Open Letter to The Media, re: Nepal Earthquake

Aid workers, you know how this goes. In approximately one year, the media is going too be all up in our grill.

Why? Because after a gazillion dollars in aid, Kathmandu will still not look like Singapore; some people will still be living in tents (as opposed to two-storey modular homes with Direct TV and WiFi); foreigners will have been seen going to meetings in white Land Cruisers; and, well, frankly no one was “accountable” or “transparent.” At least a few journalists will jump-start stagnating careers by writing books stridently critical of the aid industry (The Big Drone That Flew By, etc.) and at least two will claim to have been “the only foreign correspondent in Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake.” (They’ll refer to themselves as “earthquake survivors” in their bios and interviews.)

At the one year anniversary, major networks will run specials on “where the money went” or “did aid really help Nepal?” Of course, a bunch of new INGOs (some started up by failed climbers) specifically focused on the earthquake will be interviewed and featured at length. They’ll make outrageous (and impossible to verify) claims about how they cut through red tape and outwitted the aid system to deliver life-saving assistance to those who most desperately needed it.  (I’ll never understand why the go-to response by everyone who feels that the aid industry is an inefficient bureaucracy seems to be to start their own NGO, thus adding to the net amount of bureaucracy in the world. But obviously I digress.) They’ll use words like “bloated” to describe NGO salary structures, and point to the fact that aid workers took R&R as proof that everyone in the aid system is hopelessly self-interested.

At some point during year one there will be a celebrity visit that goes wildly/hilariously amuck: Someone (my money’s on Ian Birrel) will latch onto that as proof that “aid doesn’t work”, and do a lot of strident tweeting about it. Wonks from think tanks or universities that end in “ord,” who’ve never implemented anything even remotely close to a relief response, will give soundbites about the importance of innovation, humanitarian UAVs, and big data. Maybe Richard Engel or Ann Curry will fly in and have scripted heart-to-heart interviews with survivors, after which they’ll gaze into the camera and offer pithy one-line analyses in their best weary/soulful voices.

Engel Nepal

Yes, those of us in the aid industry know this is coming. It happens every time, it’s annoying as hell, and it sucks up precious overhead to deal with it on top of everything else. So maybe let’s just nip some of that in the bud right now.

Media, you’re on notice:

If you want to say that the aid industry was not accountable in Nepal, then articulate the baseline and the standard now. What is our target?

If you want to say that we are not delivering aid fast enough, then do share—what’s the metric that we’re aiming for? At what objectively verifiable rate of delivery will this simply cease to be an issue for you?

If you want to complain that we’re not transparent, then tell us right now what level of transparency, in your expert opinions, is sufficient?

Please do explain right now what state of recovery Kathmandu should be in in one year’s time if we’re doing our jobs properly.

Too many INGOs swarming to Nepal? Okay, how many should there be? Do be specific. Too many foreigners going to too many meetings? Please, what is an optimal, or at least an acceptable foreigner-to-local ratio? And what is the preferred number of meetings per day/week/etc?

This will make all of our jobs (including yours) easier.



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[Maybe related: How to write about humanitarian work]



Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. — Albert Einstein

I’ll take Bill Eastery and Laura Freschi’s word for it that buy-one/give-one (BOGO) schemes like TOMS Shoes are numerically bankrupt ways to help the poor. The metrics matter, but I’m not an economist or a bean-counter, and so once more will take the word of those who want to collate the data.



TOMS is one easy target. They’re one in tens or hundreds of thousands of similarly envisioned “socially responsible” enterprises. In North America, and perhaps the rest of the West, and probably plenty of other places, there is a growing culture of social responsibility. Social responsibility—“giving back”—is all the rage. Everyone is going to make the world better by doing business in ways that make the world better. One problem in this kind of social climate is that we come to much too easily conflate “not as evil as Philip Morris or BP” with “social good.” I think it’s actually a sign of our collective cynicism that our social good bar is so very low, but I digress.

Right now my personal Facebook feed is lighting up with people debating the details of TOMS (again, low-hanging-fruit, as rant-worthy targets go, but hardly the only offender), following the release of this article in Fast Company.

Do the shoes last? No. Are TOMS shoes appropriate for most of the places in the world where shoes are truly really, really needed? No. TOMS shoes are basically junk in North America, and a glaringly illogical choice in most places that would be considered poor enough to be eligible beneficiaries of TOMS. Lack of shoes is not a cause of mortality or a significant cause of morbidity… anywhere on the planet. The same goes for T-shirts, dresses made from pillow cases, women’s underwear, or any one of a gazillion other items that somehow make their way to poor countries under the banner of social responsibility.

In conversations with those who just want to help and who can’t understand what possible harm could come, there’s little to be gained from arguing the metrics. Yes, there most probably is a case to be articulated that TOMS shoes (just one highly convenient example) creates dependency and puts local commercents out of business. But the links are tenuous. There will not be a meltdown in the community; there will be no war, famine, or pestilence that can be somehow pinned on TOMS or Ben & Jerry’s or Texaco.

But then, maybe that’s the wrong place to start. In humanitarian aid, and even more so in development, proving that something causes outright harm can be almost as difficult as proving that an intervention or technology helps.

Forget the fact that most people who receive TOMS shoes would be just as well if not actually better off with a pair of rubber flip-flops from China. Forget trying to rate whether you do more good by buying this brand rather than that brand.

Instead, start by simply understanding this: You don’t help the poorest of the poor by indulging in more materialism. You can’t fix world poverty by consuming more. You can’t “make a difference” by doing more of the same. That would be insane.