Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two weeks

Only two weeks left of language training!  And then, if I pass my exam (inshallah, knock on wood!) the countdown begins for moving to Nairobi.  Although I'm not exactly sure how long the countdown will be, and if it will be left up to me or if a date will be imposed on me by the Powers That Be.  Also I still have no idea what I will be doing in the month (or two?) between the end of language training and time to move.  I need to spend it doing a "rotation" in one of the offices at USAID, but I haven't gotten anything organized yet.  So knock on wood for figuring that out too.

In other news, it was getting really nice and warm last week, and I was starting to hope that spring would come early (it may be that I am not entirely opposed to this whole climate change thing), but then Friday it got super cold again and yesterday it snowed.  Poo.  I am really hoping I get to see the cherry blossoms before I leave DC again...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

New accusations of murder at Guantanamo

Why aren't we talking about the new accusations of murder at Gitmo? - By Dahlia Lithwick - Slate Magazine

The author thinks the mainstream media is ignoring new accusations of murder of Gitmo detainees by soldiers because we're tired of this whole "torture problem" and just want it to go away. And it's true - I'm tired of hearing about our troops torturing and doing other bad things, because I don't want to think that that's the kind of country I belong to. But if it is the kind of country I belong to, then I want to face it, deal with it, and make it stop. So here is my little bit of "doing something" - if the major media is ignoring it, then I'll post it on my blog.

MSNBC: Disaster do-gooders can actually hinder help - Haiti earthquake-

From, by JoNel Aleccia: "More than a week after a magnitude-7 earthquake devastated the country, disaster organizers say they’re seeing the first signs of a problem that can hinder even the most ambitious recovery efforts: good intentions gone wrong.

From volunteer medical teams who show up uninvited, to stateside donors who ship boxes of unusable household goods, misdirected compassion can actually tax scarce resources, costing time, money, energy — and lives, experts say."

Those best suited to help are probably already there, experts said. They’re trained crews who not only have experience working in disasters, but also in developing nations, Kirsch said. The best teams also have a command of Haitian Creole and French, if possible.

When teams arrive without those skills and without their own supplies, they drain resources that could better be used for actual victims, said Dr. Kristi L. Koenig, an emergency physician at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in disaster response.

“Unless you’re part of a team before the disaster happens with a formal mission, you’re going to be part of the problem,” she said.

Even worse, certain volunteers have required emergency intervention themselves, Kirsch noted.

A different but equally pressing problem is the flood of ill-advised donations that aid agencies already are facing, organizers.

“I would strongly recommend that no donation drives be conducted unless there’s an existing organization on the ground, in Haiti, that has asked for the help,” Rothe-Smith, executive director of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition of agencies, said. “It does pile up very quickly.” Donations of old clothes, canned goods, water and outdated prescriptions are accumulating. While such items sound useful, they’re actually expensive to sort, to transport and to distribute, she said. Cast-off drugs can be dangerous.

Oftentimes, the household items donated are simply not useful to the disaster victims they’re intended to help.

“I guarantee you someone is going to send a winter coat or high-heeled shoes,” Brooks said.

In fact, after the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, aid organizers in Sri Lanka were forced to deal with donations of stiletto shoes, expired cans of salmon, evening gowns and even thong panties, according to news reports. In Florida, a truckload of mink coats showed up during the 2004 hurricane season, Rothe-Smith said, a likely tax write-off for a retailer having trouble pushing furs.

The compassion behind some donations is understandable — and laudable, she added. People see dire images on television or in news reports and they want to help. “It seems to make logical sense to go through your own cupboard and gather those items,” Rothe-Smith said.

The reality, however, is that inappropriate donations actually do more harm than good. “If you buy a can of peas and it costs 59 cents, it’ll cost about $80 to get it where it needs to go,” Rothe-Smith said.

Many agencies try to motivate donors with the mathematics of the situation. Jeff Nene, a spokesman for Convoy of Hope, a Springfield, Mo., agency that feeds 11,000 children a day in Haiti, urges cash donations that allow his group to buy in bulk from large suppliers and retailers.

“When people give $1, it translates into $7 in the field,” he said. “If they spend $5 for bottled water, that’s nice and it makes them feel good, but probably it costs us more than $5 to send it. If they give us $5, we can get $35 worth of water.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by virtually every aid agency. “I would really say at this point, honestly, right now, money is the best thing to give,” Rothe-Smith said.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Donating to disaster relief? Cash is best!

I should have written about this a long time ago, but it's a complicated subject, and I kept putting it off.  Now I am taking the lazy way out, and copying from the Center for International Disaster Information website (

Why cash donations are best for responding to an emergency:

The professional relief agencies use monetary contributions to purchase exactly and specifically what the victims need.  Staff for the organizations work directly with the victims at the disaster site and are in the best position to know not only what is immediately needed, but also when it is needed and where it is most needed.  In addition the experience of the relief workers enables conversion of cash donations into items that withstand cultural and religious sensitivities, as well as environmental issues.
Money is easy to transport.  Moving a container of commodities can incur costs in excess of the value of the items.  Getting a donated commodity into containers and onto a ship, across the sea to the disaster site, through the port costs and the customs' tariffs, quality checked, quantity checked and sorted, and organized into warehouses, requires payment at each step.  Invariably, there are basic needs materials close at hand to a disaster site and purchasing locally provides savings in many ways.

Money used to purchase available items local to the disaster has a double benefit.  First, it provides an infusion of cash which supports the economy at a time when it may be reeling from the effects of the disaster.  It assists in providing confidence and a sense of normalcy as shops and services recover.  Secondly, a container load of commodities placed freely for the use of victims has the negative impact of competing with the recovering, local markets.
A couple of examples to try to make this absolutely clear:

People often like to donate used clothing and packaged foods, like, say, canned vegetables.  They figure that they're not wearing the clothes anymore because they're out of style, or don't fit anymore, or whatever, but they're still perfectly good and some poor or disaster-struck person will be happy to have a decent outfit to wear.  And who can go wrong with canned vegetables? They're nutritious and they stay good forever.  Right?

There is nothing wrong with this logic, and I do not at all criticize those who attempt to help out in this way.  The problem is in what happens next, which an average citizen generally doesn't realize (except now you're reading my blog, so now you know!).

So imagine you have a clothing drive, and you get lots of perfectly good clothes, for men, women, boys, girls, babies... and all in different styles and sizes.  Now those clothes have to get to the people who need them - let's say, people in Haiti who have lost their homes and their possessions, including their wardrobes.  So those clothes have to be put onto a boat or a plane and transported over there.  The problem is that the cost of shipping those clothes is often more expensive than it would have been to buy the same amount of brand-new clothes in Haiti (or if they're not available in Haiti, in neighboring Dominican Republic).  So it would have been a lot better use of the money that paid for the shipping to just buy brand-new clothes locally, and then maybe you would have been able to afford more clothes overall.

Okay, now let's imagine that the area is just so devastated that clothes just aren't available locally, or that shipping is super cheap, so the previous scenario doesn't apply.  So it still seems to make sense to send a boat-load of clothes over.  So you send your boat-load of clothes, but (just like in Haiti now) the port and airport are damaged, and so only a few boats can be in port at one time.  So your boat gets in line, and eventually it gets its turn at the port to unload all these clothes.  Meanwhile, the boat full of much higher-priority medicine and food is having to wait out in the ocean for your boat to get done unloading and get out of the way.  If you had just sent money, it would be easier for the aidworkers to figure out what people's needs are and to prioritize those needs, to get the medicine and food and water, and then to get the clothes after that.

Okay, so now your boatload of clothes has arrived and been taken to a warehouse.  Now how to get those clothes to the people who need them?  Remember, it's a big assortment - all different sizes, men's and women's, shirts and pants all mixed together.  So do you just let people into the warehouse for a free-for-all, where they have to spend lots of time sifting through the clothes to try to find something in the right size?  Or maybe there are so many people coming in looking for clothes that everyone just starts grabbing whatever they can get their hands on, to make sure that they at least end up with something.  And then people end up with clothes that aren't what they needed at all.  Or people start fighting over the clothes and then you have a riot.  Not ideal.

Now let's talk about the packaged foods.  There are the same problems with the cost of shipping often being more than it would cost to buy food locally, and the same problems of distribution - if it's a big assortment from a canned food drive, people won't be happy if they don't each end up with the same food.  There are also cultural appropriateness problems - packaged foods that require a microwave or an oven sent to an area where people are cooking over open fires are just going to be wasted.  Same for spaghetti sent to a place where people are used to eating rice and don't know what spaghetti is or how to cook it.  And canned food when people don't have can-openers?  Not handy.

You might think that if someone is hungry enough, they'll be glad to get whatever they can, and that may be true.  But making sure that disaster-affected people receive culturally appropriate food helps to show that we respect them and think that they should be treated just as we would want to be treated if we were in their situation.  If I were in a disaster and pretty desperate, I might be willing to wear an ugly, frilly pink 1980s prom dress and maybe even to eat rat meat, but I would definitely feel more like a normal human being with dignity if you gave me a T-shirt and jeans to wear and a hamburger to eat.  And I would like you better for making the effort to give me things that I would feel comfortable with rather than just whatever you happened to have lying around and didn't want anymore.

One last point: buying stuff locally, in disasters as in normal life, helps keep the economy going.  If there are still local warehouses and stores full of food and clothing after a disaster, buying from them instead of shipping stuff from the U.S. or somewhere else helps them stay in business.  Which means the businesses can continue to employ people and pay their salaries, they can continue to pay taxes which the government can use to rebuild the country, and as people recover from the disaster and are able to buy things again, they will still have local stores to buy from... All of which helps people and the country to rebuild and get back to normal after a disaster.

So hopefully I have convinced you: if you want to donate to disaster relief, cash is best!  It is the most efficient way to get people what they need, with no money wasted on unnecessary shipping costs or unnecessary stuff that people can't use.

Click here for a list of InterAction member organizations responding to the earthquake in Haiti (in case you're feeling inclined to donate).  And no, for all you cynics out there (I would normally be one of them), I don't make any money if you click on the link.  However, I will give the disclaimer that I used to work at InterAction and may be a little biased in their favor.  But if anything, that should make you feel better about them, because I know the inner workings and have no incentive, financial or otherwise, to recommend them if I didn't believe it.  So hopefully I can say with a fair amount of credibility that I think InterAction's members are good organizations that do the best they can with the donations they receive from the American public.  Also, to become a member of InterAction they have to meet all kinds of standards, including on how they spend their money.  So if you feel like donating and don't already have a preference, I think they're a good option, although I'm sure there are lots of other organizations who would also be good choices.

Sweet Sallie's

Another coffeeshop in my hometown.  This one's new, so I haven't been here before.  My dad recommended it, and I am exiled from our house this morning while it's being cleaned, so I thought it would be a good time to come and check it out.  I'm supposed to be studying French while I'm here, but so far I've managed to avoid it by reading the news and sending emails.

Dolce Cafe

One of the coffeeshops in my hometown.  My dad calls the decoration style "Cookeville Chic".

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Flying safe

Friday night, just before I was supposed to fly home to TN for vacation with my family, I had a dream about my plane crashing.  Not a good omen.  Although what I was really more concerned about was that there would be a lot more airport security since the underwear bomber incident, and flying would be even more of a hassle than usual.

But, I am happy (?) to report, absolutely nothing was different security-wise (that I could tell), flying from Baltimore to Nashville.  Also my plane did not crash.  Guess I'll have to rule "Psychic" out of my possible career alternatives, in case I ever get tired of aid work.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Busy busy... or should I say, "tres, tres occupee"?

So I guess it's been a really long time since I posted anything.  But don't worry, that doesn't mean you've been missing out on hearing about all the fun and excitement and adventures in my life.  It means that my fun and excitement and adventures have been very limited because I've been so busy studying French.  Six hours a day, five days a week, it's just me and my French tutor (a woman from Cameroon who is a great teacher and who I'm very happy with).  And then I go home and do homework for another two or three hours.  (Except lately, because I'm feeling burned out - did I mention I only got Christmas day off for holiday vacation? - so I haven't been doing much studying after class, but paradoxically it seems to be paying off because after a whole weekend of not doing any French at all, I was absolutely on fire in class today.)

Anyway, so I think I've made my point.  My life revolves around French.