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