Category Archives: am I right or am I wrong?

The Aid Bitchslap

Every now and then, I read something that hits me smack in the stomach. This cross-post is one of those. Originally on Quinn Zimmerman’s blog “These New Boots”, the post came over with an email commenting on “that moment where you get the aid bitchslap… when you cross from idealism to realism… [a] strange and ugly and enlightening process.”


Day 326: Questions and (No) Answers by Quinn Zimmerman

(cross-posted with his permission)

“It’s going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this.” I’m talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. “It won’t happen here. It won’t happen until I’ve left.” He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn’t over yet, we’ve both got a few months left, but we’re feeling the end now, and we’re feeling what it took to get here. We’re tired, and confused, and frustrated. We’re excited. We’re proud. We’re trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.

Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn’t too tricky, as I’ll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we’ll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We’ll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn’t the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I’ll be the last to go.

I know Haiti isn’t yet done for me, but the nature of how I’ve lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We’ll no longer be part of the group. We’ll be the entirety of it. I’ve no problems with that. If I’m honest, I’m excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I’m not so sure, or more accurately, I’m not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I’ll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don’t know what to make of this place and this experience.

I do know this. I’m ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as “post-apocalyptic”, is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it’s become something different than it was before.

“Fuck you!” The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don’t know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it’s a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. “Fuck you!” We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we’re at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. “Masisi! Masisi!” They’re calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don’t even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. “You think we’re faggots? Is that what you think? I think you’re a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don’t know to go fuck themselves, why don’t you go to school? You’re young men. You’re not kids. Do something with your lives.” I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they’re dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That’s not Haitian. That’s human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I’d be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They’re not the cause. They’re part of the effect.

We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I’m not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. “This fucking place…” Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. “Oh you’re a gangster are you? You’re hardcore? You can’t even get food. So hardcore. So gangster.” We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I’m doing it to release. I’m aware when I’m allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn’t be mocked, when I’m engaging something I’m actually against. I’m aware that I’m doing it more and more these days. I’m aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.

We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I’m close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I’m sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.

“Fucking hell…” We’re in the car, Paddy looks tired. “What’s up man?” I ask him. “Madam Michelle was asking me for everything – my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves.” I can see the frustration in his face. “Your mother just died. For fuck’s sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?” It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle’s youngest daughter, Jenny’s little sister, is at the door. “Qwen? Qwen?” “Hold on a sec sweetie.” I open the door and she’s there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. “Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie.” Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She’s talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have money for that right now.” I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I’ve done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I’ve learned to live by. “Sorry Jenny, I don’t have money for that right now.” “OK Qwen. It’s OK.” Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She’s been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She’s heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don’t stop. They won’t stop until I leave. Even then they won’t stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.

Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti:

1. Good intentions aren’t enough.
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit.
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don’t work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don’t add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.

I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn’t know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I’m not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could “save Haiti” (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn’t realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.

I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I question whether the work I’ve done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We’ll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I’m wary though. Every biosand filter I’ve ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we’re giving people a “solution”. They tell us they want it, but it’s not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we’ve given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we’ve tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to “help” people.

If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.

Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn’t ever come to Haiti to begin with. I’d keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court’s campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied.

Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that – rare exceptions. The lioness doesn’t feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we’ve always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti’s original inhabitants, were like. I’ll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world.

Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I’ve often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I’d like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.

It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words “Tutsi” or “Hutu” on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she’s visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that’s what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe’s people. I’d like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there’s certainly suffering enough to go around. The world’s groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 – true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.

Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.

See Quinn’s blog “These New Boots” for more.


Katniss and Agency

I haven’t followed all the hype and I haven’t read the book, but I did go to see the Hunger Games movie. And I thought it was pretty good. A lot of people were celebrating the fact that the main character was female and the book was written by a woman.

Then I read an article called “What’s Wrong with the Hunger Games is What No One Noticed” saying that all of us feminist women had been duped. That Katniss, the main character, was not strong at all, and she was just a new version of an old female fairy tale character that appeared strong, but that in reality, it was still all about her clothes and what boy she would pick, and that all the choices around her were made for her by men, and that she had no agency.

The article got me thinking, and quite a bit. And though I do see the author’s points, I related to Katniss’ character differently. The phrase “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.

I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency. I saw her as doing what a lot of us women (and men) do: playing the game just enough to get by; recognizing that we are playing the game; retaining our dignity and values whilst appearing to play along; and carefully picking our battles in terms of those times when we refuse to play at allbecause seriously, sometimes you just don’t have the energy to fight everything all the time. It can be exhausting.

The Hunger Games is reflective of the world we actually live in, not a film about the world we’d ideally like to live in.

In this world, the powers that be force us to play the game. We can stupidly play it, without thinking; we can buy into the commercialism, the sexism, the racism, the violence and the consumerism, with no regard to what is going on around us and no reflection on what we are doing… Or we can consciously recognize our own frustration that our values and principles are not reflected in the game, yet see that we are not strong enough individually to massively change it, and we have to navigate and negotiate within the system while keeping ourselves and our values intact if we want to survive. We have to find ways to work around the system, to confront it when we can’t take it anymore and to exploit those times that we see chinks in its armor. We also need to find allies to join hands with to help us survive and change things. We need to be smart sometimes and approach those who already hold power but have not totally been consumed by the system and its [evil] ways. Or find people who have infiltrated the system but haven’t sold out to it — and maybe we ourselves are those who have infiltrated but not sold out or sold out fully. Sometimes, though  rare, we can convince power holders that the system needs to change. Or through stealth, smarts or just plain ethics, we can force systemic change. This is how revolutions and social change happen.

Once the Games started, Katniss disappeared from the fray. I didn’t see this as weak or lacking agency. Instead, she decided to leave the scene and wait things out as long as possible. This was a strategic decision and a smart individual survival tactic (yes, suggested to her by a man, but so what?), but it was also an avoidance tactic. I saw her as rejecting the game itself and the violence and competition that most of the rest of the group embraced. She distanced herself from it and refused to play. As often happens in real life, she’s punished by ‘the system’ (with fireballs and other manufactured obstacles) to force her back into the game. (Notably it’s another smart and creative woman who creates the situations that force Katniss back into the game. And yes, most of these situations are in the hands of men and being directed by men, but that’s kind of how the real world works these days and has for centuries, isn’t it?)

Katniss opened herself up to alliances with other players in the game. She did this not to aggressively kill as some of the other youth who formed alliances did, but rather for mutual support and patient survival. The last thing ‘the system’ wants is people organizing and supporting each other to reject it, it prefers to pit people against each other, to foster mistrust. Katniss didn’t engage with others in that way. She opened up to Rue on the basis of trust. We see her flipping back and forth with regard to Peeta and it’s fairly obvious that she is feigning a storybook lovestory to the mass media and outside world in order to survive and game the system by momentarily giving it what it wants, yet also forming an underlying friendship with Peeta based on trust. (NB: I was reminded of People Magazine covers and survival tactics of stars whose fame is ebbing – give the public what they want. I’m also aware that mainstream media has hyped up and sexified the actress who played Katniss. I haven’t been following the Hunger Games collateral but I’ll assume we have happy meals and clothing and other such crap… and there is the ridiculousness of this… which kind of proves my point about the world we actually live in and the evil systems we can’t get away from…)

Early in the movie it was clear that Katniss hadn’t bought into the Hunger Games. She wasn’t friendly or likeable. She’s living in a man’s world and the women in that world are relegated to roles of fashion, emotional overreactions, false statements and bad make up. The men are evil manipulating power seekers in most cases. People are pitted against each other. It’s dog-eat-dog.

But it seemed to me that Katniss, as a smart young woman, recognized all of this. She didn’t want to play the game but understood that to survive and keep the values and goals that she had in life — her love for her sister and her own survival — she needed to appear to be playing by the rules of the Game. My sense throughout the film is that she does so with a clear understanding of what she is doing, and she has not sold out, she’s kept true to herself. That is real agency and internal strength. She refuses to kill, perhaps a harder thing than joining into the violent game young people are forced to engage in. She shows us that we can reject that world and that system we don’t wish to belong to. We can find like-minded people and together move, struggle and survive within the mainstream systems that are destroying us as a whole and, one hopes, eventually change or topple them. Sometimes we can even game those systems using guerrilla tactics because the systems do not expect us to maintain our values, ethics and solidarity, because those running them think we are not smart or strong enough to overcome, or because the systems don’t understand us or our way of thinking.

At a personal level, I related to Katniss. I often feel trapped in systems whose values I don’t share and whose games I don’t want to play. I prefer to reject these systems and play by my own rules when possible. When I get tired enough of fighting, or I know I simply can’t win because the system is too big, I’ll bypass it, ignore it, avoid it as much as possible, and do my own thing, or just curl up mentally into a fetal position and let it kick me, knowing inside that it may think it has won, but it hasn’t because I’ve held to my values and been true to myself, and once I’ve regrouped, and when it’s least expected, I’ll be back, hopefully with some other like-minded people.

We all take something different from books and films. We bring their messages into our own experiences. I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency, I saw her as living out the struggle that many of us do and making choices I could relate to within the limited space that was available to her.

I’m *not* down with SOPA

Many websites are blacked out today to protest the ridiculous and corporate-backed proposed U.S. legislation that threatens internet freedom: the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).  I used the WordPress auto blackout but it doesn’t seem to be working. In any case….

Help stop this legislation from being passed.


Still not convinced? Think about this:

Seriously. SOPA/PIPA will make people even dumber than they are now. I don’t know about you, but I might just stab my eyes out with a spork if that happens.

Learn more and contact the US Congress now.

More ‘hardcore’ journalism

This post really set me off yesterday.

@Graham_Bowley of @NYTimes Gets His Story. I Want to Throw Up.

Read it.

People are not props. This whole ‘being a journalist in a difficult place’ is not an excuse to ignore the fact that people, even poor people, yes, even poor people living in difficult places under difficult circumstances or in situations that a journalist finds atrocious, are human, with emotions and feelings and rights. And one of those rights is the right to privacy.

What gives a journalist the excuse to further violate the rights of someone who has already been through some kind of abuse or tragedy?

Individuals, especially children, especially especially children, especially especially especially children who have been through horrific experiences, are not objects or props to be insensitively identified, photographed, used and showcased for the glory of a journalist’s hot and hardcore career.

Did it ever occur to Graham Bowley that people may have been trying to protect the girl that he wanted so badly to get to so he could write his story? Did it ever occur to him that her life and her recovery were more important than his story?

It’s not up to a journalist to decide that the story of someone who survived something terrible should be used as an example for the world. It’s up to the individual to make that decision. And guess what? A person who has just suffered something horrific is often not in the best condition to make an informed decision. Especially if that person is a child.

It’s one thing if a person makes a conscious and willing choice to become a symbol or a spokesperson. It’s entirely another thing if someone else decides that a person who survived something terrible should be a symbol or spokesperson about an issue, without the agreement or informed consent of that person.

Can we show a little respect, please?

HT @elsnarkistani who Storified the whole case here.

Update: If you want to do more than be pissed off about this, Wronging Rights has more on child rights, working with trauma survivors, and a cut and paste letter you can send over to the New York Times Public Editor to let them know how you feel.

Love the way you lie

I’m pleased to feature the fabulous “J,” (retired formerly of Tales from the Hood blogger blog) guest posting here on Shotgun Shack….

I used to think it was up to INGOs to voluntarily be more truthful and accurate in their marketing, more forthcoming with information about program challenges and even failures, and less prone to simplistic, dumbed-down public messaging. It used to really annoy me every time a marketer would go on about how if we don’t “hook” the donor in the first 15 seconds we lose them, or how donors don’t want to hear that aid is complex and difficult, that aid successes are nowhere near as cut-and-dried as our glossy direct mail and interactive websites make it all seem.

But now, I dunno.

Maybe I’m just jaded. Or cynical. But I seriously doubt that the aid industry is going to voluntarily make fundamental changes to the way it talks about what it does. I hate to say it, but I’m starting to think that maybe this kind of change will have to be driven by donors themselves.

* * * * *

Eminem’s controversial 2010 duet with Rihanna, and even more controversial music video captures a theme with which many of us are familiar: the smart, beautiful woman who, against all apparent logic, just cannot bring herself to walk away from an abusive, violent, perhaps deadbeat partner.

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

Well that’s alright because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

Well that’s alright because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

* * * * *

Throughout my own career in the aid industry, it has on many occasions been my job to take private donors to the field, either to see projects that they’d already supported or projects that my employer of the day hoped they would support. In every instance, without exception, I found myself in the field with people who had been mis-educated about relief and development work by marketers. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed removing the wool from their eyes, in some cases forcibly. I held back nothing about the context, likely impact, sustainability prospects, complexity, difficulty, and so on. I did my best to make sure that they had as clear and complete a picture of what was going on — the good, the bad and the ugly — as possible. In every case their time at the project site with me showed them a picture that contrasted starkly with what they’d been led to believe about how their money made or would make a difference. In some cases they were shocked to learn what we actually did with their money.

But in no instance, ever, did any one of them say, “I think you guys are a bunch of crooks. I’ll be donating elsewhere after this…”, or “This development thing is a lot of bullsh!t. I’m done as a donor.”

* * * * *

I’m not calling anyone person a liar. Not NGO marketing or comms or PR people. I think that the instances in which NGOs tell outright untruths are extremely rare. But I absolutely believe that the gravitational pull of the aid industry is towards painting a picture for its donors of what it does that is un-nuanced and incomplete enough to be untrue. And we continue to paint this picture because our private donors continue to insist on it.

Donors: you have the power to make this better. You have the power to insist that we tell you what we’re really doing. Based on my own experience, I believe that if we get the chance to tell you, you’ll still support us because good aid makes good sense and you’re smart people. But you seem to be addicted to a fake version. I don’t know why, but you love the way we lie.

The Clanging Chimes of Doom – Bandaid Remade and Remixed

Reposting to get you in the holiday spirit…. The original post appeared on Nov 20, 2010…. Enjoy! 🙂

This is perhaps one of the most impactful and damaging songs in history. I heard it on the radio today and got pissed off like I do every time I hear it.

Apparently the image of Africa and Africans hasn’t changed much since 1984. Twenty years later comes Band Aid 2 — because every multi-celebrity charity pity song needs a remake…. Love the intro sound of a crying starving child and the astonished yet highly concerned British commentator.

I don’t even know where to start on the stereotypes and disservice that this song (and similar charity marketing and sensationalist journalism) has done to the image of Africa (the Continent) and Africans themselves. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in African countries and I could post photo after photo of rivers and rain there. And things growing.  I never heard any clanging chimes of doom while there. There are lots of people who are not looking out their windows onto “a world of dread and fear”. Many of my African friends won’t celebrate Christmas because they are Muslim, not because they are starving to death. And many others will celebrate Christmas, but not American or Euro style. Not everyone is sitting underneath the burning sun. Africa is not a giant desert. Can we please not show famine in Ethiopia and pretend it’s representative of the entire continent? There won’t be snow in Africa? So what? Gahhhhh!

Luckily there is the glory of social media to take the edge off the fury…. If you don’t like the original version, there are plenty of re-makes to be found on YouTube. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Here is a selection of the, uh, finest. You be the judge on whether these are worse than the original…. Taking votes in the comments section.

Feed the World with Friends (I wish this were a joke) Version. Wow. Just wow. E for effort. C for caring. D for Do Gooders. But the singing makes me doubt the potential for quality in anything crowdsourced.

Bad 1980s Sponsorship Organization Commercial Photo Montage Version. The original didn’t have enough pictures of crying children and flies in the eyes so this kind person overlaid some of the best of the worst charity photos on to the video to encourage us to care.  (Commenter: So, there won’t be snow in Africa this year? And you say the only gift they’ll get is the gift of life? So, no shoveling, and no commercial holidays? Sign me up.)

Singing Cartoon Turkeys Version (aka PETA Version?)

Dance Aid – Do they know it’s Christmas (Rave Mix) Instrumental so you can dance at your Christmas Rave without feeling guilty because of the lyrics.

Winnipeg Tea Party Version? “Dedicated to the poor children of Winnipeg School Division 1. Children whose childhood is less happy because schools run by tyrants will not say the word Christmas….  Christmas… A holiday so terrible according to commies that it can’t be named….” Special appearance poster by the Folsom Street Fair (the grand daddy of all gay male leather events) whose attendees “mock your religion while demanding that you get rid of the word Christmas…” ends with “glad this baby (Jesus) wasn’t aborted… stop the ACLU”.

2006 College Version complete with a lot of bare midriffs and self absorbed cleavage and blowing hair and dramatic effects which turn into…. a drink infested Christmas party… which ends up in a teenage mums against war protest slash terror attack… and ends with… um. Well if you make it through to the end maybe you can tell me what the point was?

Chris Brown feat. T-Pain laid over Karaoke Instrumental Version (?!?!)  I’m still not sure which lyrics are more awful — these or the original…. this is as bad, maybe worse, than the homemade versions– hard to make it through til the end.

High School Christmas Concert Version with uh high quality filming. (comments section: 3 letters is all this will take. OMG. And 2 words: bloody awful)

1985 High School Talent Show Version. Has that Risky Business feel to it. As a child of the 1980s I’m digging the outfits:

Canadian Version with lots of Tim Horton promos in the background…. “In 1984 the top recording artists across Canada gathered to raise money from the famine in Africa… when the public viewed Canada’s version, the world decided it was best for Canada to just make a fincial (sic) donation instead.”

Hipsters in a Mansion Version (TV Allstars) (“Bless ’em, they seem to think the clanging chimes of doom are something to be cheery about.”)

People in a Toystore with Tambourine and Ukelele Version? Commenter: “Sick! Sick and WRONG! I LOVE IT! My favorite lines: “There won’t be snow in Africa this christmas” (nor in LA, nor Hawaii…???) and “Thank God it’s THEM instead of You” ??? and “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun” – the stupidest lyrics ever !! YOU GUYS ROCK”

Status Quo Video Vault Version (anyone else love and remember The Young Ones? “All the homos in the place goin’ mental now….” “HomeOwners you mean, don’t you….”)

The Clanging Chimes of Doom are Back and Better than Ever Version. Voice and video don’t sync. There’s a dude singing in a shower. There’s a fake adopted black baby. Make it stop.

I’m happy that at least some musicians in the 80s were on the ball.  High 5 to Chumbawamba.

Feed the WorldPictures of Starving People“In 1986, the anarchist band Chumbawamba released the album Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, as well as an EP entitled “We Are the World”, jointly recorded with US band A State of Mind, both of which were intended as anti-capitalist critiques of the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon. They argued that the record was primarily a cosmetic spectacle, designed to draw attention away from the real political causes of world hunger.”


Update Nov 29, 2010: And hey, it seems like Bob Geldof would totally agree with me on this post! I’m starting to gain a little respect for him. According to this Nov 29, 2010, article in the Daily Mail. Geldof, who penned the song 26 years ago together with Midge Ure, says: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the other one is We Are The World. Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every ****ing Christmas….” The former Boomtown Rats frontman, 59, added: “Sometimes I think that’s wild because I wrote it. Or else I am thinking how much I want them to stop because they are doing it really badly.”

Black Friday

I’d like to design a new snow globe to represent the US holiday season. Instead of the nice calm winter landscape, I’d put a scene from Black Friday inside.
Investopedia explains in their What is Black Friday post that

Black Friday is a popular label attached to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day in the US. This day marks the beginning of the busy shopping season during which most consumers typically start their Christmas/holiday shopping.  

…The use of black in this case alludes to profitability, which is traditionally noted in black ink (losses are noted in red). Traditionally, brick-and-mortar retailers see a surge in retail sales on this day as a result of the holiday shopping, putting their books “in the black”. 

Doorcrashers, special deals and heavy discounts on the most highly sought after holiday gifts are often offered by retailers in order to lure consumers into their stores in the hope that they will purchase other, higher margin goods. Some bargain hunting consumers have even been known to camp out overnight in order to secure a place in line at a favorite store. The contents of Black Friday advertisements are often so highly anticipated that retailers go to great lengths to ensure that they are not leaked out to the public beforehand.”


But Black Friday is more than that if you unpack it a bit.

Camping out overnight in order to buy something non-essential? Wow. But wait, there’s more. Check out The Ultimate Collection of Black Friday Fight Videos.

But what is the tone and the intent of this ultimate video collection effort? Like a day time talk show, the videos provide a platform to scorn and judge the idiots mobbing, scrambling and fighting for the latest Twilight videos or screaming at each other over who cut in line at Walmart. You get to feel really superior after just a few seconds of this. What dumbasses, you think. WTF? Glad that’s not me.

You might also start to feel disgusted, terribly sad and confused that this is what it’s come to. This is the epitome of current US culture. This is where all that “American greatness” has led. This is what Americans are supposed to do to “improve the economy.” And this is the path of “development” that the rest of the world is supposed to be emulating.

After watching a few of the ridiculous videos, you might start reading the comments below and feel disgusted by the tone and slurs of the commenters. Yay. More “American greatness” to emulate. The comments might make you feel somehow uncomfortable about your own reactions to the videos. Are you no better than the commenters? It’s complicated.

The Occupy Movement has its own event called Occupy Black Friday, formerly referred to as Buy Nothing Day. It encourages people to avoid retailers and buy local.

It reminds me of an article I read last year called What Food Says about Class in America.

In the article, Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington who “has spent his career showing that Americans’ food choices correlate to social class…argues that the most nutritious diet—lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, and grains—is beyond the reach of the poorest Americans, and it is economic elitism for nutritionists to uphold it as an ideal without broadly addressing issues of affordability. Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.” He points to an article in The New York Times, written by Pollan, which describes a meal element by element, including “a basket of morels and porcini gathered near Mount Shasta.” “Pollan,” writes Drewnowski, “is drawing a picture of class privilege that is as acute as anything written by Edith Wharton or Henry James.”

There is certainly a difference between cheap food and cheap non-essential consumer items, but there’s also a correlation.

What does Black Friday (and its related elements) Say about Class in America?


I dreamed last night that I was at a conference, presenting on a project. During the questions session, a woman stood up and recited a cryptic poem. The room waited for the punch line.

Here’s my point, the woman said, walking to the front of the room and writing on a chalkboard that had somehow appeared behind me. The arrogance of your approach cancels out the validity of your results. I was mortified.

Opening my email after waking from the dream, I found the continuation of a conversation I’d been having with N. Earlier in the month he had sent over a link to a blog post that included a reference to Ross Coggins’ poem The Development Set.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with open mouth.

Read the whole poem if you haven’t yet. Realize it’s written in 1976, ask if anything has changed, and feel yourself get uncomfortable.

The poem is referred to in ‘ post* titled And then the dessert arrived: global health dichotomies, where Srinivas reflects on the official dinner at the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research organized at the Montreux Casino. The post made the rounds earlier this year.

A photo of the dying TB patient formed the background for 20 minutes of a talk on “Why Health Systems Fail” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, to an audience obviously more interested in the wining and dining and, of course, the party that followed.

N. and I wondered in our email exchange if it is possible to opt out of these kinds of fancy conferences yet still remain in this line of work. Is there a middle ground? Or do you have to 1) swallow the dichotomies without flinching if you want to work in ‘development;’ 2) fully opt out of the system and create something new based on different values or 3) just get out of ‘development’ entirely and do something totally different? A classic dilemma on whether you can make change from within or without or even at all. Obviously it applies to many other fields aside from development work.

Is it important for personal and professional spheres to be consistent in the field of development work? N. notes “We typically excuse discrepancies in the US, well-paid aid “CEOs”, personally wasteful environment advocates, etc not seeing the former as appropriate domain for evaluating someone. But that’s silly, of course they are inevitably related.”

Was the woman in my dream right? Does the arrogance of the approach cancel out the validity of the results? At what point do you opt out entirely? Should you expect someone working in ‘development’ to hold a certain set of values and does that make their work more valid and successful in the long term? Or do the short-term results of ‘development projects’ make the processes and means of getting there unimportant?

What would happen if ‘austerity measures’ and ‘cutbacks’ were applied at the top? (er, hello #occupydevelopment?)

*Original article written along with Meena Daivadanam, Kristof Decoster and Asmat Malik appeared on Health Affairs Blog on February 9, 2011

Aid: love it or leave it?

Aid - love it or leave it? (Photo taken from - use of photo is not an endorsement of the band/message/song)

Last week, Tom Paulson guest posted for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL). He didn’t realize he was guest posting, because he wrote the post for Humanosphere, but his post could easily be re-written as SEAWL “#75: Self-Loathing”.

In his post, Paulson identifies ‘A serious problem of self-loathing within the aid and development community’ along with ‘pathological self-deprecation’ and a tendency towards ‘nose-cutting and face-spiting’ (not necessarily in that order).

He uses 2 posts to illustrate his point.

1) Aid Cannot and Will Not Fix Anything by Tales from the Hood, and

2) It’s a Better Life Without Oxfam: the video, which Duncan Green (Oxfam GB’s head of research) blogged about and View from the Cave re-blogged.

Paulson writes that ‘Given the level of ignorance and even hostility that exists in this country toward spending much on foreign aid and development, I think the main challenge for this [the aid] community is make the case for the value of aid and international development. Saying “aid cannot and will not fix anything” is a dangerous soundbite in this political and cultural environment, I think.’

I kind of see his point, and I like Paulson’s writing in general, but this question reminds me a bit of the old “USA Love It or Leave It” mantra.

Most anyone who works in the aid sector knows that aid has serious problems. Some say it’s irreparably broken and move on to a different career or start their own initiative that they think will get beyond the problems of ‘aid’. The general public knows that there are problems in the aid sector as well. It’s a bit hard to hide. And anyway, part of the problem with aid is that for years, its marketers and promoters have been promising something that aid can’t deliver and creating a skewed vision of the world.

I suspect that those who stick around in the aid sector 1) believe aid does some good and that it can be fixed (see many of Owen Barder’s posts), 2) labor on seeing the small bits of good that they or their team or their project or program can accomplish within a system they know is broken (see Spitting into the Wind), 3) are motivated by their paycheck (see Hardship Living) or other perks (like feeling hardcore) or 4) some combination of the above.

Aid is no different from any other large system or industry. It shouldn’t be held as sacred and beyond critique, including by those who know it well and can identify the fine points and details of what is wrong, and perhaps especially by them.

Would Paulson say that we shouldn’t criticize our political or religious systems because it might put people off? Or that we are self-loathing if we talk about what ails those systems and needs to be fixed?

What’s hardcore?

As an expat aid worker (or journalist) you do a lot of talking and writing about how hardcore things are in the place where you are living, working or visiting.

You do this to get people out of their bubbles. You want them to know what is going on. To see what you are seeing and experiencing. To care. To react.

You feel the need to wake people up. To say to them: ‘You have no idea how hardcore it is here. You have no idea what people are going through!’

But sometimes you lose the plot and your narcissism kicks in. You totally change the nature of the story to: ‘You have no idea how hardcore I am because I’m living, working or visiting this place where people are going through terrible things.’

It becomes a contest of who’s the most hardcore.

Because that’s what this is all about anyway, right? You being hardcore?


July 10, 2011 update: This post was sparked by the 2 links below and related discussions on blogs and Twitter but I was unsure about saying so at the time.–researchers-respond-to-haiti-ptsd-article/

Then this morning I read this piece:

And right after that, I read this (including the first comments):

which refers to live-tweeting the visit of a rape victim to the doctor (something that really made me angry at the time):

And so yes, this post was dedicated to Mac, in case it wasn’t clear before.