“There’s no such thing as a natural disaster”

Scholars have been using this frame for years to critique how the term ‘natural’ effaces the power inequalities that disasters both expose and exacerbate in society.  Here’s environmental geographer Neil Smith of CUNY on how his field approaches the idea:

It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.

Smith was writing about Hurricane Katrina in that post (which was originally published in the Social Science Research Council’s Understanding Katrina forum).

The same idea was explored in Gregory’s Squires’ There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, a 2006 collection which argues that “the impact of the hurricane was uneven, and race and class were deeply implicated in the unevenness.”

So this frame has been well-established around critical explorations of Katrina, race and economics. But last week was the first time I’ve heard it applied,

  1. in a completely mainstream, non-academic setting,
  2. in the context of human-made global warming, and
  3. linked specifically to the economic globalization.

The source?  Badass Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Sano, throwing down at the opening gathering of the UN climate summit in Warsaw in the devastating aftermath of Typhoon Haidan: “We must stop calling events like these as natural disasters. […] It is not natural when science already tells us that global warming will induce more intense storms. It is not natural when the human species has already profoundly changed the climate.

Disasters are never natural. They are the intersection of factors other than physical. They are the accumulation of the constant breach of economic, social, and environmental thresholds. Most of the time disasters [are] a result of inequity and the poorest people of the world are at greatest risk because of their vulnerability and decades of maldevelopment, which I must assert is connected to the kind of pursuit of economic growth that dominates the world; the same kind of pursuit of so-called economic growth and unsustainable consumption that has altered the climate system.

Bracing stuff. You can read the entire statement here. H/T to Matt Thompson for the original quote.

“Worse than smoking”

Have you noticed the growing list of things that are worse for us than smoking?

Some make intuitive sense, like obesity.  That’s been linked to “a big increase in chronic health conditions and significantly higher health expenditures [than smoking, heavy drinking, or poverty].”

Drinking excessive amounts of soda might also be worse for you than smoking — but that claim is more of a doctor’s thought exercise than a real scientific study.

Is eating eggs worse than smoking?  That one’s a headline-grabber but based on shaky science: a study that showed correlation, not causation, between egg consumption and subjects’ levels of carotid plaque, and didn’t control for the rest of their diets or how much they exercised.

So participants might have had plaque around their heart because they ate eggs — or because they also ate fast food every day and never exercised, for example.

I’m not obese, don’t drink much soda, and am not too worried about the egg thing.  But I was gutted by three relatively new “worse-than-smoking” claims that cut straight to the heart of our western culture of individualism and overwork.

It turns out sitting all day, job burnout, and loneliness may all be worse for us than smoking.

Today Gawker reported the story of a 24-year-old Ogilvy & Mather employee who dropped dead suddenly of a massive heart attack in the ad agency’s Beijing offices after working extremely long hours for an entire month.

In March, an Israeli study found a strong link between levels of job burnout and coronary heart disease.  From MSN Money:

“Those who were identified as being in the top 20% of the burnout scale were found to have a 79% increased risk of coronary disease,” a press release by Tel Aviv University said.

One of the study’s lead researchers, Dr. Sharon Toker, called the findings alarming, adding they were “more extreme than the researchers had expected — and make burnout a stronger predictor of CHD than many other classical risk factors, including smoking, blood lipid levels and physical activity.”

Toker also warned that job burnout can create a downward health spiral and develop into a chronic condition.

“Sitting is killing you”

A few months ago, the scary infographic Sitting is Killing You made the social media rounds, leading to an upsurge of standing desk sales (including my own) among panicked office-dwellers.

It turns out the 9+ hrs a day most of us spend sitting at desks and on couches is making us fat, ill, and groggy, with every seated hour reducing our life expectancy, you guessed it, more than smoking does.  And going to the gym at the end of a day of sitting only lessens, but doesn’t undo the damage.

Lethal Loneliness

And this week comes a wrenching report from the New Republic Magazine: The Lethality of Loneliness: we now know how it can ravage our body and brain 

Loneliness, it turns out, “not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.” From the NR:

A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

This is not a small problem.  According to the New Republic, as many as 30% of Americans “don’t feel close to people at a given time,”, and more than one out of three adults 45 and over “reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time).”

Who are the lonely? They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different. Surveys confirm that people who feel discriminated against are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t, even when they don’t fall into the categories above. Women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women). African Americans are lonelier than whites (though single African American women are less lonely than Hispanic and white women). The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.

A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part.

If these studies are true, the implications are brutal: basically, our culture is killing us. 

It’s impossible to check your income out on the Global Rich List and see how absurdly wealthy most of us are compared to the rest of the world, and not wonder: am I as healthy and happy as this incredible (and incredibly unfair) opportunity allows me to be?

We need to spend less time staring at screens, and more time connecting with and being kind to one another.  Preferably out of doors.

In that spirit, I’m going to head outside for a walk with a friend.  And maybe a smoke.

Santa Teresa, Costa Rica: Travel Tips

La Playa Santa Teresa

Matt Thompson and I are back in Toronto after a fabulous two-month work and life retreat in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Wanted to share the best insider tips we wished we had known before the trip, for anyone else who’s thinking about traveling to this lovely part of the world.

Google doesn’t know all.

TripAdvisor remains a great resource to get the high-level lay of the land, but most of the best stuff and services in Santa Teresa can’t be found by searching online.

We wasted hours trying to figure out where to buy bikes at the start of our trip, who gave the best massage in town, and how to find a good local chiropractor. We found all those answers and more through a mix of personal recommendations, and the single most useful online resource we found during our trip: the Mal Pais and Santa Teresa Buy and Sell Facebook page.

On it, we sold two bikes within 48 hours, booked the best massage I had in our two months, read a fascinating debate about whether paving the Santa Teresa road would kill or save the community, and found a bunch of great house rentals for half the price of what we were spending.

How to stay at a resort for $15

StefanoFlor Blanca is the most expensive and exclusive resort in town. We started visiting it because it also has the best yoga classes in town, helmed by master teacher Stefano, and once we were there for a few hours … we didn’t want to leave. Matt and I eventually figured out one of the best life-hacks of our trip, which was how to feel like you’re staying at a resort for less than $15 a day.

The recipe: go to Flor Blanca for a yoga class in the morning ($8 per class if you buy a package). Afterwards, slip into the nice bathrooms next to the yoga shala to change into your bathing suit and find one of the lovely lounge chairs by the beach. The wait staff will come by, and the food at the resort is fabulous, but you can get away with as little as ordering a fruit ($3) or mixed smoothie ($6) and lounging for as long as you like.

We spent many happy weekends in exactly this way (and truth be told, probably hundreds of dollars on Flor Blanca meals, massages and cocktails, all of which were totally worthwhile).  Top tip: on our last trip to Flor Blanca, a waitress told us that people who come for yoga classes get a 20% discount at the restaurant afterwards. What! Trying not to think of how much we would have saved had we known that at the start.

The dust is a nightmare.

Dusty leaves by the road. Photo: Robin McKenna.

Dirt roads can be charming, rustic, and hold back development and speeding cars. And they can create a noxious cloud of grit that fills the air, layers houses and trees, and creates an asthma epidemic among local children. In Santa Teresa, both things are true — although personally, after spending two months in the dust I’m firmly in the “pave the f*cker” camp.

If you decide to visit Santa Teresa, the dust will be part of your life, and you’ll need to figure out your coping strategy: getting a rental set back far from the road, renting a car instead of walking or biking, or like us, buying a bunch of surgical masks from the grocery store and trying to wear them whenever we were biking.  But be forewarned: even with a mask, the dust is still pretty brutal.

Costa Rica uses more pesticides per-capita than anywhere else in the world.

I learned this on the website for Barefoot Organics, Santa Teresa’s brand-new organic grocery store, lunch counter and green box program, newly opened in December 2012 and already thriving.

The store looks like a restaurant from the outside, and the intriguingly vague ‘Social Organic Food’ sign by the road somewhat obfuscates the fact that this is a fabulous grocery store and lunch counter, filled with organic meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables. The quality of the meat, produce, cheese and yogurt is outstanding, and the prices are way better than buying organics at home. Stop in and stock up, and say hi to handsome Barefoot co-owner and chef to the stars Jim Kelly while you’re in there.

“Nothing bad can happen while you’re on vacation.”

The locals have a running joke about vacationing tourists wandering blindly into traffic or carried into the sea by riptides with a blissed-out thought bubble over their heads “Costa Rica is so relaxing!”. Matt and I are both cautious worriers by nature, and our mishaps were limited to surfing scrapes, bug bites, and a few ocean scares. But while we were in town, at least three people drowned in drunken late-night ocean swims, and a many others were ambulanced to hospital after serious quad accidents. Be careful out there, folks! It may be paradise, but that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen.

Restaurants: there’s Koji’s, and there’s everything else.

A quick glance at TripAdvisor’s restaurant reviews will leave you with the impression that there’s three great restaurants vying for the top spot in Santa Teresa. No disrespect to the fine institutions , where we had perfectly good meals in lovely, vibe-y atmospheres, but when it comes to restaurants in Santa Teresa, there’s Koji’s, and everything else.

Based on our two visits there, our dream menu recommendations include: ginger pork, mixed tempura, green salad, and maki rolls of your choice. We had fabulous grilled octopus the first time we went, then the same dish slightly overcooked the next time. I’d say it’s worth the risk.

A few other favourite places to nosh and sip:

Best smoothies: Zula Restaurant. Lovely Israeli joint with nice brochettes and falafel, but the smoothies are what it’s built its well-deserved reputation around.

Best fries: Burger Rancho. The place has a great vibe, always-good music, and excellent fries. But be forewarned: the burgers are surprisingly mediocre, soggy and served on supermarket white buns.

Best place for sunset cocktails: Rocamar.  This beachside lounge has a bevvy of outdoor beanbags, couches and loungers by the ocean, perfect to watch the sunset from while sipping a pina colada.  They host a bonfire party every Sunday night at sundown, with great music, lots of kids running around, and if you’re lucky, some Chinese lanterns lifting off into the star-filled sky.

Best bakery: The Bakery in Playa Carmen by a mile. After awhile, a native Montrealer does pine for a good croissant and espresso-based coffee, and this is the place to find them. More awesomeness includes the brownies, and beautifully slushy lemon iced tea.

Best muesli: Easy to spend $8 on a box of imported granola here, but if you don’t like the fried-sugar style stuff, my favourite muesli can be found in any grocery store: Vitalissimo 10 Frutas; delish.

The myth of “Tico Time.”

We’d often hear people (read: expats) joking about the phenomenon of “Tico Time”, the inability of Costa Ricans to show up on time for appointments. Matt and I never once witnessed this in two month in Costa Rica. Whether surf lessons, massages, yoga classes, taxis, or meeting with people to sell our bikes at the end of the trip, the people we met and did business with were always on time, and often five minutes early.

Could be the product of a tourism-driven economy, where many young Ticos are professionally trained in the sector. Or just old-fashioned good manners.  But Tico time, in our experience, was a myth.

How to tip.

Some restaurants will include a 10% tip with the bill, and some don’t. For those that do, the amount is 10% because that’s the maximum they’re allowed to charge by law; apparently only a portion of that amount ends up going to the servers. Servers REALLY appreciate it when you tip above the 10%, so check carefully to see if the tip’s included, and consider leaving more than 10% either way.

A few last things.

We stayed at several different apartments at Surf Vista Villas over our two months and it can highly recommend it.

For travel within Costa Rica we used Tropical Tours Shuttles and found them friendly, professional and ridiculously punctual.

This is the best and only map of the towns of Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen that we found, and we used it all the time.

Have a great trip!

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full: Favourite Passage

A Man in Full - Tom Wolfe

I think Norman Mailer was wrong.  In his 1998 review of Tom Wolfe’s, A Man in Full, he writes, “the tension in reading [it] never quite ceases. Is one encountering a major novel or a major best seller? […] it begins to promise that [Wolfe] is ready to become a great American novelist, and then it loses its air and settles (with all the canniness of a hard-nosed business judgment) for being a Mega-bestseller.

I came to the opposite conclusion — that this actually is a great novel, masquerading as a fun page-turner, after a wonderful third act where the novel’s two major storylines intertwine. Here’s the background to my favourite passage, from the publishers:

The protagonist is Charles Croker, once a college football star, now a late-middle-aged Atlanta conglomerate king whose outsize ego has at last hit up against reality. Charlie has a 29,000-acre quail-shooting plantation, a young and demanding second wife-and a half-empty office complex with a staggering load of debt.
Meanwhile, Conrad Hensley, idealistic young father of two, is laid off from his job at the Croker Global Foods warehouse near Oakland and finds himself spiraling into the lower depths of the American legal system.

At this point in the novel, Conrad has escaped from prison, and after a series of turns has ended up working as a caregiver for a post-operative Charlie Crocker. Crocker is wounded and alone, and facing a major dilemma: whether to betray his best friend to save his real estate empire:

“Whaddaya reading?” His voice was so tired.

“It’s a book called The Stoics, Mr. Crocker.”

“I see… What’s it about?”  […]

“Well,” said the boy, “most philosophers assume that you’re free, you’ve got all these possibilities, and it’s like you can design your own life any way you want.”

The boy hesitated; so Charlie gave him a little encouragement. “Go ahead.”

“The Stoics, they assumed the opposite. They said that in fact you have very few choices. You’re probably trapped in some situation, everything from being under somebody’s thumb to being a slave to disease to actually being in jail. They assumed that in all likelihood you weren’t free.” […]

What stuck in Charlie’s mind was probably trapped in some situation.

“So tell me, do you consider yourself a Stoic?”

“I’m just reading about it,” said Conrad, “but I wish there was somebody around today, somebody you could go to, the way students went to Epictetus. Today people think of Stoics — like, you know, they’re people who grit their teeth and tolerate pain and suffering. But that’s not it at all. What they are is, they’re serene and confident in the face of anything you can throw at them. If you say to a Stoic, ‘Look, you do what I tell you or I’ll kill you,’ he’ll look you in the eye and say, “You do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do — and, by the way, when did I ever tell you I was immortal?”

“And you’d like to be like that?” asked Charlie.

“I — yes.”

Charlie could tell that the boy felt he had already said too much.

“All right,” said Charlie, “let’s suppose somebody is in a dilemma. If he chooses one thing, then he gains something valuable, but he loses something that may be even more valuable. And vice versa. If he chooses the other thing, then it’s the same problem. He gains one thing of value and loses another thing that may be even more valuable. […] So what does your Stoic say about dilemmas?”

There was embarrassment on the boy’s face. He hesitated… then said: “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”

*    *    *

I love this passage because it’s the moment you release this is not just a fun, gossipy novel about power, sex and real estate among the rich of Atlanta (though it’s also that).  It’s also a philosophical study into a one of life’s big questions: whether we can be free within external conditions of un-freedom, even the ones we’ve created for ourselves.

A great read by a great American writer.

Documentary in the classroom

From Screen to Classroom: Creating Digital Curriculum for Documentary Films is a new report focusing on best practices, costs, partnerships and strategies to help documentary films increase their use and impact in classrooms across North America.

Report: Creating Digital Curricula for Documentary Films

I helped develop the report in my role as Web & Engagement Director for Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s upcoming book / documentary / outreach project, The Message.  We created it as part of our development research, and decided to release a version of it publicly for other documentary producers who were in the same boat. From my introduction:

The main goal of this work is to help documentary producers better understand what teachers want and need when integrating documentary content into their classrooms. In the following pages, you’ll find a selection of examples of some of the best study guide materials available online today, paired with descriptions of what makes them ‘work’ for teachers. We’ve also included a list of key characteristics of high-quality lesson plans, suggestions on how outreach partnerships can enhance the salience and impact of your curriculum, and a list of the key questions documentary producers should ask themselves and their teams during the development of their educational plan.

The report is filled with practical advice and great curriculum examples from across the web, including my favourite, Teaching A People’s History (pictured below), based on Howard Zinn’s alternative U.S. history (later made into a documentary), with curriculum materials by Rethinking Schools.

The report was prepared by Simone Bloom Nathan, a veteran of documentary curriculum development, with design and layout by the awesome Toronto talent Kate Hudson.

You can download a copy here.

Among the “Digital Do-Gooders”

Planet in Focus Festival 2011

Toronto – I’m happy to be part of a great panel of multi-platform storytellers talking about “entertaining content that motivates activism” on the Digital Do-Gooders panel at Planet in Focus, this Friday in Toronto.

Looking forward to hearing from Jason Gilmore (The Next Day), Gerry Flahive (NFB’s Highrise), Ana Serrano (CFC Media Lab), Tony Walsh (Phantom Compass), and moderator Derek Luis.

I’ll be speaking about Inside Disaster Haiti, and how we used educational and interactive documentary content to help audiences understand the “survivor perspective” and overall complexity of the humanitarian relief operation in Haiti.

Join us! Friday Oct. 14th at 11:15
Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Ave.)

Beyond Superman: humanitarian leadership today

What does it mean to be an effective leader in the humanitarian space today?  A new report by ALNAP provides some surprising answers.

Published in early June, Leadership in Action: Leading effectively in humanitarian operations reveals the disconnect between accepted theory and the real-world practice of humanitarian leadership today.

“Visions of leadership still sit in a largely “male” and Western mould” writes IRIN Global about the report, “Thus many interviewees believed effective leadership must necessarily entail being a workaholic, describing effective leaders as being ‘married to their jobs’.”

The kicker?  This model is actually surprisingly ineffective when put into practice in the field. Paul Knox Clarke, ALNAP’s head of research and communications, sums up their findings in this video interview with Alertnet:

What we saw emerge was that this idea of the super-leader, the leader as some kind of superhero, really doesn’t work.  The most effective leaders are [those] who play the role of host, facilitator, and convener.   And it does raise the question of whether we’ve all been thinking about leadership the wrong way for some time, whether rather than leadership being something that individuals do, leadership in humanitarian responses is something that teams of people do.

“Leadership is something that teams of people do.”  It’s a powerful idea.  IRIN’s summary of the report goes on: “It is often “personal qualities” that differentiate decent and brilliant leaders […] passion, dedication, putting communities’ needs at the centre of all decision-making; being aware of one’s own limitations; being quick to learn from mistakes”.

These skills are ones in which women and local staff will often excel — the very people, however, who find it most difficult to break into operational leadership positions in the humanitarian sector.

The result, according to Knox Clarke?  “The system is missing out on a vast reserve of potential, [as well as the] political experience and contextual knowledge which is required to lead effectively.”

I’d love to see a discussion of this report and its findings at the 2013 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, wouldn’t you?

Hat tip to my friend and colleague Terra MacKinnon of UNHCR for sharing the original report and video.

Let’s stop dumbing down humanitarian work

Public perception and understanding of humanitarian emergencies is at a dangerous level.

Aid agencies and governments have gotten in the bad habit of creating media, educational and fundraising content that over-simplifies the reality on the ground, creates public expectations about humanitarian work which simply can’t be fulfilled, and will inevitably come back to haunt us.

This was the framing argument of my presentation last week to the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel.

I was at the conference to talk about Inside Disaster Haiti, the educational website and “serious game” about the response to the Haiti earthquake that I helped produce last year, as part of the PTV Productions team.

I presented Inside Disaster as an example of what I called “strategic complication” — letting the public in on some of the messy but fascinating realities and contradictions of humanitarian work.

Simplification is inevitable… but dumbing down isn’t

Humanitarian emergencies and the organized response to them are really, really complicated.  Forces of nature collide with a volatile human mixture of historical, political, economic, cultural, and power dynamics.

That makes them hard to understand, especially for people experiencing them as filtered through media, on the other side of the world.  The interesting thing is, this is not a new problem.  Here’s Walter Lippman struggling with the same issue in 1922:

For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety … to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. – From Public Opinion

Today we still face the same quandary that Lippman was writing about 90 years ago — but exacerbated by our 24-hour fire hose of information from around the globe.

So to even process, let alone understand what’s happening around us, some kind of simplification is inevitable. In talking about humanitarian emergencies, I argue that we’ve done it in two key ways: the Big Picture perspective, and the close-up.

the close-up

The close-up delivers just one story: someone is suffering, and someone is alleviating that suffering.

Smart bloggers like Alanna Shaikh have already pointed out that these images do work, but in a very problematic way.  They’re usually presented through perspective of journalists and aid workers, and frame the beneficiaries as passive problems to be dealt with.

the big picture

Giving the public the key bullet points of an event through a “Big Picture” view is also very standard practice, both in journalism and in the kind of new media education work that I do.

As an example, check out Stop Disasters!, created by the UN-ISDR, which gives you what I call the “God’s-eye view” of a humanitarian challenge — in this case, that a town full of people will be swept away when a tsunami comes.  The game gives you all the information you need to make a decision, in the sidebar, and infinite power to make everyone do what you tell them to. Just like in real life!

Another “big picture” view is the much-maligned Facebook game The City That Shouldn’t Exist.  In his one you’re a white muscular humanitarian hero who gets woken from his bed in Brussels at 3am with the news that “refugees are on the move”.

You sit down at your computer and up comes your “Resource Channel” on the left, and a link to the the camp on the right:

And through your screen, you begin to literally grab refugees from outside the camp and drag them inside, then throw food, water and medicine at them — which they voraciously consume.  And if you don’t do it fast enough, they get reduced to piles of bones.

So this was problematic in a few ways.

These kinds of “big picture” educational games create the impression that humanitarian agencies are all-powerful beings, who can control things which, in reality, are not actually under their control.

And when we raise expectations that people and resources can be moved around as easily as on a laptop screen, that makes it very hard for the public to understand why aid delivery is so slow in chaotic, messy environments like Haiti.

Piles of garbage and debris spill onto the street


Both the big-picture and close-up perspectives make promises which are extremely difficult, if not impossible to deliver in the real world.

When an organization implies it will alleviate the suffering in Haiti I’m seeing on my television screen, and I give it money to fulfill that promise, and then two years later I’m still seeing that suffering —  there’s a credibility gap that gets created.

Shallow, disingenuous communication about the reality of humanitarian work may be effective in the short term, but I think it will lead to pubic blowback for fundraisers and governments in the long term.

Inside Disaster & “Strategic Complication”

Inside Disaster was a multi-platform documentary storytelling project about the Haiti earthquake and humanitarian work that tried to do things differently.  The project had four key components:

  1. A multimedia blog from Haiti that launched the same day as the quake;
  2. A three-part documentary series following the IFRC response in Haiti;
  3. An educational website for people who want to know more about the past and present of humanitarian work, and how it was applied in Haiti;
  4. A first-person simulation that allows users to make decisions in the aftermath of the earthquake from the perspective of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

The combination of incredible documentary material, a solid budget, long timeline, smart advisors and a great production team gave us the chance to create “strategically complicated” media that would help users understand some of the real-world challenges and complexity of the Haiti operation…

…. including some of the political and economic context that exacerbated this “natural disaster”:

… give advice to people on how to be effective donors:

… … and how not to be, from the “Donations Hall of Shame“:

Over 20 people in Canada, Haiti, and Europe worked directly on this project, in addition to the hundreds of academics and journalists whose work we drew on for every aspect of the site (for an example look here).

The project took a year to produce, and cost close to half a million dollars, which was mostly from public funding in Canada.  So this is not a realistic standard for humanitarian agencies on a fundraising drive to compare themselves to, but I hope it will provide an example of the kinds of big picture, messy and very interesting conversations about humanitarian work that I sincerely believe the public is ready to have.

Highlights from the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies

Toronto — Wanted to share a few of my favourite moments from the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies (WCHS2011), held June 2-5 at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

This is the first in a series of three quick posts about the conference, covering:

  1. My personal highlights of the event
  2. A short summary of my presentation as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel
  3. What I’d like to see at the next WCHS, to be held in 2013 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

WCHS 2011 Highlights

I told my friends at home I felt like I had arrived in “nerd heaven” in Boston, surrounded by engaging academics and practitioners, big ideas, and the city’s superabundance of sunny, tree-lined campuses.

Below are some of my favourite moments from the conference.  Take these with a grain of salt, however, as I was only able to attend a tiny fraction of the 80+ panels presented over four days – and missed the opening keynote and first morning because I was working on my own slides; alas.

“Art of Darkness” Panel

Avril Benoit, Director of Communications of MSF Canada, speaking (in an individual capacity) about a media that’s become “drunk on accountability” in its ongoing search for the next “Three Cups of Tea” scandal, as well as the coming technology-driven increase in exposure and transparency for humanitarian organizations — whether they’re ready for it or not.  This entire panel was excellent, actually.

“Solutions in search of a problem”

Nathaniel Raymond of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) taking a subtle but useful dig at fellow disaster & development technologists on his panel, arguing that too many humanitarian tech projects are “a solution in search of a problem”, rather than the other way around.

Something about this rings very true to me — how many of these new tools, which generate so much media attention (including from my own project) are genuinely changing workflows and outcomes for humanitarians in the field?

The George Clooney-backed SSP, conversely, has a tightly-defined mission: using satellite imagery to create evidence of impending atrocity — including troop and munition built-ups, and newly-built military roads — and then publicizing the evidence to prevent the event from happening.

We all know how well this kind of “early warning” worked out for Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda — but the hope is that today there’s greater awareness and political will to prevent (visible) atrocity.

That being said, in April the SSP did publish evidence of upcoming attacks on Abyei, Sudan — but ultimately weren’t able to prevent the event from occurring.  At the end of the day, is it evidence, or political calculations, that really makes the difference in how these events play out?

Responding to Protracted Crisis

This was an exceptionally thoughtful and well-run panel, chaired by my friend and colleague Mareike Schomerus of the London School of Economics, and featuring:

  • Bram Jansen discussing how in South Sudan, the power and numbers of humanitarian organizations have made them a de-facto surrogate state, “challenging the authority, and legitimacy of the official government” — but that humanitarian ideology doesn’t allow them to admit that this is so.
  • Michael Mahrt of Save the Children Denmark using examples from his field work to show how protracted wars destroy existing social institutions (age relations, family structures) and create new ones in their stead.
  • Jogien Bakker of Oxfam Novib arguing that gender-targeted programs to counter sexual violence in conflict empower women at the expense of men, which could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve.  As you can guess, this led to some fascinating debate and discussion. [On a different note, I admire her photos from the field, found here, as well].

As well as a critical analysis from Ronald A. Atkinson on recent developments on the conflict in Northern Uganda and surrounding countries.

One of the many good things about this panel was that speakers respected their time limits, eliminating the zero-sum time game that usually leaves the final speaker rushing through their presentation; this setup also allowed time for a good discussion with a very knowledgeable audience.  These are nerdy details perhaps, but ones that make a big difference in the atmosphere of a panel (and by extension, the conference as a whole).

Altruism vs Humanitarianism

“That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it […] By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him …” – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

The Altruism vs Humanitarianism panel, with Ali Arbia and Gilles Carbonnier, ended my conference experience on a reflective and philosophical note.  Carbonnier used the above quote from Adam Smith as part of a larger discussion on different explanations for humans’ altruistic behaviour, and their relationship to the humanitarian ethic.

One thing that stuck with me from this panel was Carbonnier’s suggestion that a lack of reciprocity in aid relationships weakens social bonds, and increases tension with beneficiaries.  The most glaring example is in Afghanistan, where the “bunkerization” of aid work and “pump and dump”  delivery strategies have degraded the humanitarian environment to an all-time low.  In short, we humans are sensitive to “exchanges that create ties,” and need to have the chance to reciprocate them — and having that denied fuels resentment.

“Altruism is human nature,” Carbonnier concluded, “but it needs nurturing”.

Next up

So there you have it.  My favorite moments from the approximately 5 of 80 panels (!) I was able to attend at the conference.  Have any fellow attendees done public write-ups of their experience?  If so I’d love to read them.

Next up: a short summary of my presentation, a case study of Inside Disaster Haiti, which asked, “How can a new media project help donors and stakeholders deepen their understanding of humanitarian relief in disaster zones?”.

Learning on the job with Inside Disaster Haiti

International Support


Toronto – My behind-the-scenes article on the production of Inside Disaster Haiti is published in this month’s POV Magazine (use password POVdigitalsub to read the digital edition — then subscribe!).

The magazine’s interactive issue is packed with great content, including articles on Kat Cizek’s Highrise, and the exciting work going on at Mozilla Drumbeat’s Web Made Movies.

I tried to use the article to provide a big-picture of view of how the project came together, the great team and advisory board behind it, and some of the lessons I learned along the way.  Among them:

  1. It’s better to be relevant than to be perfect — get your website up at the beginning of production, not the end.
  2. Sharing your content through a Creative Commons license can lead to surprising and beautiful outcomes (all our Haiti photos are available through a CC license).
  3. Love and cherish your documentary film collaborators; their work makes your work possible.

UN soldiers ordering the crowd to sit down

Here’s the introduction to the article; you can check out the full piece here:

Five hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, the email arrived in my inbox.  The subject line was short and to the point: “We’re going.”

This was day one of Inside Disaster Haiti, an ambitious multi-platform documentary project about humanitarian relief in disaster zones.  As the project’s Interactive Producer, my job was to launch the Inside Disaster website and prepare for incoming reports from our website’s Field Director, Nicolas Jolliet, who would be working alongside the documentary crew in Haiti.

The documentary’s director and producer, Nadine Pequeneza, had spent over a year negotiating unprecedented access to the International Red Cross’ Field Assessment and Coordination Teams (FACT), elite disaster managers drawn from over 70 countries with experience in relief, logistics, health, sanitation, and more.

With producers PTV Productions and lead broadcaster TVO on board, the film had been green-lit in September 2009, with the understanding that the documentary and web crew would be following the Red Cross FACT on their next major natural disaster response.  On January 12th, after four months of waiting, planning, and false alarms, that day had arrived.

Launching the Haiti blog was the first big step in creating the interactive component of Inside Disaster Haiti, which would eventually include a wide-ranging educational website about humanitarian work and the earthquake, as well as a first-person simulation that used documentary footage to allow users to “experience” the disaster’s aftermath from the point of view of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

For me, it would become the opportunity of a lifetime, combining my love of research, storytelling, global issues, technology, team-building, and social activism.  By the time it launched, the Inside Disaster interactive project would involve over thirty collaborators from Canada and Haiti, cost close to half a million dollars, and win multiple educational and gaming awards.

But that wouldn’t happen for a long, long time.  On January 12, 2010, I was as close as you could come to having no idea what I was doing.

Interview 1