!) It covers a lot of stuff (celebrities as spokespeople, adoption, political/international involvement, UN ambassadors) and within some of these topics touches on aid. It’s not an academic treatise on any of the subjects so much as scathing commentary on the issues at hand with some salient statistics and some unbelievable true life comments thrown in (similar – in their jaw dropping stupidity/absurdity – to the sean penn ones you mention).

    Worth reading (I’d recommend it to anyone working in int dev) – it makes you realise you’re not alone in thinking that the vast majority of these ‘celebritantes’ are bombastic, arrogant —-heads of the highest order.

    As she writes in the opening chapter: “Above all, remember this: if the entertainment industry is the solution, then we’re asking the wrong questions”. So true.


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