Tag Archives: donor

Journalism and trauma in Bangkok

I’m in steamy Bangkok this week, working with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I’m here primarily to talk about resilience with the 14 journalists gathered from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kashmir, Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Samoa, Sri Lanka, and Thailand for the 2011 Dart Asia Fellowship.

They’re an inspiring bunch, and as psychology is my training and writing is my passion this is a neat opportunity to learn from people who write for a living. I’m having a great time hearing about their stories and how telling these stories have impacted them over time.

In addition to resilience we’ve being talking about topics such as:

  • Mechanisms and signs of trauma and vicarious trauma
  • The role of the media in kidnapping situations and other unfolding crises situations – how they can help and when they can make things worse
  • How to stay safe as journalists when in high threat environments
  • Tensions between local and “parachute” journalists (international journalists who fly in for stories)
  • Skills for interviewing traumatized sources

One story I’ve heard so far, in particular, has made me both laugh and cringe.

A couple of months after a tsunami hit Samoa in 2009, a New Zealand journalist flew in to report on the recovery efforts. This journalist put together a story alleging that aid destined for recovery efforts was being mismanaged and misappropriated. As part of his story he placed himself in front of a well-constructed middle-class traditional Samoan house, pointed to it on camera and said with every appearance of outrage, “Look at this house, recently built with recovery money. It doesn’t even have any walls!!!”

I laughed at this because traditional houses in Samoa never have walls – something that this journalist should have either already have known (presuming he had working eyes) or asked about.

I cringed when the Samoan journalist presenting described the impact of this story on the local tsunami recovery effort.

“This article demoralized people,” she said. “The vast majority of aid money was not being mismanaged, and it struck a sour note in a context where people were just starting to refocus on stories of hope and rebuilding after all the stories of tragedy. It also reduced the amount of aid coming in to help the Samoan’s get back on their feet.”

I feel I should have something more to say about this right now – something deep and meaningful, or even just coherent. But I’m very tired tonight after two and a half long days of new people and new stories and images from some of the most incendiary frontlines on earth (and I’m sure the fact that it’s 9:15pm and I’ve just now finished consuming a large plate of stir fried noodles and duck – yum – isn’t helping funnel more blood towards my brain). All I’m good for at this point apart from brushing my teeth and taking my kindle to bed is sharing the simple thought that stories matter. They’re powerful. And whether we’re telling them through the vehicle of fiction or otherwise, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to be a storyteller.

More from Bangkok later this week.

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When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score One For Policy

[Follow these links for Part 1 and Part 2 of this story]

After we left Sommai’s village it was a long and bumpy car ride back to Luang Prabang. As I braced myself against the potholes I stared at the dozens of white cotton strings swathing my wrists – remnants of the blessings that had been bestowed upon all of us earlier in the day. The national staff who had traveled out with us all had strings around their wrists too, I noticed, but not nearly as many as I did, or Mike. It seemed a fitting metaphor for the day, for our entire life here: Upon those who are already well blessed will be bestowed the lion’s share of any blessings that are going around.

“You know,” Mike said suddenly sometime around hour four, long after I’d been jostled into an dazed and aching sort of exhausted. “I think they have the policy wrong.”

“Who?” I asked. “What policy?”

“Edena and the child sponsorship team,” Mike said. “The policy about how much Sommai’s family should be paying. They told me the family was responsible for a quarter of the medical expenses, but I don’t think that’s right. I think this family falls into the extremely poor category, which I think means they should be responsible for a hundred thousand kip (about $13) and the organization should pay the rest.”

“If that’s true,” I said, “then forget about us trying to figure out ways to save the water buffalo. The most important thing you can do is to go into the office on Monday, find that policy, and make sure it’s followed.”

When Mike came home on Monday night he had good news and bad news.

The bad news was that Sommai’s family had already sold their buffalo. They’d sold it almost three months earlier when Sommai first got sick.

“But I thought Edena said they were going to sell it,” I said, confused.

Mike was well used to these sorts of misunderstandings. He just shrugged.

“English,” he said. “It’s a slippery language.”

The good news though, was very good. Mike had been right about the policy. It turned out that Sommai’s family was only responsible for $13. The organization would pay the rest of Sommai’s medical expenses.

“Yay for good policy!” I said.

Mike laughed, for he knows how ambivalent I am about some of the policies and practices of many NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

Some of the policies that I am most conflicted about have to do with financial accountability.

Donors who give to NGOs understandably wish to know that their money is not ending up in the pockets of those in power and is being put to good use in ways that help people.

This puts pressure on NGOs to be able to demonstrate exactly how donated money is being used.

Up to a certain point, I think that this pressure to be financially transparent is a good thing. It opens international NGOs up to some scrutiny of their decision-making. It gives rise to anti-corruption policies and safeguards. It forces organizations to pay attention to how much of their money is utilized in target communities in demonstrable ways.

However, donor expectations related to financial transparency and accountability have also helped create an environment where the merest hint of scandal (or even heated debate) about how an NGO has used funds can spark a significant drop in public giving – and most NGOs rely on public giving to stay in business.

This feeds into the drive to keep overhead costs as low as humanely possible (and often lower than is sensible to adequately equip and care for the staff of the organization). It can also lead the managers, auditors, and finance people of humanitarian organizations to be hyper-vigilant about the merest possibility of bad press related to corruption, theft, or the misappropriation of donor money. This, in turn, can lead NGOs to go to extreme lengths to document every detail of every expenditure – in essence spending ten dollars to account for five.

About a month after we arrived in Laos, Mike came home with a form detailing the bottles of water (each worth about fifty cents) that were given out to volunteer development workers during a meeting in a village.

Everyone from the village who received a bottle of water at this meeting had to fill in a variety of information – date, time, village, and name (twice, for some reason). Right after the space for the 2nd printed name was a space for a signature.

Here was the problem with that, though: the Lao script has no cursive. There is no such thing as a signature in Lao.

So how had some auditor, somewhere, decided to deal with this problem of missing signatures?

Thumbprint everyone who received a bottle of water.

 

“No!” I said, horrified, when I saw this.

“Lisa, Lisa,” Mike said, playing devil’s advocate and trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. “How else are we to make sure people are who they say they are, and that no bottles of water go missing? How else are we to explain to the donors that we are using every single cent of their money in field activities and exactly where it went?”

“How are you supposed to explain to the donors that you are spending a significant amount in staff time, paper, and ink pads, to account for 50 cent bottles of water?” I asked. “Or why you’re thumb-printing beneficiaries like criminals?”

“Yes, well,” Mike said, sighing. “Those are good questions, too. But they don’t get asked nearly as often or as loudly, you see.”

No, I am not always a fan of the policies and practices that result from that fertile tension between donor expectations and desires, and the specific needs, opportunities, and contextual realities on the ground. I do not think it serves anyone well to prioritize financial accountability at the significant expense of operational achievement.

In Sommai’s case, however, policy has helped save the day. It has taken Mike several hours of discussions and coaching to straighten out the teams’ understanding of how to apply the policies related to emergency medical care for sponsored children, but Sommai’s story has a relatively happy ending.

The family might be minus one water buffalo, but they are now also minus a significant debt to the village that they would have found virtually impossible to repay. And they are plus one Sommai.

[Next time, in Part IV of this story, Money, it’s complicated, we revisit little orphan girl]

  1. When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
  2. When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
  3. When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
  4. When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated

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