Saturday, July 7, 2012

Responding to Emergencies with Cash not Goods

Have you seen those AllState ads about the fires in Colorado? They say "We didn't just show up with cold water and checks..." and then continues about how they brought teddy bears to help children get back to normal. Good child protection practice, hopefully they're doing more for kids, but beside the point. Your house burns down and someone helps you access clean water and money to help you get back on your feet. That makes sense. That's what I'd want. So why isn't that what we do in other countries? Why can't we give people cash when their homes are destroyed by war or disaster? Why do we feel the need to give them the things we think they need? 

If I experience hardship, I know better than you do what I need. Maybe my home has been washed away in a flood, but I don't want you to build me a new home, because I was going to move anyway, or my family is growing, or you build crappy houses. Maybe my family does need food to eat, but I need cash to buy medicine for my baby, and you're just bringing me food from your country that I don't know how to cook, nor will my children eat. Maybe you think my children need recreational activities, but I need them in the field to replant after the crops were destroyed, but I can't replant until I buy new seeds. People are resilient, but they are only able to employ their resiliency when allowed to make their own decisions. 

My first response to this AllState ad was that we must not trust poor people. People in Colorado will obviously use the checks you give them to repair their homes (yes I know they are home insurance checks, but it occurs to me that we have home insurance in case of disasters, whereas countries in the global South often rely on humanitarian aid for similar support) but for some reason, people in other countries won't know how to spend the money? Are we worried they will spend it improperly? That happens where we live too, corruption and misuse of government funds is often connected to disaster. Is it because we feel the need to help, and writing a check isn't as exciting? 

In many places, especially in urban settings, cash is sometimes being used, so that both the economy and the population can start to rebuild. I won't argue that the only answer is cash grants. Sometimes the needed supplies aren't available during or after a complex emergency. Steps have already been made toward ensuring that food and supplies are well used by (often) giving them to women to ensure that the goods go to support children and to be sure that female headed households receive goods.. But giving food and tent supplies to people in refugee camps doesn't restart lies, it simply sustains them during an emergency. Helping people rebuild and recover takes more than that, and if your world got turned upside down, wouldn't you hope that people trying to help would trust you to identify your own needs?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Taylor: Punishment vs. Justice

The International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down Charles Taylor's sentence today, 50 years in prison. Mr. Taylor was convicted of multiple charges of aiding and abetting fighters in Sierra Leone during the war there. While the prosecution was unable to prove that Charles Taylor gave direct orders for the atrocities committed, nor did he personally commit violent crimes in Sierra Leone, his funding and participation in the leadership structure did contribute to the violence and atrocities committed.

So now Charles Taylor is going to spend the rest of his life in prison in the UK, barring an appeal (said to be forthcoming) and the overturning of his conviction. So imagine it, Charles Taylor suffering through beans and toast for breakfast and bangers and mash for dinner. Okay fine maybe that's not what they give you in prison in the UK. But it just doesn't seem fair. Mind you this is entirely speculative, but I imagine that the prisons in the UK are quite nice compared to those in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor will probably get more square meals per day while imprisoned than the average citizen of either country. He will have electricity, occasional access to telephone and television, and I imagine he might even be segregated from the general population, sparing him some of the worst things that can happen to a person in prison.

So why, despite the fact that this is a landmark conviction, it is the first time a former head of state has been convicted by the ICC while still living, do I feel so dissatisfied? Charles Taylor has been imprisoned, his physical freedom has been taken away, but where does that leave us? True, it avoids the possibility that he will return to West Africa, run for president of Liberia (as was predicted) and return the nation and region to turmoil. But what else? Charles Taylor sitting in jail munching  on marmite sandwiches doesn't help the people in Sierra Leone who lost limbs or parents or children or homes. It doesn't help the children forcibly associated with fighting forces, some of whom have recovered, many of whom continue to struggle, with few skills other than waging war and using drugs, they are a generation who were most powerful and successful during the war, which is dangerous. Unemployed, angry, psychologically scarred young men with access to former leaders of fighting forces, and potentially to arms, are one of the most volatile groups, with the capacity to return country to conflict when they get tired of driving moto-taxis and being looked down upon. Or how does Charles Taylor in jail help the people who were physically disabled during the war, who lost limbs or were blinded? How does it help the girls and women raped by fighting forced? What about those who got pregnant and now are young mothers with no one to support them and children who are products of war and terror.

Punishment is not the same thing as justice. Charles Taylor has been punished, but other than possibly sparing the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia the consequences of his return, there has been no justice. It is common knowledge in Liberia that all those responsible for crimes during the wars cannot face the judicial system, because there would be no one left in government to run the country. Sierra Leone has felt the satisfaction of the acknowledgement of Charles Taylor's role in the conflict, but this was accompanied by the fact that he wasn't in the country. The people who committed crimes against civilians on a day to day basis were not on trial at the ICC.

To quote a friend of mine, there needs to be restitution, not just punishment. How about we take some of Charles Taylor's millions and create scholarships for those affected by the war? What if he funds prostheses for victims of amputation? Money, even to good causes, doesn't fix what happened, but in addition to condoning and perpetuating violence, Charles Taylor stole millions. Since we're punishing him already, and what's he going to do with all that money while in prison anyway, let's redistribute it to some of the people he hurt. Personally, I'd rather he spent his days doing the work to help those people himself, but since that's not possible, I'll settle for his money.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

De anochecer a la alba

It was our last night in the town, where we had been for five days now, getting to know people and collecting data. I came across a boy on the porch of the house where I was staying, he was about 14. During the focus group discussion he had participated in, he emphasized that children living with adults other than their biological parents often are treated unfairly. I sat down on the porch next to him to relax and enjoy the dusk, as the temperature finally started to cool. I asked him what he was doing this evening, and didn't he have any homework? (Encouraging kids to study is pretty much my go-to casual chat.) It was Thursday evening and he said he needed to be back in his hometown by Friday morning. He was walking there with two of his friends.

Me: Is it far? Will it be a long way?
Him: Yes it is about five hours all through the bush.
Me: Ah, for this you have a cutlass? But how will you reach by tomorrow?
Him: We will leave soon when my friends come.
Me: You will walk in the dark? All night?
Him: Yes. I must dig and burn (farming) in the morning, so we walk tonight.
Me: Do you have any food or water to bring with you?
Him: No. 

I go to the room I am sharing with a colleague and find a used plastic water bottle. I fill it with water we have drawn from the hand pump in town. The house I'm staying in drinks water from a nearby creek. I give him the bottle. He smiles and nods. He then asks if I still want to learn some of the local language. He starts naming words, which I struggle to jot down phonetically, along with their definitions. He teaches me the words for animals, body parts, and foods. More children join and help him, laughing at my pronunciation, but encouraging me to continue. 

My female colleague, with whom I am sharing a room, asks if I want dinner. Dinner is leftover lunch, which was dry rice: white rice, oil, onion, chilies, and canned sardines. As we eat, the three teenage boys who will spend the night walking through thick jungle sit and chat, actively not watching us spoon the rice out of one pot into our mouths. It starts to rain. My colleague tells me that she has told the boys (in local language) not to leave until the rain has stopped. The snakes come out when it rains and if one bites them they could die. This is a very real and legitimate fear from what I have heard. During the FGD these boys also told us about men in the bush who can prey on young people or people walking alone, hurting them or killing them to steal body parts for ritual sacrifice. She teases them, asking if they aren't afraid? I ask too, hoping we can scare them into waiting until morning. I stop eating, knowing that these boys will get whatever we don't eat. They take the pot and our used spoons and dig in hungrily, their spoons making loud scraping sounds as they make sure to get every grain of rice and drop of oil.

Two of the boys want to ask me questions, but are shy, worried I won't understand their English, as they often don't understand mine. The boy I was chatting with earlier asks "Why you so light and I so dark?", I don't understand at first, but my colleague repeats in formal English, I shake my head not sure how to answer. "Why you so fine (this just means nice in Liberia) and I so ugly?" I shake my head again, contradicting his assumption. This boy has never left this small region of Liberia. It is likely that I am among the first white people he has ever spoken to; he doesn't have television or access to visual media. So where did he get the idea that being white is good and attractive and black is bad and ugly?

Then this same boy starts to study. I ask him what he is reading and he shows me the book, he is learning about the war here, World Wars 1, 2 and 3 in local speak. I ask him if he will read it to me, so I can learn too. I have forgotten to ask what grade he is in (at 14). He is in third grade, shaking his head, saying he doesn't want to read. Then he asks my colleague to ask me if I will read it. I start, reading slowly and enunciating, there are still many words he doesn't understand. "She must be white! Girl can read!" I read, showing him the book, pausing at words I suspect he may not know (like faction or dissolve), asking if he knows, explaining what they mean. We finish the chapter and start the review questions, he knows none of the answers. I suggest we go back through the chapter, with him reading so he can find them. Rather than skim for key words as I might do, he flips to the beginning of the chapter and begins to read again. He stumbles over words regularly. The vocabulary is far beyond his reading skills, and is not appropriate for his grade, causing him frustration. When he hits a word he doesn't know, he says the letters aloud: fierce - F-I-E-R-C-E. Sometimes he recognizes the sound of the letters in order and identifies the word, but when he doesn't he stops, looking at me. I try to go slowly, covering up parts of words and asking him what sounds the letters make. He and the boys watching are amazed, no one has ever taught them how to sound out words before. I can't imagine learning to read, and only ever being able to read the words someone has taught you, not being able to learn new ones on your own by sounding them out and identifying parts of words you know, can you?

Eventually I go to bed, leaving the boys on their own, laughing among themselves at my reading skills and teasing each other for being dumb. In the morning I hear from my colleagues that the boys left for home late in the night, when the rain let up, but still in the pitch dark. They are all living with relatives in order to attend school, because there is no school where they are from. But, there is no one to plant their fields at home, so they must go home and burn and plant before the season passes. This food goes to feed the family members still in their original villages, and along with their daily labor, pays the families they stay with for their rooms and school supplies.

I wasn't sure what to conclude from this. Is it a lesson in the potentially negative aspects of sending children away from home to live with alternative caregivers? Is it the burden placed on the shoulders of children when a parent has died? Is it the consequences of a lack of access to education? Is it that this boy has been taught, and internalized, that he is inferior to others? Is the lack of transportation? Lack of access to clean water or even a bottle to hold dirty water during a walk that will take hours? Is it that this boy, still a child, is fluent in his own language, but is only taught in a language he doesn't understand, so he is teased? Is it that there is a 14 year-old in 3rd grade, or that a third grader can't read? Or that, at 14 and in 3rd grade, the likelihood he will study for more than another year or two is unlikely? Or is it that he is surely more educated than his parents, which is an accomplishment? 

I'm not sure. But what I can say is that there are people who argue that development doesn't work, that we're getting no where and that it's a waste of money. But I think that (among other things) what those people miss is the impact on individual lives. Every step is an accomplishment, from this boy's desire to study, to his insistence on maintaining his family farm, to his being able to safely move about a county that was once the heart of the war. You can look at the story and feel sad, or you can look at it and see potential and progress. Progress towards education (there is a school where there wasn't one ten years ago), clean water (there is a hand pump in the community, although too far to walk to), he is functionally literate, he has access to land and income, and he wants to learn. 

Additionally, when this research went through an ethics review board, I was asked what the benefit for those participating was, weren't we just taking from them and giving nothing in return? I explained that there are people that no one ever asks for their opinion, and no one ever listens to; child protection concerns (abuse, exploitation, violence, and neglect) aren't the issue of the day, and when children experience them, they often bear them in silence, believing it is their lot in life. Sitting together and discussing the things that make them feel unsafe or insecure and hearing that other children face them too, is beneficial, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. This boy was heard, and then later someone encouraged him to change his actions in order to keep himself safe, because he is important, and he did change, even if only a little, even if only for that day.