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 samahope.org 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.

Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Our Two Cents

As promised, here are our thoughts on Samahope’s use of patient profiles to raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone:

Although we’re kind of in love with the idea of a Kickstarter for poor women’s vaginas, we’re concerned about the fact that these women are presented primarily in terms of their injury. The key information provided for potential donors browsing through the photographs of possible recipients is “name, age, nature of fistula.” Some of the profiles list a few of the women’s hobbies or interests (“gardening” is a popular choice), but the bulk of the information is fistula-related.

We’re also troubled by the coercive dynamic implicit in the offer of assistance in exchange for public admission of a stigmatizing injury. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the women have no shame about their injuries and aren’t worried about stigma, Samahope is asking women to publicly reveal private information in exchange for help. Leila points out that she has personally spoken with fourteen of the women, and they were all willing to share their stories, but we suspect we’d also be “willing” to publicize our gynecological issues if it meant we would get otherwise unaffordable much-needed treatment. If ladies who aren’t willing to disclose their condition to the global public aren’t eligible for funded surgeries (as Leila’s comments suggest that they’re aren’t), this whole process starts to seem pretty coercive.

Here in the U.S., we don’t think it’s acceptable to force women to publicly describe their vaginas in exchange for vagina-related assistance: We’d never accept it if, say, Medicaid were to require women to post their names, photos, and description of their gynecological problems on a website in order to visit an OB/GYN.  That policy might find a fan in Rush Limbaugh, who famously said that he should be allowed to view the sex acts of young women who received government-subsidized birth control, but that’s hardly indicative of mainstream morality; his comments were (rightly) greeted with horror by the general public.

Both of these concerns (the reduction of a person to an injury, and the potentially coercive nature of the requirement to reveal private medical info) are heightened in the case of the underage girls on the site. We propose that when the question is: “hey, should i post this photo of a 14 year old girl, along with her name, and a description of her broken vagina?” the answer should always be “no.”

Finally, we worry that the setup of the appeal for help – presenting the women and girls almost as if they’re in competition for funding – sets up a disturbing decision process for the potential donor who must choose the most “worthy” (damaged? youngest? prettiest?) recipient for their funds. This mirrors a broader trend that disturbs us, in which NGOs compete for funding and attention by jostling to show the most pathetic victims possible. (Not just a starving woman, but a starving woman who has been raped.  Not just a starving woman who has been raped, but a starving child who has been raped. Not just a starving child who has been raped, but a starving child who has been trafficked into sexual slavery…)  This not only sets up a weird competition for who is “most deserving” or “most in need,” it also contributes to a culture in which no information is too private, and no depiction too demeaning, to demand of victims.

We are not cool with an NGO culture that focuses more on gratifying the egos of donors than on preserving the dignity of recipients. Campaigns like this one contribute to that culture, regardless of their intentions.

None of this is to say that we don’t think Samahope should raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone. We’re fully on board with soliciting wealthy Americans for money for poor African women’s vaginas. And actually, we think this has a lot of potential as the next great hipster cause. Think about it: hipsters LOVE to say the word “vagina.” (Look at us, for instance.) And West Africa Fistula Foundation, which performs the Samahope-funded surgeries, seems like a worthy beneficiary. Their focus on recruiting and training local staff is particularly encouraging.

We think there are some pretty easy fixes for the problems we’ve identified above. Nixing the photos of the underage girls would be a great start. We also challenge Samasource to consider whether they could raise money effectively for fistula repair without running photos of pre-operative patients at all. We understand the urge to present real people in need of immediate help – we’ve all seen the research showing that individuals are much more inclined to give when they have a particular person with whom to associate the need for donations. But we think creatively presented profiles (yes, and photos too) of post-op patients would be a more ethical way to establish this connection. Although it would definitely forego some of the urgency of the appeal, showing women who are able to live full, healthy lives as a result of fistula repair would be a moving testament to the value of Samahope’s work, and would clearly underscore the need to fund help for similarly situated women.

Stay tuned for Samahope founder Leila Janah’s response later on…

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Our initial reaction when we first saw Samahope was: Man, what brilliant satire. It so perfectly skewers the particular sort of poverty porn-y, competitive victimhood-encouraging NGO that we’re always ranting about. But as we clicked through the site, which posts pictures of Sierra Leonean women and girls suffering from fistula and asks for donations to pay for surgical intervention, we began to get that uncomfortable tingling that accompanies the realization that something you thought was a hilarious send-up of a disturbing phenomenon is actually just one more example of the disturbing phenomenon itself. (What? It’s a real feeling. We get it all the time.)

We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, though, because Samahope is backed by Leila Janah, the founder of Samasource, which is “an innovative social business that connects women and youth living in poverty to dignified work via the internet” that we’ve been fans of for years. But when we reached out to Leila on Twitter, she told us that Samahope is totally for reals. We mentioned that we were having a lot of uncomfortable, squicked-out feelings about the whole “repair a broken vagina for just $3 a day” approach and that we were going to blog about them (because that’s why people have blogs), and offered Leila the chance to share her perspective as well.

So tomorrow Wednesday we’re going to have an Onion-style Point/Counterpoint in which we’ll explain why this hurts our brains, and Leila will explain why Samahope is doing important and necessary work. Hopefully we’ll all learn and grow.

Now That’s a Good Use of Video Cameras

Lawyers With Cameras = just awesome. Layda Negrete and Roberto Hernández, two Mexican lawyers who are now Berkeley PhD students, used a brilliant combination of lawyering and videro cameras to save an innocent man from serving decades in prison.

The Mexican justice system has only the most tenuous of connections to the actual investigation and punishment of crimes. Hardly any cases are investigated or prosecuted. And when the police and courts do get involved, they don’t improve things much:

“Crooked cops regularly solve cases by grabbing the first person they find, often along with a cooked-up story from someone claiming to be an eyewitness. Prosecutors and judges play along, eager to calm a growing public outcry over high crime rates and rising violence from Mexico’s war on illicit drug gangs. In practice, suspects are often presumed guilty. More than 85% of those charged with a crime are sentenced, according to Mexico’s top think tank, the Center for Investigation and Development, or CIDE. […]

Someone committing a crime in Mexico has only a two in 100 chance of getting caught and punished, according to Guillermo Zepeda, a CIDE scholar. A big reason is that just 12% of crimes are reported to the police, Mr. Zepeda says. In a big deterrent, police ask many people who report crimes for money to solve the case or become suspects themselves, Mr. Zepeda says….In more than six of every 10 cases, suspects were arrested within three hours of the crime, leaving little time for serious detective work, according to a study from CIDE. Almost none were shown an arrest warrant.”

Negrete and Hernández took on the case of Antonio Zuñiga, a street vendor who was arrested for murder while out for a walk in December 2005.

“As he crossed a busy Mexico City avenue, two burly cops grabbed him from behind and shoved him into a patrol car.

So began a nightmarish journey into Mexico’s legal system that seems lifted from the pages of Franz Kafka. For nearly two days, the street vendor was held incommunicado and not told why he was arrested. His questions met with hostile stares from detectives, who would say “You know what you did.” He says in an interview that he only learned of the charges after walking into a holding cell and being asked by a prisoner: “Are you the guy accused of murder?”

Mr. Zuñiga, then 26, was charged in the shooting death of a gang member from his neighborhood. Ballistic tests showed Mr. Zuñiga hadn’t fired a gun. Dozens of witnesses saw him working at his market stall during the time of the murder, which took place several miles away. And he had never met the victim. Still, he was found guilty by a judge at trial and sentenced to 20 years in prison.”

Zuñiga,however, was relatively lucky. Hernández and Negrete realized that the lawyer who had represented Zuñiga in his original trial was a fraudster working on a forged license, and that was enough to win him a retrial. They also got permission from the trial judge to film the entire retrial, as well as interviews with witnesses. That footage became a 90-minute documentary, Presumed Guilty. What it shows is not pretty:

“When asked by one of Mr. Zuñiga’s defense lawyers what evidence he has against Mr. Zuñiga, the detective in charge of the case says: “He’s here (in prison), right? He must have done something.” Asked by the lawyer why she was prosecuting an innocent man, the prosecutor says with a weak smile: “It’s my job.” […]

The judge, Hector Palomares dons his robe this time around and sits behind a makeshift desk. Mr. Zuñiga says Mr. Palomares never emerged from his office at his first trial. […]

At one point, the witness, Mr. Reyes, is asked by one of Mr. Zuñiga’s defense lawyers to describe the three gang members whom he’d originally accused. He describes each one. Asked to describe Mr. Zuñiga, the man he later accused, he can’t.

The detectives who arrested the street vendor and handled his case testified, but claimed they didn’t remember anything. “We have a lot of cases,” says Jose Manuel Ortega, the lead detective, shrugging his shoulders. “I can’t remember all of them.” Mr. Ortega declined to comment.

At the height of the retrial, Mr. Zuñiga confronts his accuser face-to-face. As the pair talk in stilted tones and pause so a stenographer can transcribe each word, the drama builds. Finally, Mr. Reyes admits he never saw who killed his cousin.”

Shockingly, (or perhaps not-so-shockingly, given that the retrial was heard by the same judge who had handled the original case), Zuñiga was convicted again in the retrial. However, when Negrete and Hernández appealed the decision, they also showed the appeals court a rough cut of their documentary, and the panel was so disturbed by what it showed that they overturned the verdict. They set Mr. Zuñiga free in April of 2008.

Negrete and Hernández’s work continued to make waves. They coupled their documentary with aggressive research into successful judicial reforms that had been put into place in Chile, and along with other activists they lobbied their government to put similar methods into practice in Mexico. Their success was impressive: in June of 2008, President Felipe Calderón signed a constitutional amendment that, among other things, makes trials public, and guarantees the presumption of innocence for the accused.

Go lawyers!

Steve Bloomfield on Why Abu Sharatis Happen (Apparently, it’s Our Fault!)

[After reading journalist Steve Bloomfield’s comments on my posts about Abu Sharati, I invited him to submit a guest post on the structural issues in the journalism business that might lead to these sorts of problems. His response follows. -Amanda]

The mistakes made by three reporters who quoted the mysterious Abu Sharati illuminate a broader crisis in journalism. And it’s partly your fault.

Over the past few years newspapers across the world have been losing money. The global recession has only exacerbated the situation. Severe cuts have been made at a host of major newspapers and agencies. In the US the New York Times has been forced to take funding from a mysterious Mexican billionaire, the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times are technically bankrupt, and the race is on to become the first US city without a daily newspaper.

In the UK all the major newspapers have made staff cuts. The Independent, a paper I worked at for seven years, has made two rounds of voluntary redundancies in the past two years, followed by a handful of compulsory job losses. Less journalists are trying to produce the same number of pages. The foreign desk, once staffed by four editors – most of whom had worked in the field – is now reduced to two. The number of staff foreign correspondents has also dropped, as has the number of stringers employed on annual retainers.

Sub-editors (copy editors in the US) have also been cut. So the Africanist on the subs desk who knew that Daniel arap Moi had become president of Kenya in 1978 not 1977 as you had incorrectly written has been replaced by a freelancer who normally does sport and will give ‘arap’ a capital ‘A’.

Those reporters still lucky enough to have jobs are now having to do far more work – and with far fewer resources. When I first moved to Nairobi in 2006 I could easily persuade my foreign editor that I needed to go to northern Uganda just by telling him there was a chance the peace talks could work (I was wrong; they failed. But the stories I did were still worthwhile).

By the time I left the paper at the end of 2008 it was difficult to persuade editors to agree to a story in Kisumu, a 45-minute, $100 flight away, without writing a detailed, fully-costed proposal for at least two stories I could do there.

As foreign correspondents travel less they are inevitably asked to do more stories remotely. As Shashank Bengali points out, “it is Journalism 101 to get all sides of a story, so reporters try when they can to get local voices – “man on the street” opinions – into pieces they must write from these distant capitals.”

These have to come from somewhere. As someone who has spent many a fruitless afternoon trying to get hold of one, just one Darfuri rebel or civil society rep or camp elder on his satellite phone I can tell you it’s not always straightforward. Finding a decent quote as the deadline fast approaches is seen as more important than whether the words actually add anything to the story. You’ve got a government spokesman, an international aid worker and a Darfuri IDP. Great. Done. Send. Now, who can you speak to about Guinea?

Once the article arrives in London or New York over-worked foreign editors checking too much copy and under-qualified subs checking little more than typos will have far less chance of catching any mistakes, let alone calling the reporter and asking ‘so, who is this Abu Sharati chap and should we really describe him as the representative of the IDPs?’

I said this was partly your fault. A bit unfair, perhaps, but your reading habits – and mine – play a big part in this. Cuts are being made because newspapers are losing money. Yet as my former colleague Johann Hari points out, this is not because the stories we produce are unpopular. Far from it:

“More people are reading the stories we write than ever before: via the web, we have a higher readership than in the most inky-fingered Golden Age.”

The problem is this: we give our stuff away for free. This worked okay when newspaper websites could make money from advertising but it fails abysmally now. Building back the pay walls has worked for the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of whom have seen the number of their online readers rise despite the fact that they charge. Rupert Murdoch’s experience at the Journal has persuaded him to follow a similar strategy at his UK papers.

Profits rather than losses won’t necessarily bring all the old jobs back. And even if they do there is a debate to be had about how journalism, particularly foreign coverage, works.

Should newspapers employ one or two full-time correspondents for a continent the size of Africa, or would it make more sense to have a dozen stringers spread from east to west? Should correspondents ever write about one country when they’re sat in another? Should newspapers move away from breaking news – where most of the mistakes occur – and instead focus on proper analysis and features?

Or should readers just accept that sometimes journalists will make mistakes? And continue to point them out when they occur?

I imagine there are quite a few foreign correspondents in Africa who will be double and triple checking the identity of their IDP representatives from now on. Until the next frantic deadline, anyway.

Response to Chris Blattman’s "Aid Workers: When Will We Ever Learn?"

Man, if there’s one thing I love to do with my free time, it’s information revolutions. That one time when me and Gutenberg invented the printing press was totally awesome. And that other time when I helped invent the internet?* So rad.

So I got very excited yesterday, when Chris Blattman put up a provocative post calling for ideas on how to bridge the gap between aid research and practice. He notes that technology has made it possible for people in the field to access the latest research studies and articles, but identifies three “human” barriers that prevent that knowledge from being fully disseminated and put into practice:

First, a lot of people aren’t in the habit of reading, either because they don’t like it or (more likely) they want to, but (like many of us) they find it hard to turn aspiration into action, especially in the frantic business of aid.

Second, it’s one thing to read more research, and another to read it critically. Alone. Without falling asleep.

And third, it’s another great leap entirely to turn reading into application.

Not that those problems are limited to aid workers: Blattman admits that he suffers from them too, even though he gets paid to read articles all day.

He has two suggestions: podcasts for those long hours spent Land-Cruisering all over creation, and reading clubs. Modeled on book clubs and the journal clubs that hospitals use to keep their doctors current on the latest medical literature, the latter would be discussion groups on a global scale, “from Goma to Kathmandu.” Blattman suggests that they should be bolstered with podcasted author interviews, discussion forums, and “a handful of bloggers to help us lead the fray.” (Including us, which is awfully flattering.)

I think that the idea has a lot of promise. For one thing, it’s basically happening already. Many blogs already post book reviews and/or have book clubs that are relevant to aid work – Making Sense of Darfur, Opinio Juris, and Abu Muquwama jump immediately to mind.

And aid workers are certainly receptive to new ideas and research. Kate and I get emails all the time from people in the field or freshly out of it, engaging with our posts and offering new ideas. (Not to mention a really remarkable number of messages from people who just seem to want someone in the outside world to know what they know, but beg us not to publish the information they give us. Which we always respect, but are a little baffled about what’s going on there -clearly some sort of need is going unmet, but we’re not entirely clear on what it is, or the role we’re playing.)

But if something like that is really going to be effective, then it needs to give aid workers more incentive to participate than mere interest. We can probably assume that aid workers are interested in aid work -they must have had some reason to pick up and move to Goma or Kathmandu- so if they aren’t already blogging, discussing, arguing, and creating aid literature, then there must be something else missing from the equation.

My suggestion: don’t think of the aim of this project as getting people in the field to read, or to listen. Think of it as getting them to write, and to talk. Measure success in terms of posts blogged, tweets tweeted, pods casted, and articles published by the workers you’re trying to reach, on the subjects you want to publicize.

Focus on the conversation, and getting it to become self-perpetuating, and the information dissemination/absorption will take care of itself. No one wants to sound like an idiot, so they’ll need to process the information before they can comment on it. (And if they do go ahead and put out uninformed blather, then that’s a useful signal for anyone thinking of hiring them…)

Equally importantly, making this project about discussion will also ensure that the flow of information runs both ways: not just academia to field, but field back to academia.

That’s not too different from the models used in medicine and law to get doctors and lawyers to stay up to date on new developments. Doctors publish case studies as well as larger-scale research projects, and when they come up with something exciting and new they tell everyone, in order to get the glory for figuring it out. And lawyers publish law review articles, interpreter releases, client updates, and practitioner treatises, as well as giving presentations at bar association events, CLE’s, etc.

(I can’t comment on how it works within the medical profession, but as a lawyer only a few years out of school, I have had to write about new developments in the law as a matter of course. I have been a staff member and an editor for a scholarly journal, researched and drafted articles for practitioner publications, drafted and edited updates to a treatise on banking law, and written bunches and bunches of speeches and PowerPoint presentations for partners to give at CLE programs and bar association meetings. And that’s just what I was expected to do in order to be considered a reasonably-useful law student and junior law firm associate -it doesn’t include things like blogging, or work on academic law review articles of my own.)

I can say from personal experience that having to put yourself out there is a pretty good incentive to stay current with what’s going on. If you focus on getting people to participate in the conversation, then they’ll take care of absorbing the information on their own.

So, readers: what are your thoughts on how to get aid workers to write, talk, and blog about new research? If you’re an aid worker, and interested enough to be reading this blog, what would make you interested enough to write your own? And if you want to but aren’t, what’s holding you back?

* I’m not totally sure, but it’s possible that I actually did help invent the internet. When I was a small child, my elementary school class used to go to the NCSA lab, where we would run through a series of exercises on the “Information Superhighway,” (in those days, more of an Information Super-Towpath) while anxious-looking reasearchers looked over our shoulders. It wasn’t very interesting back then, because no one else had the internet yet, so despite the promises that we could “talk to anyone, anywhere in the WHOLE WORLD!!”, the only person we could actually talk to was the one other dude online in those years, a grad student named “Tex”, who was in a lab at MIT. So, we used the new technology’s world-changing power to try to set Tex up on a date with our student teacher, Miss Ashley. She was not interested, but the anxious-looking researchers turned out to be inventing Mosaic, which pretty much caused the internet as we know it to happen, so I guess something went right.

Things That Are Awesome: de Waal, on "Listening"

Alex de Waal has an excellent post on the process and value of listening:

I have spent many hours in Darfur observing how outsiders ask questions and listen to the answers they are given. It is easy to end up with the answers they expect and want, often unconsciously putting words into people’s mouths. (Quite often, in a rush to record a definite answer or opinion, they literally put words into people’s mouths, demanding, “so you mean ‘X’” and taking polite assent to mean informed, voluntary and comprehensive agreement.)

The problem with what we lawyers would call “leading questions” is that you never know what steps are being skipped. A broad statement may find agreement, but that makes it all too easy to miss an underlying disagreement about the meaning of the key terms being used. De Waal takes the example of whether the ICC should “bring justice” to Darfur:

“There then followed a long discussion among the community leaders, in which they discussed the pros and cons of prosecuting the tribal chief-cum-military commander, other government officials, and the president. I listened.[…]

There were some points of agreement among the community leaders. For example they all agreed, without any prompting, that there could be no peace with the government if the president were to be prosecuted. The question was how to use the threat of prosecution to extract concessions, and what the concessions and guarantees should be. The question of “justice” was much broader than just criminal prosecution. Just as outsiders tend to project their assumptions about “justice” onto Darfurians, these Darfurians were assuming that the “justice” which the ICC would deliver would correspond to their needs and demands. […]

I didn’t ask many questions but I did ask if Bashir should pay for the crimes committed. The answer was a unanimous “yes.” Their understanding of “payment” was chiefly in terms of what his government should do —restitution, return, peace, development. Interestingly, cash compensation did not figure. There was no mention of a trial or jail term as “payment.” (I didn’t ask whether one man spending twenty years in prison in The Hague would be considered appropriate “payment” for the Sudan Government’s actions in Darfur.)”

And even if there is agreement about what a term means, social norms and incentives still influence the conversation:

“Seeing a white person, some community leaders come to me to assure me, discreetly, that they trust me more than the African leaders, and that they support the ICC. Others, seeing me in the company of an African Union delegation, earnestly and quietly tell me the precise opposite. I have observed the same person say completely different things in different contexts. It’s not deceit or even contradiction: it’s that courtesy demands saying certain things, context constrains what can be said, and the ways in which questions are posed—or discussions left unfinished—means that only one part of a complicated picture emerges.”

For serious, guys, read the whole thing. And then read it again, and use it: file it in the “danger of faulty data-gathering, Will Robinson!” center of your brain, or add a “WWADWD?” test to your information gathering process. Write “shut up” on the back of your hand. Tell your interpreter to make the information flow one-way only for an interview or two. Whatever.

Because this is so hard to do well. I know, because I spend a great deal of my time trying to do it, and not having any particular success. I do a lot of interviews for the pro bono program I work on, screening teenagers in immigration court, and then working on their applications for asylum and other humanitarian relief. And it is unbelievably difficult.

Sometimes people lie outright, but that’s not a big deal -lies are pretty easy to catch and correct. The bigger problem is that, given an almost infinite number of ways to tell a true story, it is hard to get to the facts that I need without influencing the story told. And sometimes, requests for information that seems utterly basic to me (“who persecuted you?”) are met with such utter disbelief (“I was supposed to ask for an ID when they shot me?”) that I realize we aren’t even having the same conversation.

And, of course, there’s the power dynamic. I have something they want: free legal representation. Which could be a path to something they want even more: legal status, and safety here in the United States. So they search my questions for hints of what I want to hear -what might make me take the case, or make me fight hard to win it. But they’re as clueless about me as I am about them. Should they admit that their families were abusive or neglectful, so that I feel sympathetic? Or should they emphasize that their parents are prominent community leaders, so that I will be impressed by their backgrounds and think that they are worthy of my help? When I ask how they feel about being separated from their families, is it better to say “good” (to show that they are strong and independent, and can make it in the U.S. on their own) or “bad” (so that I don’t think they are bad sons or daughters, who do not show proper respect for their elders)?

The problems get even worse once I’ve taken the case and get down to gathering relevant evidence and details. Often, my clients find me touchingly naive in my belief that we should focus our efforts on law and facts. Surely, they think, it would be better to just make the judge like them? So they skitter off of my questions about persecution, and instead give me examples of correct moral choices they’ve made. (Sometimes the law and facts aren’t helpful, so they make a good point.) Sometimes I get halfway through what I think is a conversation about their poverty and desperate need for legal relief, and then realize that they are delicately trying to ask me if there is anyone who will expect a bribe, because they do not have any money. (And that’s before we even get into the more obvious reasons for communication difficulties, like PTSD or the shame of admitting a sexual assault.)

All of those problems mean that, with the best of intentions and no lying at all, my clients can fail to tell me the “real” story, and I can fail to realize that. And that’s when I’m in a uniquely stable position of trust: their lawyer, interviewing them in the safety of the United States, representing their individual interests. Imagine how much more severe it must be when any of those factors is not present. (If, say, one is interviewing handless refugee children in Eastern Chad.)

It’s worth remembering de Waal’s closing line:

“Be careful what you listen out for: you may hear what you expect.”

Militaries, Mamdani, and Magical Thinking

So here’s the thing: I have approximately 8 draft posts, written over the last 9 months or so and saved at various stages of incompletion, that address the following questions:

1. Is it ever appropriate for foreign citizens, governments, or international institutions to intervene in crises overseas?

2. If the answer to #1 is “yes,” then when is it appropriate?

3. Do we know how to do it? That is, do we understand the technological means that will allow us to accomplish our stated goals?

4. If so, are those means available to us?

5. If they are, are we willing to expend the resources necessary to use those means?

I never finish the posts, because I always get frustrated. Usually they’re prompted by some call for action in some crisis or another -Darfur, Congo, N. Uganda, Sri Lanka- that’s long on yuppie guilt and short on specifics for whatought to be done beyond “act now.” (Act like what, exactly?) Several are book reviews, in which I express my frustration at authors who fail to answer such questions, but spend an awful lot of time criticizing the way other people did. In all of them, I start writing, and then get bogged down in trying to address in the gaps in analysis, and then take a break from it and never come back. So now I’m going to try to exorcise my blogger’s-block with one big, theoretical post. Here’s hoping that it clears the air, my head, and the be-cluttered list of draft posts.

Anyway, back to the questions. As far as I’m concerned, no intervention can be appropriate unless all of those questions have been answered in the affirmative. Unfortunately, arguments for (or, in fairness, against) interventions almost never consider all of them.

In particular, #3 and #4 get very short shrift. The fact is that humanitarian interventions of almost any kind, from food aid, to peacekeeping “boots on the ground,” to the ICC- are extremely hard to execute with any kind of success. It is not clear to me that we have learned how to intervene in ongoing atrocities and resolve them in any meaningful way. Questions like “who should do it?”, “how long it will take?”, “how hard it will be?”, and “what will be lost in the process?” are technological questions before they are moral ones; but we tend to approach them as if they are the other way around. We presume that we must “do something,” and only then consider how do it, and if we actually can.

Question #5, of course, comes up more often, usually held up as the main impediment to effective action. Many advocacy organizations center their efforts it, building coalitions of citizens to support politicians as they devote funds, energy, and political capital towards addressing atrocities around the world. And they have been quite successful in creating their constituencies and drawing attention to their causes -we’ve all got the bracelets, concert tickets, and t-shirts to prove it. But without good answers to the previous questions, it is impossible to really commit to supporting the necessary action. How can we, if we don’t know what it will be?

Instead, we start from the assumption that we have the ability to intervene, and that therefore we must lack the willingness to do so. This magical thinking has parallels in other political sectors, like the Rumsfeldians in the Bush administration, who were certain that a light, quick American military force would be able conquer and administer Iraq with ease. The spectacular U.S. military failure in Iraq has forced the latter group to reconsider itse assumptions, but there hasn’t necessarily been anything similar amongst us humanitarian types. Recent books like Conor Foley’s The Thin Blue Line: Humanitarianism Goes to War, and Mahmoud Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror are deeply critical of humanitarian interventions, but don’t go very far in actually answering the questions above. Foley’s book is a detailed catalogue of past interventions’ failures, but he never explains what should be done differently. Mamdani starts with an interesting premise -that the conflicts in Darfur and Iraq had similar death rates, but vastly different international reactions- but chalks this difference up to Americans having the wrong sorts of prejudices against Iraqis (Bad Muslims in the War on Terror!) and wronger sorts of prejudices against Sudanese “Arabs” (Even Badder Muslims in the War on Terror, Oppressing Black People Which is Something We Have Done In The Past and Feel Guilty About!).

I’m inclined to think that the explanantion is simpler: that we prefer to believe that the United States (or NATO, or the U.N. Security Council, or the E.U.) is callous than to believe that it is weak. The callousness theory is comforting, in a way, because we get to preserve our own personal sense of superiority. (Sure, those hard-hearts up in DC won’t intervene, but if it was up to me, then I sure as hell would.) Even more importantly, it means that we can preserve the comforting narrative of our own omnipotence, and therefore our own safety. Weakness is altogether scarier.

The Iraq war can be viewed through a similar lens. Instead of presuming callousness, the hawks in the Bush administration presumed squeamishness and an unwillingness on the part of lazy generals to embrace their vision of military strategy. Reality turned out ot be much different. Though that war wasn’t a humanitarian intervention, they still had the same questions to answer as the list above, and they got them wrong. #1 we all know -no WMD, and #2 they just sort of skipped. But it was #3 and #4 that really caused the trouble. They were flat wrong on how the war could be fought, had no idea if the resources would be available (and in fact they basically weren’t – stop loss, anyone?), and have thus saddled the American public with a war that we are not really willing to pay for. In short, we’ve fallen for one of the classic blunders: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Fail, Fail, Fail, Fail, and Fail.

So, since Wronging Rights has the most smartest readers around: how would you answer questions #1-5? And why?

You Have GOT to be Kidding Me, Nicholas Kristof

Is there some sort of “Christmas Fools Day” celebration on the New York Times Op-Ed page that I am not aware of? Because Nicholas Kristof appears to be celebrating it.

In an Op-Ed published yesterday, he considers the “dilemma” of whether people ought to be allowed to make good salaries while working with charity organizations. He pronounces himself ambivalent about whether that is morally acceptable, even if the value they provide is orders of magnitude larger than their salaries. The reasons for his ambivalence are (1) because he admires aid workers who are so passionate about their work that they’ve gone broke doing it; and (2) that if aid workers were paid as well as Citigroup executives, aid organizations would be as badly managed as Citigroup. To which I respond: (1) that’s a silly thing to admire, and (2) hahahahahahaha.

Why on earth would you admire someone for going broke? There are plenty of good reasons to admire aid workers, like “doing a good job” and “helping people.” But going broke, in and of itself, is not an admirable thing to do. It is sad, and should be avoided where possible. Aid organizations should be evaluated on their success, not on how impoverished their workers are. Some do more harm than good, and we shouldn’t admire them, even if their workers are broke. And some do more good than harm, and if their workers are broke, Kristof should be outraged, not impressed. No organization or program can be sustainable if it regularly ruins its workers financially.

Kristof’s concern that NGOs will be as badly managed as Citigroup if their workers are paid like Citigroup’s is equally baffling. Does he think that aid workers, drunk on the heady brew of six-figure salaries, will decide to securitize rule-of-law trainings without concern for the risk of future coups? Is he scared of a collapse of the vast bed-net default swaps market?

In fact, Kristof himself cites an example of why charities should spend money for professional expertise when they need it: the story of Dan Pallotta, a professional fundraiser who had the temerity to make about $400,000/year as he raised more than $300 million for charities through the fundraising events his company ran. When word of his salary broke, Pallotta was accused of “greed” and “profiteering,” and that wave of criticism led charities to stop using his services. Eventually, his business collapsed.

And what happened to the charities Pallotta used to raise money for? The column gives one example, a breast cancer charity that stopped using his services and tried to replicate them itself. It lost $60 million in donations. How can Kristof be “ambivalent” about that? Pallotta was clearly worth every dime of his salary. (However, someone at that breast cancer charity should be fired for leaving $60 million on the table. What an unthinkably stupid way to cripple their own programming.)

This is not something about which reasonable people should disagree. The attitude that professionals should not get paid what they are worth is poisonous to aid programs. Aid organizations have jobs to do. Doing that work costs money. They may be funded by donations, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay for stuff! No one thinks that it’s immoral for NGOs to pay market rates for food, or plane tickets, or socks. Why is it worse for them to pay market rates for professional expertise? Kristof’s own example shows that it can be worth it, many times over. (If they can’t afford it, then that’s a different problem. But Kristof’s piece doesn’t mention anything about aid organizations going broke -just aid workers.)

Memo to NGOs: if you are trying to solve serious problems, then you need serious people to help you. Hire them. If they’re good, they’re worth the money.

*Photo via The Dartmouth

I’ve Never Liked Foods That Move of Their Own Volition

Tonight your other Intrepid Girl Reporter battled crowds clamoring for Janet Jackson (don’t ask, I have no idea) to attend a panel at the New York City Bar on collaborations between law firms and human rights clinics. There was free cheese, chardonnay, and a lightening round competition to see who could be the quickest to provide the name of Yale Law School’s clinic. (It’s the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic.)

The session began with a dramatic reading of two lists: “Reasons for Collaborations Between Law Firms and Law School Human Rights Clinics” and “Reasons to Worry About Working with Law School Human Rights Clinics.” During the discussion of the second list, I’m pretty sure a professor whose human rights clinic I may have TA’d came up as a “reason to worry.”

The conversation was a little over-reliant on a stretched metaphor about how to ensure happy marriages between law firms and clinics. Apparently private-practice-on-academia one night stands are a big no-no. Anyway, aside from the woman who knitted throughout the entire event, I think my favorite thing was this explanation, offered for why young lawyers are more interested in international human rights than in direct services work in their own communities: “It’s like when you put your hand in a bowl of Jello. You think you have a big impact on the Jello, but then you take your hand out, and everything goes back exactly how it was.”* So true.

*I actually think this description applies equally, if not more aptly, to international human rights work, but it was still an awesome observation.