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.’
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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!”
Oh, I’m sorry… was that too snarky for you?
I’m not trying to offend anyone. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “hooo yeah.. I am sure gonna offend me some nice people today.” But doing so is most definitely an occupational hazard in the humanitarian aid world. Sometimes the hard things have to be said. Sometimes – often, actually – those to whom the hard things need to be said simply do not want to hear them. They just do not want to know. No amount of being nice, of sugar-coating, no amount of actual logic works. Very often just saying the unpopular thing, no matter how nice you are about it, makes you “snarky.”
#1millionshirts is a bad idea. It just is. Don’t like my opinion? Okay, ask another aid professional or aid expert. That’s as dispassionately as I know how to put it.
A bad idea is a bad idea.
Some aid ideas are so bad – so obviously bad – that trying to work through a creative salvage is an utter waste of time. Some aid ideas are just so bad that there is really no point in debating them, and there is nothing constructive to add. Some aid ideas are so painfully bad that they can only have come from someone who fundamentally misunderstands (or doesn’t care) what the issues actually are: issues like whether or not the idea causes more harm than it does good, like whether or not the idea is among the least cost-effective ways possible of helping the poor, or like whether or not the idea in any way even responds to an actual need of someone in the target community. And in my experience (more on that below), there is exactly zero to be gained from anything other than calling those bad ideas exactly what they are, straight up, right from the beginning.
#1millionshirts is one of those bad aid ideas.
It’s not about the donor.
Somebody please tell me exactly when aid became about the donor? Why do we insist on coddling people with bad aid ideas just because they “mean well” or their “heart’s in the right place”? Why is it so hard for everyone to remember that aid is not about the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] donor?
I don’t care what motivates #1millionshirts or some guy named Jason or anyone else. Their motivations are not the issue.
I’m sounding like @bill_easterly. Can we please make aid about the poor?
There’s an app for that
If your toilet is broken, you call a plumber.
If you have an infestation problem, you call an exterminator.
If you want to learn to play a musical instrument, you hire a music teacher.
If you need to have your car repaired, you go to a mechanic.
If you want to bundle your TV, internet and phone, you call the cable company.
If your Windows 7 keeps crashing (happens a lot), you get “The Geek Squad.”
If you want a new digital camera, go to Best Buy or Circuit City.
But… apparently… if you want to help solve third-world poverty, you rely on the judgement of some guy who wears T-shirts for a living?
Running interference on Bad Aid since 1991.
I’ve been doing this aid thing for a while, now. In that time have come across more than just one or two spectacularly bad aid ideas. In most cases I was able to successfully run interference such that they died before ever being implemented. A few that stand out:
A floating vocational training school… for southern Nigeria… envisioned 100% by white, American CEOs who’d never been to Africa (let alone Nigeria)… to be funded by Texaco.
Mentioned once before on this blog: the “Guns for Work” project in Kosovo.
A project to “rescue” underage sex workers… in the Philippines… by basically collecting them into a center that would have been a lot like an orphanage… The word “penetration” was in the logframe (the project was going to “penetrate” some of the tough, inner-Manila neighborhoods… but still…).
A group of something like 12 American dentists… to orphanages (what is it with the orphanages?)… in Vietnam (a country that now exports medical professionals). I nearly got fired for putting this one under, actually. I escaped with a strong letter of reprimand in my personnel file.
I’m not drinkin’ the #hatorade, man. Just sayin’… as bad aid ideas go, #1millionshirts is right up there with these.