Friday, January 15, 2010

We shall underwhelm in Haiti

When disaster strikes, there is pain and human suffering. There are a thousand and one stories of pain, loss, miracles, rejoicing and redemption. There are a lot of people doing what they can, and even more wondering what they can do.

Then, there are those whose livelihood depends upon all of this human drama. Those who, in a nutshell, profit from disasters.

I do apologize for my cynicism. The straw that broke it loose was a single statement, probably on CNN, but just as easily in some news e-Bite on the web, that announced "we don't need a bunch of well-meaning volunteers, we need money." I read a web security report yesterday about thousands of "scam" donation sites popping up all over, within hours of the disaster. These are the easily identified 'criminals,' who must be controlled so that funds can go via 'legitimate' channels. Whatever those may be.

The massive flow of funds that will be assembled and pushed blindly in the general direction of Haiti will be "controlled" and "managed" by what will no doubt turn out to be a relatively small group of NGOs and "aid" groups. The managers and organizers will all have their teaspoons out, skimming off a portion of that flood into their own salaries, hotel expenses, cameras, and general costs of doing what they do, including building up a nest egg to tide them over to the next disaster.

The aforementioned CNN seem to have chartered their own airline to the country in order to give us 1000 minutes a day of Brave Correspondents Right On the Spot, building up a huge audience for their advertisers, who occupy the other 440 minutes. This makes us ask the eternal question "What would be on the news if Haiti were not?"

The poorest nation in the western hemisphere, lots of in-place aid projects are getting publicity previously denied them (the poor will always be with you...) simply because it was not news. Is throwing this money about going to improve the overall lot of the nation? It certainly does provide a unique business opportunity for those in a position to profit from it. I hear Mr. Clinton talking about using the money for education. Education is nice, schools will have to be rebuilt, but it might be a slightly lower priority than medical personnel, medical supplies, food and the means to distribute these goods and services. Without sufficient infrastructure, how much of this "aid" can the disaster legitimately absorb?

Hey, it is a massive undertaking; few organizations other than Boy Scouts of America and our military have real skills in providing basic resources in an unimproved infrastructure. There are countless stories from New Orleans, New York City and other modern disasters, of the bottlenecks in providing services, even of identifying services, and the staggering sums of money sitting in accounts "waiting to be spent." It is within this environment that profiteers, both intended and unintended, live on the fringes of natural disasters. I am sort of thankful that CNN remain somewhat aware of this unique connundrum, even as they rake it in from their exploitational (izzat a word?) journalism.