Thursday, May 13, 2010

Happy birthday dear tragedy

We in the aid business are getting very good at marking the anniversaries of massive tragedies. Heck, we even win awards for it. Tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes - you can rely on the aid agencies to bring out any number of glossy publications and e-products to mark the first month, second month, third month, six months, nine months, one year, two years… five.. ten.. even 25 (yes, the Chernobyl disaster happened 24 years ago, look out for the reports next year).

Our commemorations generally have an “x months (or years) after the storm/quake/eruption/outbreak/flood life is slowly getting back to normal for villagers in etc and so on”. When it isn’t. Or when “normal” means abject poverty. (photo credit to 12 year old Zhao Lei who entered the photo as part of a Red Cross competition to document life 2 years after the Sichuan quake in China, You can read her story about the photo here and view more entries from this youth photo project here).

Why do we do it? What impact does it have? Of course we have to show the sunny side, otherwise it means we have failed, that years after a disaster people are still living without shelter, clean water, food security, education, infrastructure - much like they were before the disaster, in fact.

We also do it in solidarity but even there I’ve something of a bad taste in my mouth. With the technology we have we ought to be able to let the affected communities plan the commemoration themselves, and tell it like it is, for them. If they want to, of course.

But how critical are we of what we did, of how we spent the money? The media is, finally, nipping at our heels like Jack Russels (maybe we need Rottweilers?), sometimes completely missing the point of course, but at the same time waking us up, copping us on.

And how critical are we of each other? Of the communities themselves and the governments who have the first duty to react and care?

Look at the disasters we responded to in the 80s, or the 90s. How much has changed for the pastoralists of Ethiopia, the children of Somalia? How have we failed to improve living conditions in sub-Saharan Africa? In rural Asia? In the remoter parts of the ex-USSR (where life expectancy is falling - actually it’s falling all over, even in the cities due to poor health, alcohol and drug abuse, violence).

What could be done better?

A release on the wonderful Alernet Expresso tells me: “Aid workers have expressed concern that recovery work in cyclone-affected Myanmar may be hampered by the disbandment of a coordinating group set up to oversee aid efforts.”

There’s the problem for you. All we can really do is express concern, because outrage, shock, disgust, despair, vitriol, sorrow, scorn, spleen and so on and so forth would have us out of the country as quick as you can say “the road to Mandalay”.

I’ve had issues (and pints) with John O’Shea from GOAL at times but I watched him with relish on an Al Jazeera report when he was venting about access to Haiti

He was advocating one single leader (actually Obama, a non-starter and he knows it) to go in and take charge. While he was in full flight the anchor wailed “bu..but..what about political sensitivities?” O’Shea barely suppressed a mischievous grin and gave a bitchslap of an answer. “I’m sorry, I’m only a rank  and file  journalist and aid worker. I don’t understand words like political sensitivities when two million people need help.”

Granted, being unaware of sensitivities is a recipe for disaster, but you can be sure O’Shea is well aware of them, despite his protests.

So what to do? Fight the good fight, keep up the work, but ask questions all the time. Use the aid to get the access to ask the questions. Use the access to get the aid in, ask the questions. Keep asking the questions, like Bob Geldof did. “Why hasn’t that man got any food” he repeatedly asked an official in Ethiopia, back in the day. And while it’s a cute trick, it’s still a good strategy.

Don’t put up with bad standards, don’t accept “we can’t do any more”, don’t accept it when our team is working a turnkey operation. Get out there and change things. That’s why we’re doing this job.

Isn’t it? 



  1. Dear Joe

    You just jolted my memory, it's almost 40 years since I left on my first overseas assignment for the RC. Think I will go back to Vietnam with at least 3 HDEO reporters next year and find the 32,321 people we helped in 1971. I hope none of them have died since then. I am sure they will remember me and my NZ mates who gave them New Zealand dried milk buscuits. No one in New Zealand ate them but I was told the people of Vietnam would love them. Then there was the 100 tonne of delicious NZ sweet corn that we flew at great expense from NZ to Vietnam where there was a surplus of sweet corn. Although the tribal people liked the cans they came in they gave the corn to the pigs. The pigs grew fat and strong as did the manufacturers of the sweet corn.

    Yeh Joe, anniversaries are important for the makers of sweet corn and milk buscuits, because they get great tax breaks.

    Bob the rebuilder !

  2. Bob the (re)builder. The first man to say "yes we can"!

  3. Hi Joebaby, if we were to share the diagnosis, why wouldn't we share the cure?