How to Write About Humanitarian Aid Work

28 Jul

Directly inspired by, and envisioned as something of a companion piece to this post, my best advice on how to write about aid work:

* * * * *

First and foremost it is of critical importance that you do not interview or speak with a representative of an established, well-known NGO, INGO or academic known for her/his research on international or humanitarian aid. Rather, be sure to find a small, start-up organization that no one has heard of. The credibility of the organization that you interview should be in direct inverse proportion to the magnitude and visibility of the disaster that you’re covering. In other words, the larger and more visible the disaster, the farther outside mainstream you should look for “expert” sources. Small, volunteer-based organizations that specialize in “actually helping while everyone else is busy ‘coordinating’” are solid gold. Organizations formed three months ago around a celebrity cult-of-personality in response to this particular disaster are pure platinum.

Assume at the outset that aid basically never works. There is always always always some monumental debacle, some sordid secret controversy lurking just beneath the veneer of aid awesomeness being propagandized by the UN and large, household charities. Don’t believe any reports of aid getting actually getting through to disaster survivors, of disease outbreaks that were averted or nipped in the bud, of the system in any way working. Those just aren’t true. Similarly, don’t believe any so-called “reasonable explanations” of why things haven’t worked as well as hoped. NGOs and aid workers are just covering their own asses (see below). If it really seems as if things are going well, keep digging. See the previous paragraph – if you can’t find evidence of spectacular aid failure, you’re clearly talking to the wrong people/orgs.

Understand that after a huge disaster it really only takes three or four weeks to return things to “normal.” And by “normal”, I mean that every last survivor of the disaster should be living in a well-planned rebuilt community, every family in a gorgeous new hurricane-resistant and earthquake-proof house with a satellite dish and an electric garage door opener. Anything less than this is reason to suspect graft, corruption, NGO inefficiency (or at least apathy), or a breakdown of the entire “aid system.” Pre-disaster conditions in the affected country are completely irrelevant and should not be considered in your analysis of how smoothly the relief and recovery effort run or don’t run post-disaster.

Similarly, be sure to assume a direct relationship between the amount of money available for a response and the speed at which response and recovery efforts happen. The more money there is, the faster things should get back to “normal.” It’s important to not make comparisons between the recovery efforts from other past large disasters (e.g. The Tsunamis or Hurricane Katrina) and the one you’re covering now. Just compare the fundraised dollar numbers without any additional context.

Professional aid workers are total sissies and complainers. Frankly, they are just plain lucky to have jobs at which they all become fabulously wealthy while traipsing around the most exotic parts of the planet pretending to “help.” Criticize them relentlessly if they do anything to ensure their own safety and/or comfort. All they really do is “coordinate” and then party. Speculate that if they were really there on behalf of “the people” that “the people” would be able to tell and there would be no need for security staff at aid worker teamhouses or distribution sites. (But be sure to sponge a ride into town in a white NGO Landcruiser when you pitch up in-country without having organized your own transportation.)

Remember that “accountability” and “transparency” really only apply to large, well-known, well-funded INGOs. Any demand for information of any kind from any such large, well-funded INGO that is not immediately accommodated along with a personal note from the CEO and/or in-country response manager is proof that the organization in question is hiding something nefarious. By contrast, “accountability” and “transparency” do not apply to the small organizations that no one’s heard of, to short-term volunteer groups, to celebrities who come to moonlight as aid workers, and (can almost go without saying) never to local NGOs. These groups only want to help and should be left alone, unless you’re planning to highlight how they actually help people while the professionals muck around coordinating (see the first paragraph).

If you can, be sure to pull some hastily thought up stunt to show the inefficiency of the system and the malaise of the established actors. Try to bring a shipping palate full of pharmaceuticals through customs, for example. If you, as a non-registered charity in that country, have to pay import duty, then you’ve got a smoking gun of evidence of at least systemic failure, and possible corruption. Or maybe run your own one-off small distribution without any coordination. Find a random neighborhood where people say they want what you have and then just go there and give your stuff away. Don’t bother verifying anything and for heavens sake don’t share any information with any of the other humanitarian aid organizations in-country. Just do your thing. Publish the account later as evidence that “aid is not getting through to those who need it most.”

Focus on what your readers can do to help and feel good at the same time. Don’t let the experts fool you. Sphere standards and “good process” are total wastes of time. What disaster victims really need is more [INSERT ITEM OF CHOICE]. Shoes are an old favorite, of course, as are used clothing and plush toys. Don’t hesitate to accuse NGOs of having unethically high overheads in one paragraph, and then call for individual donations of, say, canned food in the next: Everyone knows that personal donations from well-meaning citizens is an efficient way to leverage badly-needed resources for the relief effort.

Above all, remember that aid is simple, easy and inexpensive. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either being “elitist” or is milking the system for personal gain while babies starve. See above – professional aid workers are hopelessly self-interested. Anyone can do this, really – a group of high school students on spring break, the odd singer or random actor. Hell, even you can do it. The experts just complicate things unnecessarily. Changing the world for the better (and advancing your own career) doesn’t have to be any harder than getting published in the Huffington Post or creating buzz on twitter.

12 Responses to “How to Write About Humanitarian Aid Work”

  1. Jennifer Lentfer 28 July, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    The gross generalities of “no capacity” and “no accountability” perpetuated about small and local organizations by us in the INGOs can be pejorative and disparaging, and does not do justice to some of these on-the-ground efforts that are well-run. That’s not to say that there aren’t issues in working with local groups. But when will the policy wonks, so-called professional “experts” and donors finally come to appreciate community-based organizations’ strengths, such as their resourcefulness, flexibility and community responsiveness that IS worth highlighting? Could it be that maybe the journalists you reproach are on to something that we are missing?

  2. Ana 28 July, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    After reading this post, feels like you need R&R.

    I follow your blog with interest but this one was a bit too much. I wonder do you really believe in what you writing or its a show of?

    Your faithful reader

  3. c-sez 29 July, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    Hellz yeah.

    To the following

    > Understand that after a huge disaster it really only takes three or four weeks to return things to “normal.”

    I would impertinently add

    “Particularly in the context of earthquakes and other disasters causing massive damage to the built environment, do your best to remain blissfully unaware of the ancient historical fact that it took the United Kingdom, during a time in which was still the master of a whole frickin’ global Empire, close to twenty years to completely rebuild itself after the WWII blitz. That’s right, TWENTY YEARS. To maintain your expectations that highly-indebted poor countries today can return to ‘normality’ in a few weeks, you may find it necessary to seek out the insulation from facts and ideas you don’t like that can only be found by nestle your head slightly further up between your cheeks.”

  4. J. 29 July, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    Jennifer: “Could it be that maybe the journalists you reproach are on to something that we are missing?”

    – Sorry, I’m friends with too many journalists. Honest-to-god, I seriously doubt it.

    Ana: You did get that this post was satire, right? While the writing may seem over-the-top to some, I can confirm that nothing in this post is made up. I have personally encountered everything here in one way or another.

    Cynan: Outstanding.

  5. Alex 31 July, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    Lots of anger in this post for sure. Agree with Ana, I think you need to unwind a bit.

    P.S. I generally enjoy your blog otherwise.

  6. terence 1 August, 2010 at 1:16 am #

    Well FWIW my vote is cast in favour. Great post. Seems spot on to me, although perhaps I’ve just read too many of the wrong newspapers…

  7. Sarah 1 August, 2010 at 3:36 am #

    I would appreciate some links or examples of all this shoddy journalism that you are preaching about… in general, the journalists that I’ve encountered in the field are really appreciative of aid workers and the work we do.

    There is often hostility from local media but that’s because big NGOs tend to treat them like red headed stepchildren and ignore them (that’s where I see the “making tons of money at our expense” reports coming from).

    But I totally get you on the “Anyone can do it” vibe. The media adoration of crazy Sean Penn and the ignorance of the complete lack of professionalism of his organization and the way they actually might have harmed people really got my goat in Haiti. No media person ever asked other agencies what they thought of Sean’s org’s ability to provide care to Haitians or his bullying tactics.

  8. Arthur D. 3 August, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    After 20+ years as a professional aid worker, I’ve seen everything you describe in this post, and then some. I think you let the journalists and amateur commentators off too easy.

  9. JMK 9 August, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    This is genius.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Communicating For Humanitarian Organizations | RajkumarDixit.com - 28 July, 2010

    […] recently wrote a cynical post on how to write about Humanitarian Aid Work.  Click here to read the original […]

  2. Dear Journalists: My Wish List « Tales From the Hood - 12 November, 2010

    […] This prior post was meant as snarcastic satire.   […]

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