E-Z charity

In the last month since the earthquake struck the capital of Haiti, we’ve been bearing witness to an incredible outpouring of generosity: from individuals to corporations, from governments to celebrities, the world has been falling over itself in an attempt to lend a hand to Haiti. I’ve found some African examples interesting: for instance, Liberia – apparently – is giving $50,000 to Haiti, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has donated $2.5 million. Senegal, meanwhile, has offered to give land to Haitians wishing to resettle there.

As of February 3rd, the Chronicles of Philanthropy reported that contributions from Americans had already reached $644 million. Canadians contributed $113 million (CAD), with their federal government matching funds for every donation made until February 12th. Private contributions in France were less significant (64 million euros donated to charity in the last month), but given the fact that French people are typically reluctant to donate to charity because of the lack of tax incentive, it’s still relatively impressive (note that French people gave 95 million euros in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.) Check out this table, courtesy of @MoogieJo, for a breakdown of donations by country and a comprehensive overview of who gave to which organization and for what purpose.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has thus far raised $30 million, which is a really impressive number, especially given the slump that all charitable organizations went through since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008. A person who works very closely with the Clinton Bush Fund told me recently that these funds were being donated to 23 reputable organizations in Haiti, including Partners in Health, Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity. He noted, however, that they were hoping to save a lot of these funds for long-term investments in health, education, and economic empowerment, and not allocate all $30 million to emergency needs. Indeed, while Haiti needs a lot of help right now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as many, many have observed, the real challenge will be to assist Haitians in (re)building their country’s infrastructure, improving social and basic services and expanding access to jobs and economic opportunities.

Going back to the spreadsheet linked above, it is easy to see that the more long-term concerns are the most difficult to fund. If we rank categories by amount of funding available, we see that food is by far the m0st-well endowed, with $117 million. (By comparison, human rights/rule of law activities only garnered $6 million.)

Meanwhile, however, some emerging trends in giving have caught my attention, and have caused wincing among many a development blogger. Or, more accurately, trends in giving that don’t always reach the MSM or the public consciousness have been given attention as of late. First, is all of the efforts to send used things to Haiti: used shoes, used yoga mats, breast milk, infant formula, blankets, used shoes, and more used shoes. I don’t understand why so many (well-intentioned, surely) people think that shoes are what people in Haiti need… I think part of the answer lies in the fact that people are far more likely to give when they can see (or think they see) a causal relationship between their donation and the need on the ground. So, for instance, giving a pair of shoes to someone who undoubtedly lost at least a pair of shoes seems like a good idea. Given that a huge majority of people do not work for humanitarian agencies, development organizations or aren’t privy to the intricacies of appropriate, relevant aid, it’s not very surprising to see so many misguided good intentions.

Also worth noting here is the desire to help Haiti’s “orphans”. I’m using quotation marks, because our concept of what an orphan is does not necessarily match the reality of what it means when a child loses his or her parents in other countries. From experience working with Liberian abandoned children and “orphans”, I know that determining who the best care taker is for a (seemingly) parentless child is no easy task. The story of the 10 American baptists charged with accusations of child trafficking in Haiti is a seething example of good intentions gone wrong. I really believe that this group – similarly to people donating shoes, blankets or breast milk – had the best of intentions.

Third, natural disasters are conducive to mobilizing public and private resources and generate sympathy, empathy or pity. As I mentioned above, when the need seems obvious (medicine, food, blankets, medicine, shoes (?)), people have an easier time loosening their purse strings than when they are asked to contribute to an effort which has a subjective dimension. Haiti is not a newly poor country – it’s been lagging behind every country in the Western hemisphere for decades, and the plight of its people is nothing new. However, prior to the earthquake, no one seemed to care too much about the future of Haiti. What’s interesting to me is that people across the world all of a sudden paid attention to Haitians – the same people they probably knew nothing about, or simply didn’t think about, until January 12th 2010.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes: these events have an objective quality about them which makes giving much easier than say, giving to an organization that works to help small holder farmers access new markets. To a certain extent, donors need to “buy in” to the notion that a) small holder farmers are a sector of the economy worth supporting, that b) assisting them in accessing new markets is the most effective way of helping them and that c) the organization they are donating to knows what they’re doing. That’s a far, far cry from the need for antibiotics and morphine for people wounded in the earthquake: there is no philosophical question here, just a very objective need for a very specific item.

The other dimension to this is that donors are much more likely to give after a natural disaster than after the end of a civil conflict, for example. In speaking with both aid and development professionals and non-industry people about this, it seems that it’s much more difficult to encourage generosity when the cause of a disaster is not natural. It’s very uncomfortable – for me, at least – to think that outside of natural disasters, there is a (seldom acknowledged but existing) belief that poor people brought poverty upon themselves, that they are guilty of their circumstances, while natural disasters are indiscriminate and are – truly – nobody’s fault. This means that contributing to emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake is much easier, much less political of an issue than contributing to the same efforts in the aftermath of a violent conflict.

I like to think of these instances of “good intentions gone bad” as issues of “E-Z charity” – at the heart of the problem, is the well-meaning donor’s lack of understanding of people’s needs and the implicit notion that giving to a survivors of natural disasters are somehow more worthy of our resources than survivors of violence or conflict.

One of the reasons I was moved to blog about the issue of E-Z charity was after a trip to the grocery store the other day. At the check-out counter, while waiting for my transaction to process, I saw that there were two transparent plastic donation boxes, where people could drop loose change. One was for Haiti relief operations, and the other for an organization taking care of children with disabilities in Ontario. The former was full – to the brim – and the other stood with about three coins, or approximately 50 cents in change. I jokingly told the cashier: “I guess no one cares about the disabled kids anymore!”, and she told me that she put the three coins in there, because she felt badly that no one (not.a.single.person) gave to that cause. I mentioned survivors of violence and conflict above, as well as more subjective causes such as supporting small-holder farmers or other economic empowerment initiatives – however, I found it truly unsettling that a local organization working with children with disabilities (not a particularly controversial cause!)  didn’t generate as much empathy or generosity as Haiti.

It’s difficult to blame individuals, however, given that the mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake was a 24/7 mishmash of confused, sensationalized images and stories. We rarely see 20 minute segments about disabled children on the evening news, and CNN’s Situation Room wonks usually don’t spend their time discussing the issues associated with  the world’s leading fatal illnesses for children: diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria.

People’s willingness to give and their generosity is, objectively, a good thing. It reminds me that we do care about one another, to a certain extent, that we do feel empathy for those less fortunate – if we only we could use this opportunity to create a new culture of giving. But as my two donation box example mentioned above shows, we’re a long way away from making text message donations and adding a dollar to your grocery bill mainstream, regular activities.

"Post-bureaucratic" effectiveness?

There has been a bit of a buzz around the recently released British Conservative Party Green Paper on international development, and David Cameron’s party is getting a little bit of heat for some of their policy prescriptions. 

The report begins by announcing the Party’s good intentions:

As well as highlighting the amazing achievements of aid, we are candid and open about the difficulties and problems involved in turning money and good intentions into real outcomes on the ground. We identify both the systemic problems that beset the whole official aid industry, and the specific mistakes that Labour politicians have made in running our aid programme. And we set out how we will put these problems right, increasing British aid, while injecting a new post-bureaucratic focus on effectiveness and outcomes. Our aim is to spend more on what works, and end funding for what doesn’t.

What caught my eye was the notion of “post-bureaucratic” – which is in fact repeated throughout the report. At first, I thought it was probably another euphemism for increased coordination among agencies or more flexible funding and disbursement timelines. Interestingly, the Conservatives take the concept in an unexpected direction; as The Independent reports, their suggestion is to give British citizens a say in where their tax dollars/aid money goes. Through the intelligent use of “post-bureaucratic” modern technology (the internet, who would have thought), David Cameron is considering asking British citizens to decide which international development projects they want to fund:

The site will include a history of each project, the impact it has achieved, details of how the additional money will be spent and a short film by the head of the project, setting out why they deserve to be backed. The £40m pot will be divided in proportion to the percentage of the vote for each initiative.

The point of this being two-fold: a), it would allegedly increase the quality of project results,  by creating new incentives for effectiveness, b) it would give tax-payers a say in how their money is spent, leading to increased popular support for aid programs. However, as critics note, this would inevitably lead to some “unpopular” programs being cut, and surviving ones spending more time trying to cater to the needs of an ever changing public opinion than addressing issues on the ground. 

Many are calling this “populist gimmickry”. I can understand that, especially when phrases like “Every time the candle of life is snuffed out by disease, we all suffer” are thrown around (page 8 – some beautiful prose, highly recommended). And indeed, some of the Conservatives’ policy prescriptions seem a bit “naive”, like the “MyAidfund” initiative described above. 

Nonetheless, they deserve some credit for at least attempting to be creative in their solutions to address the issue of aid effectiveness. And, while the vigorous debate on the topic continues to further polarize opinions (see the Boston Review recent “Development in Dangerous Places” for a brilliant installment on the subject), while the same old promises are being made by the G8, the Conservatives are at least taking a crack at finding a solution to the deadlock.

For instance, while everyone’s attention is focused on the “MyAidfund” program, I think some of the ideas below – also suggested in the 64 page policy paper – are at least worth debating:

We will ensure the impartial and objective analysis of the effectiveness of British aid through an Independent Aid Watchdog. This will gather evidence about the impact and outcomes of different British aid projects and programmes, allowing the Secretary of State for International Development to make informed, evidence-based decisions about where spending should be directed […]

We will publish full information about all of DFID’s projects and programmes – including the results of impact evaluations – on its website, and have them translated into local languages. This information will be published in a standardised format so that it can be freely used on third-party websites […]

We advocate a more far-sighted approach. DFID should where possible make three-year rolling commitments and give indicative ten-year projections for aid. However, such a commitment on our part will require something in return. Projects and programmes must demonstrate that they are performing, delivering what they said they would deliver.

The last recommendation listed here is contentious for critics: for some projects, where measuring objective impact is challenging because of the lack of quantitative indicators, it will be difficult to retain funding. This would create an unnatural skew towards “delivery” programs which can effectively measure their results, but are not always the most transformative or sustainable. That said, the current lack of indicators shouldn’t preclude us from searching for new, creative ways to measure impact… Which a lot of researchers are doing already. It’s definitely time for the development industry to become accountable (much in the same way that the private sector is being held increasingly accountable for their social and environmental impact.)

Finally, one of their more praiseworthy suggestions, in my opinion, is the following:

There is a wealth of talent and energy in the many ‘little platoons’, small charities and NGOs who are making an impact on poverty in a thousand different ways all across the world. We want to support and bolster these organisations. Yet Labour ’s current funding rules are restrictive, with money earmarked for specific but limited sectors. 

In addition to the existing funding structures which exist, we will establish a demand-led, performance-based Poverty Impact Fund, worth £40 million in its first year. 

The Fund will be open to British NGOs and charities, working alone or in partnership with local organisations in developing countries. The Fund will invite submissions for projects and programmes to reduce poverty in developing  countries. Fund managers, drawn from DFID, NGOs and the private sector, will assess the applications, and allocate funds on the basis of their anticipated effectiveness in reducing poverty. 

The Fund will maximise innovation and enterprise, letting ‘a thousand flowers bloom’,tapping into a wide range of NGOs and supporting a wider range of projects than the current structures allow. To balance risk in the portfolio, the Fund will also support projects which are well-established and have a demonstrable performance record. NGOs will have a clear incentive to maximise the effectiveness of their work in order to secure and retain funding.

So there are proposing to work more closely – and fund! – grassroots organizations that deliver results. Without seeing the details (how exactly would the portfolio be “balanced”? Will 50% of funding go to well-established projects? More? Less?), it’s hard to say whether this idea can really work. But we should at least appreciate the effort to bring some new ideas to the table – Cameron and his party probably haven’t cracked the complicated issue of aid effectiveness, but their notion of “post-bureaucracy” might not be such a poor conceptual starting point. 

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of David Cameron…. Not a detractor either, but definitely not a fan

Intersecting tragedies

At last, an update on this blog. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I often feel like everything’s already been said and that I’m preaching to the choir. There are dozens of stories that inspire me to write, but I have a difficult finding something to say that I don’t find redundant. For instance, this story on “personal terrorism” (warming: photo not for the faint hearted)really shook me to the core when I first read it a few weeks back, and I have been pondering a post about it, but what can I say other than the fact that I find it deeply offensive, sad and backward… Sort of like this story about a 13 year old girl who was stoned to death because SHE was raped. I am – as we all are, at least those reading this blog – appalled that this sort of medieval, senseless and cruel violence against women still exists in this supposedly “modern” world. 

In any case, I have been watching all sorts of retrospectives and “year in review” programs on the various news channels on my parents’ cable (god bless satellite television), and when it’s all strung together, like a chain of very dark pearls, one really gets a sense of a flailing modern civilization. Sure, we’ve elected an amazing individual to the highest office in the land in the United States, but we have also witnessed a number of horrendous natural tragedies (the typhoon in Burma and the earthquakes in China claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each), ever continuing violence and hatred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Colombia… everywhere else…, a financial crisis of incomprehensible proportions (1000s of billions of dollars later, we will have fixed nothing), and, of course, we continue to witness the destruction of this planet. 
I was asked a few months ago to investigate the nexus of climate change, sustainable development and diplomacy – a broad topic, indeed. The focus, because of my background, was to be on “climate refugees”, which sounds like something from some sort of sci-fi movie, but is actually becoming a reality to contend with. Because of my new job and constant stress of running out of money for The Niapele Project, my mind has been consumed and I haven’t had a chance to delve into this topic. But watching one of those fascinating (yet frigthening) retrospectives on France 24 last night (France 24 is France’s response to CNN and BBC…. ), I saw a segment on the effects of climate change on a small group of islands called Carteret Islands.
This small group of islands, in my mind, symbolize the coming intersection of tragedies. We are used to thinking about climate change in a separate realm from man-made wars. Natural disasters have been, for some time, hermetically considered from the rest of the problems that affect humanity. I haven’t been able to find this again, but back in 2004, when the tsunami hit large swaths of Asia, and billions of dollars of aid poured in quasi instantly, a cartoon was published showing a couple African children in rags, watching a plane fly overhead with the words “Humanitarian Aid” written on it, and the following words appearing in a bubble above one of the kids: “Too bad we didn’t get hit”. We tend to separate suffering caused by other men and suffering caused by nature, as if the victims were true victims in one case, but not the other.
Anyway.
The people living in the Carteret Islands are among the world’s first “climate refugees“, and their home is slated to disappear in the oceans – forever – in the next 10 years or so (although predictions vary, clearly, like a lot of the other island states in the Pacific, the Carteret Islands’ fate is essentially sealed). Island nations have been among the first to call for concerted global action to deal with the issue of climate change – for them, it’s a matter of simple survival. Cynics might argue that these islands should not be inhabited in the first place, similarly to places like New Orleans or Holland or Venice. But the future of communities who live in these places has been compromised by humanity’s destructive behavior. 
Bangladesh – one of the world’s poorest and most populated countries – is also facing intractable challenges due to climate change.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.”

It is a frigthening prospect – rising sea levels and disappearing homelands, leading to mass migrations. While we haven’t yet seen this happen on a massive scale, we are quick to dismiss the impact of environmental destruction and climate related causes of war and violence. In the Sudan, desertification is one of the underlying causes which pitted nomad cattle herders against sedentary agriproducers. As the world’s basic natural resources dwindle, and more and more previously habitable land is rendered unfit for human exploitation, we will undoubtedly witness some unprecendent population movements – how and where is hard to say, although clearly island nations, low lying coastal areas and landlocked deserted areas will be on the frontlines. 

I’m fascinated by this intersection of man made and natural tragedies, and curious to see how the world will respond. I’ve already mentioned ad nauseam how the international legal framework that governs the treatment of refugees and displaced people is outdated and unable to address modern challenges. Will the UNHCR blaze trails and design specific legal protections for communities and individuals displaced by environmental catastrophes? If so, when? Probably once it’s too late – it always takes a disaster of monumental proportions for the world to react (world war I was not enough for Europeans to stop killing each other – only at the end of world war II did we devise a system to prevent this from ever happening again [at least in our lifetimes]). 

For 2009, I wish that the leaders of our vulnerable little planet WAKE UP and realize that we are about to self-annihilate. It may even be too late – who knows, really – to reverse the effects of decades of selfish exploitation of the Earth. But the impending intersection of tragedies – the natural ones and the man-made ones – will surely be a wake up call, at some point down the line. 

To close of this post, and this year, I leave you with one of my favorite proverbs (sometimes attributed to ancient African wisdom, other times to Hindu philosophy, but nonetheless a deeply potent thought)

“We did not inherit this world from our forefathers – we are borrowing it from our grandchildren”

The "Thinking Brains" of Foreign Policy, continued

Does anybody else find slightly odd that Senator Biden wants the US to give Georgia $1 billion? What for?

Biden said the $1 billion would “help the people of Georgia to rebuild their country and preserve its democratic institutions.”

Ah yes, we all know that vast injections of foreign money have always helped “preserve democratic institutions”.

That said, I’d love to hear how he expects to do this – are we going to give them actual cash, like we did in Iraq (brilliant article)? Or perhaps in the form of military aid ? Or humanitarian aid? Or…?

There is definitely a situation of great need in Georgia (150,000 displaced, on top of the 1/4 million already displaced in the region) but promising $1 billion (just before the democratic convention?) is a bit fishy to me.

I have no idea where that figure came from… It seems disproportionate. He’s not really filling me with confidence, ahead of his possible nomination as VP in the coming days.

The New Black


IRIN, the UN news wire, put out a piece called “Humanitarian work – it’s the new black” today. It starts off with this joke:

At an open-air concert somewhere, Bono is called to the stage to speak to the crowd.

At first, he says nothing, only claps his hands every few seconds. After about five claps, he says to the audience: “Every time I clap, a child in Africa dies.”

An audience member yells back: “Well stop sodding clapping then!”

Pretty funny stuff, eh?

But the rest of the piece, much to my dismay, doesn’t really attempt to answer any questions concerning celebrity endorsement of humanitarian causes. This is the bottom line, according to the author:

The bottom line, however, is that whatever their motives, big names do get publicity for the charities and causes they champion. Many people in the West know about the impacts of HIV in Africa because of Bono, they know about the crisis in Darfur because of George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and they know about orphans in Malawi because of Madonna.

I emphasized the verb “know”, because that is my main qualm with celebrity activism. What do people actually know about these issues? Very little. Raising awareness is great, but when complicated issues are boiled down too far, it creates a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, which, ultimately does not serve the cause. And unless the “knowing” is accompanied by the “doing”, what’s the real value?

The other issue, that my prof Rony Brauman had raised, is that the crises or issues that are chosen by celebrities to be covered do not necessarily reflect the highest level of need. For instance, not a lot of celebrity activists are standing up for the distribution of rehydration salts which help children with diarrhea survive (2 million children per year die of diarrhea – that’s 6,000 children every day – if I were a huge cynic, I would point out that that represents a sh*t load more victims than the Darfur conflict.)

Mainstream media already does a pretty poor job of coverage – so many issues that are crucial in terms of human security (diarrhea), or regional security (the ongoing conflict in Somalia) for example, are sometimes brought up but never given the kind of attention that other “pet” issues have received. When you add another layer that determines coverage worthiness (is someone beautiful talking about this in large public gatherings?), then the reasons for which a crisis is covered in the media become increasingly less objective.

That being said, we should definitely differentiate between Jessica Simpson’s trip to Kenya and the real commitments made by the likes of Bono. Clearly, the two operate at very different levels of engagement, and their actions have different motives and consequences. Still though, to come back to the IRIN piece, how much more do people really know thanks to celebrity endorsements?