Today in ARGH.

We are so over the “Ladies Aren’t As Confident As Men and It’s a Problem” conversation that has been happening lately.

Because you know what we’re not down with? Pretending that a self-reinforcing system of gender norms designed to keep women out of power and public life is, in fact, a character flaw that meek chicks need to get over. Structural inequality is not a personal problem, folks.

If it were, then advice like “maybe try NOT being subjugated” would be useful. But as it is, saying “sack up, ladies!” makes us worry that the next thing out of your mouth might be one of the following:

  • “Slaves: Just not entrepreneurial-minded enough.”
  • “Native Americans: Insufficiently committed to enforcing their property rights.”
  • “Jews of 1930s Europe: Lacking in courage and self-preservation instincts.”

(Oh wait, that last one’s actually a thing. Thanks, anti-semitism!)

WTF Friday, 5/16/2014: Caption Contest!

Time for a WTF contest, beloved readers!

Suggest a caption to accompany this, um, remarkable photograph. The winner gets to call upon us next time s/he needs an angry letter written. Bonne chance!

Screen shot 2014-05-16 at 12.46.04 PM

About the Photo

A: W magazine sent celebrity photographer Tim Walker and model Edie Campbell to Burma, to spend “10 days in a country that until recently was ruled by a repressive military junta and cut off from the rest of the world.”


A: “What they found was a land so visually and philosophically far-out—at least from their Western perspective—that it conjured the trippy heroine of this story: Prudence Farrow, Mia’s “rather uptight and impossibly perfect Buddhist sister” as Walker describes her, who got lost in deep meditation while in India, thus inspiring the Beatles song “Dear Prudence.”


A: “Many of the houses the team wanted to use as locations are owned by the military, which was reluctant to grant permission; and the concept of a fashion shoot is so foreign to the locals that enlisting their help was often an exercise in making lemonade.”


A: “Walker asked for six nuns in traditional pink robes; one monk in orange turned up. Still, Walker says, he felt very welcome. “Nothing was too sacred for us Westerners,” he says.”


(H/T: Jeff Stein.

WTF Friday, 1/24/2014

What do you get when you combine an uninformed TV actress on her first trip to Africa, a Christian relief organization whose PR department are all asleep on the job, and a reporter who apparently thinks foreign aid is for chumps?

The WTF Friday that keeps on giving.

We’ll have a more detailed piece out next week about Elizabeth McGovern’s magical trip to Sierra Leone as a “charity ambassador” for World Vision, but for now, the highlight reel:

Elizabeth McGovern didn’t know that World Vision was a Christian charity, but she did know that it paid her £28,000:

“I was stupid not to realise it … I think the people at World Vision assumed it would be obvious.” McGovern has not withdrawn from World Vision, as “on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people.” In addition, World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity. Without this money, McGovern says, her band would “never survive”. She recently turned to a crowdfunding website for donations towards her next album, with a portion of the money going to World Vision.

Elizabeth McGovern sure seemed to have a lot of questions about how hard it would be to take her “sponsored” child, Jestina, home with her:

The conversation then turns to Jestina. “Is there a problem that some celebrities and rich people try to take one of the children home?” asks McGovern. “I imagine some big-time celebrities can be more of a hindrance than a help.”

“It’s not so easy to take a child across borders,” says Wilson. “And World Vision is very big on child protection.”

“Do Jestina’s parents live together?”

Elizabeth McGovern on Sex:

“I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home,” reflects McGovern. “You see certain cultures where there’s just endemic cruelty to women. I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful.”

World Vision, on being super good about not proselytizing:

I ask the driver, a Sierra Leonean who has worked for World Vision for more than 10 years, about the extent to which Christianity drives the charity’s actions. Does World Vision ever try to convert people?

“Christianity is our goal,” he says. “In some Muslim areas they are suspicious of us. So we put our effort into setting up clinics, permanent schools, and establish a society. Gradually they see we are good people. Then we pay professional pastors to preach to them. That is our final goal.”

“But you don’t try to convert non-Christians,” interrupts Wilson from the back. “World Vision never tries to proselytise.” The man laughs wryly and shrugs. McGovern says nothing.

World Vision, on aid efficiency:

“Before I do interviews, I need to know what distinguishes World Vision from its competitors,” McGovern says. “Is it less well-known because it spends less on promotion?”

“I don’t know about that,” says Wilson. “World Vision paid for this trip, and that’s not cheap.”

Elizabeth McGovern, on the lasting tragedy she experienced in Sierra Leone:

On the final morning, in a guesthouse in a very poor area, McGovern emerges from her room as white as a sheet.

“My iPhone,” she says. “I dropped it in the toilet.” Somebody cites the urban myth that the phone should be covered with rice. McGovern asks our hostess if that would be possible. She nods and brings a sack of rice out of her storeroom. McGovern places her iPhone in a plastic bag and pours a generous helping of rice on top of it. It stays like this all the way home, but the iPhone never recovers.

We Did It!

Advocacy organization Falling Whistles, which we’ve covered in the past, has recently revealed that they and their followers “stopped M23.” That’s pretty swell and all, but we’d be more impressed by their success if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve just arranged for the destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

That’s right. We wanted those weapons to be gone, and said so to a whole bunch of people. And wished super hard every time we found a stray eyelash. And now the weapons are dunzo, so clearly our campaign worked! Hooray for us.

We are realistic about our accomplishments, and are not trying to take more credit than is due. While a single wish on a single eyelash might not have much of an effect on a despotic regime’s weaponry, we travel all over the world, wishing on stray eyelashes everywhere we go. That’s powerful.

We would also like to offer our gracious thanks to our partners in this struggle: Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, countless Syrians who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives, and the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Their work was very important, and we’re grateful that they decided to take action because of us. Even the Assad regime, which initially seemed resistant to our organized wishing campaign, eventually came around.

Great work everyone, but particularly Amanda and Kate!

Check Us Out on Beacon

Hey Readers,

We have joined the party over at Beacon, the new journalism platform that is taking the internet by storm. Conceived as “Netflix for news“, Beacon is a subscription based service that gives you access to a ton of great international coverage. If you’ve ever bemoaned the “rape and lions” focus of mainstream media coverage of Africa, or wondered why you’ve seen the same three stories on Afghanistan over and over for the last decade, please consider supporting the work of the many awesome foreign correspondents writing for Beacon.

We’re excited to be a part of this new project. If it takes off, the subscription revenue will help us to do more original reporting from more far-flung places, thus allowing you to make friends and influence people by dropping ever-more-esoteric facts into your everyday conversations. (That’s what you’re supposed to do to impress people, right? Guys?)

At the moment, the way it works is that you subscribe to a specific writer, who gets a portion of your subscription revenue. But YOU get access to all of the site’s content, from all of its writers. We’re told that soon you’ll have the option of supporting more than one of us with a single subscription, but in the meantime, if you want to subscribe and are struggling to decide which of us to support, just flip a coin or something. We’re best friends. We’ll work it out.

If you’re interested in checking it out there’s a two-week FREE trial subscription.

Kate’s covering mass atrocities and international justice here:

And Amanda’s on the women’s rights beat here:

Did we mention the part about the two-week trial being FREE?

Chauncey, End Poverty!

This is Jefferson Mok‘s awesome Burundi dog, Chauncey:

Disco Chauncey

He moved to New York about a year ago, and apparently his prodigious skills have been going to waste ever since. Jefferson asked for our help coming up with some new tricks for Chauncey to learn.

Naturally, this is where our minds went:

  1. Chauncey, raise awareness!: Chauncey chases his tail.
  2. Chauncey, mainstream gender!: Chauncey stares at you without moving until you give him something else to do.
  3. Chauncey, SWEDOW!: Chauncey fetches his oldest, most slobbery toy and places it in your lap.
  4. Chauncey, consult stakeholders!: Chauncey lies down on the floor and covers his ears with his paws.
  5. Chauncey, apply for funding!: Chauncey jumps through a series of unnecessary hoops.
  6. Chauncey, review best practices!: Chauncey sniffs his own butt.
  7. Chauncey, report to donors!: Chauncey sniffs another dog’s butt.
  8. Chauncey, issue report!: Chauncey barks for 30 seconds even though no one is listening to him.
  9. Chauncey, protect civilians!: Chauncey stays close by and watches carefully as Jefferson is savaged by a labradoodle.
  10. Chauncey, achieve MDGs!: Chauncey rolls over on his back and puts his paws in the air.

Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Saving the World Makes Chauncey Very Tired

Photos courtesy of the aforementioned Jefferson Mok. Thanks Jefferson!

Somalia Making Play for Lucrative Men’s Rights Activist Tourism Market?

Remember that time Somalia decided to arrest and imprison a woman who accused members of the police force of raping her? Sure you do. And remember when they also arrested the freelance journalist to whom she’d told her story, along with her husband, and the two people who had supposedly introduced her to the journalist?

Well, today she was convicted of the crime of “insulting a government body,” and sentenced to a one-year prison term. Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, the journalist (who, mind you, never actually published any details of their conversation), was given the same sentence. Her husband and the two intermediaries were acquitted.

You might be thinking that Somalia, faced with the daunting requirements of establishing itself as a functional state, has decided to start small by learning to protect itself from rape victims and unpublished freelance journalism before moving on to, say, evicting violent terrorist groups from its territory.

But we figure Somalia is actually pursuing a more sophisticated strategy, and attempting to position itself not only as a for-reals-we-mean-it-this-time-actual-state, but also as the first official destination for men’s rights tourism. We can see the ad copy now:

Stable, prosperous tourism economy, here we come.

(Fake Somalia tourism ad adapted from image by Flickr user nadim2.)

WTF Friday, 2/1/2013, OMG Seriously WTF Edition

Somali journalists protest the imprisonment of their colleague. Photo credit: Badri Media

From the six month old Federal Government of Somalia, a step-by-step primer on how to undermine your fledgling regime’s “please help us have a country” PR tour:

  1. Hire rapists into your police force.
  2. In the event that a citizen accuses your police force of rape, refuse to investigate the alleged crime, and throw her in prison for good measure.
  3. Subject her to a two-day interrogation without assistance of counsel until she recants the accusation.
  4. Chuck her husband in prison, too.
  5. Track down any journalists who have interviewed the alleged rape victim, and imprison them.
  6. Charge everyone with “insulting the government” and various other made up sounding crimes.
  7. Rinse, repeat.

All in all, a process guaranteed to make donor countries look at your security forces and think “State capacity is the best. Let’s send these guys some more money!”

Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Leila Janah’s Response

We asked Samahope founder Leila Janah to share her reaction to our criticisms of the organization’s approach, and explain the importance of the work Samahope is doing. We very much appreciate her thoughtful response, and her willingness to acknowledge the difficulty of getting this sort of work right. For more on this debate, check out the Quora discussion on Samahope. Here are Leila’s thoughts:

I founded Samahope after running into a surgeon named Dr. Maggi, a retired Texan OB/GYN, on a trip to Sierra Leone with the State Department last year. I’d visited hoping to find a site for Samasource, but realized quickly that our model wouldn’t work in a country where 70% of the population is illiterate and there is almost no infrastructure. I also learned that one in eight women in Sierra Leone die in childbirth — the worst rate anywhere in the world. There is almost no acute care for mothers in Sierra Leone, and there are 50 surgeons in the entire country.

I realized I could apply my tech background to fixing another problem: raising money for clinics in poor places offering life-saving care to people beyond the reach of public hospitals. My friends at Kiva encouraged me to do this, and I set up with two volunteers, Shawn Graft (a web developer) and Shivani Patel (a former McKinsey consultant and product manager).

The aim of the site is to fund life-changing medical treatments for people who can’t afford them.

On your first point, I hear you — we’d love to paint a fuller picture of each person, but we have very little time to gather the patient’s story in the field. If we spent more time doing this, our overhead costs would increase and donors would be less interested in funding surgeries. In the future, we’d love to create a way for patients to share their own stories through a more direct connection to the site, but right now, this is very difficult. Most patients do not have cell phones or speak English, and many do not speak the lingua franca of their country, so an in-person visit with multiple levels of translation is required to capture their stories.

With regard to the issue of possible coerced disclosure: Samahope actually works as a reimbursement method for partners who perform surgeries. Most partners offering these types of surgeries require any patient who receives a procedure to allow use of his or her photo and bio — this is true for the best-rated organization in this field, ReSurge (formerly Interplast; here’s a review on GiveWell). In an ideal world, surgeries would be funded through public health systems and no one would have to disclose personal information. In the real world, disclosure is necessary to both prevent fraud and prove that the operation was completed, and to raise money.

Exceptions are made if disclosure would compromise the safety of a patient.

Two other points are worth noting here: (1) Most patients who suffer from fistula or the most common conditions requiring reconstructive surgery are already stigmatized; and (2) When I interviewed 14 patients personally in August 2012, I found that most women wanted to share their condition to raise awareness and ensure that other women with fistulas would come forward.

As for your concern that the setup forces the potential recipients into competition, this is true, and it sucks. We don’t know how to solve for the fact that every person on the site is in need, and there is not a good way to distinguish each patient. One idea we had is to introduce a button to allow users to let Samahope allocate their donation (most likely we will choose the profile that has been on the site the longest, or to complete funding for a patient with a small amount remaining).

As we add more treatments or surgery types (for example, burn or cleft palate repair), this problem will get worse: how to choose among so many people with so much need? That said, this is a problem that every donor faces every time he or she gives, as there are billions of needy people who could all benefit from a gift. So in the worst case Samahope is transferring an existing problem that already exists in the field of giving to the web, but I don’t think we’re creating new problems.

Finally, I’ve heard arguments both for and against representing younger people on the site. I use the term “younger people” and not “underage” because there is little consensus as to what constitutes underage globally. Another complicating factor is that many of the young women on Samahope do not know their own ages or have any public record of their birth (I witnessed this personally in my recent visit to Sierra Leone).


  • Treating someone younger results in more benefit, as more years of his or her life will be lived in better health. Public health experts and economists think in terms of “Quality-Adjusted Life-Years” — in other words, the number of years of life a person lives times the quality of that life (with a discount for medical conditions that make a person live sub-optimally). In QALYs, a young person receives more benefit than an older person from a given surgery, since she has more life to live.
  • Young people heal faster, and may be more likely to receive a positive result from surgery.
  • Young people are disproportionately affected by certain conditions for which reconstructive surgery is effective, such as burns and cleft palate. According to the World Health Organization, the vast majority (95%) of burn victims are in developing countries, and burns are in the top 15 causes of death for people aged 5-29.


  • Young people are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse if their information is made public without adequate protection.
  • Young people may not fully understand the implications of publicizing their patient information, and may not be able to provide legal, informed consent.
  • Child safety laws in some countries prohibit the display or collection of children’s information below a certain age (in the US, this is 13).

Bottom line: this is a very tough issue. I’ve had knee-jerk reactions to sites like Samahope in the past whenever they portray poor people as helpless victims and somehow different from you and me. But after spending ten years going back and forth to Africa and Asia and meeting a lot more people who can’t afford the basic necessities of life, I’ve found that the people portrayed on those sites don’t mind sharing their stories if that gives them access to the things they need. The magnitude of this problem is so great, and the amount of money spent to fix it so comparatively tiny, that the right thing to do is to try to raise more funds and direct them to the right clinics, even if our methods aren’t perfect.