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Augusta Dwyer’s latest book, The Anatomy of Giving, looks at the world of international development through the perspective of her experiences in Haiti. It is a perspective enriched by Haitians from all walks of life who want to be defined by what they can do, not by what they don’t have.
Yet, for many well-intentioned volunteers, from Bill Clinton to Sean Penn to evangelical Christians, it’s the giving back that counts, and that can potentially harm.
In this chapter excerpt “The Talent,” Dwyer takes on the “celebrification” of aid and challenges the notion that any help we extend to the poor is good for them.
The place to which John Carroll sent Raymonde Narcisse for more help than he could offer was called Nap Vanse, which means “We Advance” in Creole. It was not all that far from Wharf, in an adjunct of Cité Soleil called Wharf Jeremie, and the people this small new NGO wants to help advance were precisely women like Raymonde. Along with free medical care, Nap Vanse’s main goal was empowering the women in the slums surrounding it. Maybe the feeling that here were women who were on her side, women who understood her bleak prospects with six children and no husband, would furnish Raymonde with some kind of moral support, if not some kind of solution.
Several phone calls to their office, which sometimes gets poor digital reception, finally elicited directions, and Dr. Carroll had drawn her a map with squiggly lines of water between two outcrops of land, an “X” marking Nap Vanse’s canary-yellow clinic right next to the container port, marked “Container.”
So the first question I asked one of Nap Vanse’s four founders, Aleda Frishman, when I met her a week later at the Pétion Ville Golf Club, was whether a woman and child matching Raymonde and Sarah’s description had shown up there.
“I think so,” she ventured. “There was a couple of women a week ago with a bunch of little kids who came and said someone had told them to go there. Maybe it was her.”
Frishman had lived in the Golf Club for several months after the earthquake, and greeted all of its bar staff before sitting down, asking after their families and pointing out to me where her tent had been set up on the tennis court. Her long curly hair was tied back in a loose ponytail, and her open, freckled countenance matched a direct and confident manner. Home, she told me, was Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia; from there, she had gone on to study law, work at the Center for Global Justice in New York, and conduct training seminars for the Burmese Women’s League on women’s rights, feminist theory and advocacy. She ended up in Haiti because her husband, whom she always referred to as Captain Barry, had been asked down to help out at the Golf Club IDP camp by Sean Penn as part of his team of medical and emergency response professionals. And she ended up in Cite Soleil because she, an Australian volunteer named Alison Thompson, actress Maria Bello and local activist Barbara Guillaume decided they wanted to do advocacy work with women there.
Part of her job with Penn’s JP/HRO organization had included going into Cité Soleil with mobile medical teams, Frishman explained. While the group was set on founding a new NGO to bolster gender rights in the slum, they decided to begin by offering services first. “We spent about two months going house to house, just talking to people,” she said. “That’s the way we started, just started walking up and down these streets and talking to people. We asked them, ‘what’s going on?,’ door to door, and opened everything up accordingly.”
They asked the women to make a list of the three things they needed most, “and I said, don’t tell me you need money, or a job, because we can’t help you with that,” she added. A clinic thus made it to the top of the list and, by chance, an empty building at Wharf Jeremie, constructed but never used by another NGO, was available, so they moved into it. Their first $50,000 came from the Clinton Foundation, said Frishman, and funding remained a challenge. For several months, she and other staff worked without pay, setting up life skills and English classes that were always full.
As of mid 2012, the organization was graduating scores of local men and women from these classes, some of them finding work in the garment factories as a result. But it was still facing funding challenges. When I visited the clinic in Wharf Jeremie a couple of weeks later, Frishman was in the process of telling its medical staff that they had failed to win a grant they were hoping for, and would need to let them go in a couple of months unless something else came through.
Did having the support of a celebrity like Bello not make a difference, I asked, in opening the doors to well-heeled philanthropists? “So many people think that,” said Frishman, “and it’s just not the case. You know, Maria obviously put in a lot of her own money. She donates a lot of money. Whatever we can’t cover, she subsidizes every month.” The actress and Prime Suspect star was calling her, or texting her, “about five times a day,” she added. It was apparent that the project meant a great deal to her.
A security guard named Alan Corraud showed me around Wharf Jeremie, taking me down flooded streets to the water’s edge where a spongy black turf, littered with fruit peels and charcoal dust, met the bowl-shaped bay. A crowd of women vendors squatted on the ground behind baskets of ginger root and citrus fruit — and charcoal of course, red and gold coffee cans for measuring balanced on top of the black heaps. In the bay, a boat was being unloaded; the district is named for the source from which tons of charcoal is shipped in every day, the city of Jeremie on the country’s southern peninsula. Nearby a group of similar boats were moored by anchor, their wooden hulls, single masts and canvas sails making them look like something from an old painting. But the cargo ship far out in the bay behind them, the rickety godowns with their patched walls of rusting corrugated tin, and the blackened earth spoke of a strange mix of commerce and dysfunction that could only be modern-day Haiti.
It was even more difficult to imagine a Hollywood actress showing up here, or the other celebrities Bello had invited to Nap Vanse to partake in the banquet of want and warm glows. “Forget about her messy love life,” ran the first line in a late December 2011 article in US Weekly. “Kim Kardashian put the drama behind her for several days last week and over the weekend — when she and her mom, Kris Jenner, visited Haiti for a pre-holiday humanitarian mission.” A photograph accompanying the text showed the pair posing with the default poverty-stricken but photogenic small child. According to the article, entitled “How Kim Kardashian Gave Back in Haiti,” a woman whose entire life has been dedicated to the search for fame and the unbridled consumption her success in doing so has permitted, “had an ‘amazing’ experience on the mission, a pal told U.S.”
“The talent has arrived,” the volunteer theatre managers used to say to me when I interpreted Q & A’s in Spanish or Portuguese for the Toronto International Film Festival many years ago. It meant the actors accompanying directors and producers of the film just shown were now available to answer questions from the audience.
In the collective global effort to beat back poverty through philanthropy and development, the talent has also arrived. And as is to be expected, the involvement of celebrities in the aid world — or what some have called the ‘celebrification’ of aid — stands out as one of its most interesting and controversial aspects. Their participation, whether authentic or as shallow as that of Kardashian — who never did donate anything to Nap Vanse — is unlike that of any other humanitarian worker. It raises all kinds of questions and issues that go beyond the apparent inconsequentiality of much of the entertainment business, and the relatively small sums of money — compared to official development assistance — implicated. It also highlights some of the deepest problems with aid and charity.
Are average people more likely to donate if it is a famous face that is publicizing the problem of human misery for them? And if so, what does that say about the giver? Is it a good thing that celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Madonna or Bono suddenly realize they want to take time off from what seems like a relentless pursuit of attention, fortune and artistic endeavour in order to concentrate their efforts on people who may not have the slightest idea who they even are? Or are they using some of the most desperate people on the planet for some intangible yet intrinsic gain?
At its heart, however, celebrity involvement in aid reinforces the view that the best, if not only, contribution a person can make to the poor is giving them something they need, rather than working with them to see if they cannot get these needs met themselves. What grabs our attention is not the impact of their work, but the simple fact of their decision to, as so much media commentary puts it, “give back.”
Augusta Dwyer is a journalist and writer who has authored four book including Into the Amazon: Chico Mendes and the Struggle for the Rainforest, On the Line: Life on the US-Mexico Border and Broke But Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and Their Radical Solutions to Poverty.