It’s hard to write these words, given my prior ranting, but I find myself softening a (tiny) bit on Sean Penn.
He had his early moments of idiocy, for sure. Dragging a contagious child from one Port-au-Prince hospital to the next, or opining on in favor of further blurring the already blurred lines between military and civilian aid actors, for example. There’s the whole issue of the fact that his time in Haiti counts as court-ordered community service, too. I mean, how many young, actually trained, aspiring aid workers would kill for a deployment to Haiti? And yet Sean Penn gets to go there and make it up as he goes… essentially as punishment. WTF?. Or what about the fact that he packs heat on the job? A Glock to be specific.
This all said, he is still in Haiti, something like 9 (or is it 10?) months now and making noise about committing decades there. I don’t know many real aid workers willing to commit up front to 10 years in Haiti, so good on him. And by some accounts he’s mostly getting it right. One of my colleagues based in Port-au-Prince sits next to him in the CCM cluster meetings on a somewhat regular basis, and from what she says it sounds like he’s a) willing to learn; b) saying and doing the right sorts of things.
On one hand this is encouraging. A famous, high-profile celebrity-cum-aid activist has seen the light. Outstanding. The world is now objectively a(n incrementally) better place.
But on the other hand, it’s incredibly annoying. Another high-profile celebrity and self-declared voice for “the poor” deposited himself in a disaster zone, full of strident statements about what’s working and what’s not, spouting the familiar cock-sure opinions about what needs to be done and how the INGOs are getting it wrong… And ten months later has come around to precisely the same learning that the rest of us (you know, actual professional aid workers) have know for decades:
- Aid is harder, more complicated, and more expensive than you think.
- It takes specific knowledge and skills to get it right.
- There are no magik bullets, there are no fast solutions.
- Many, many factors, utterly beyond the control of aid workers or aid agencies impinge on the success or failure of an overall aid effort.
- Haiti (the disaster, not the country) will be a very long, hard slog.
But for some reason that I don’t quite grasp, Sean Penn seems oddly silent now.
Crap. He’s been humbled. Mystic River didn’t phase him. He rebounded from his failed marriage to Madonna with great aplomb. But Haiti seems to have silenced him. No more strident weighing in on CNN or CBS about how The Media tells a specific story of aid that is specifically inaccurate and misrepresentative. Hell, even Bono and Angelina use their celebrity to push big, structural issues at high levels.
But not Sean Penn.
Nope. He’s started his own NGO – the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, with it’s own sweet website where you can watch a slideshow of brown-eyed Haitian children, and then click to donate. Apparently there are just not enough NGOs in Haiti right now… He’s hunkered down, managing “his” tent camp. He’s doing all the things he railed against the NGOs for doing before: going to coordination meetings, fundraising, promoting his organization’s brand.
Back when he was clueless he had all the answers. But now that he actually has some knowledge, some actual understanding, something real to say, he’s piped totally down. For all of his desire to make the world better, he’s passing on what would possible be his best opportunity to do so. Thanks, bro.
I can’t decide whether I love Sean Penn or hate him. I’ll be happy to tell him so in person, too, next time I’m in Haiti. Over drinks at the Hotel Oloffsen.