Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Men are from Venus, women are from Mars, or ...?

There's been much to do about the fact that, on the issue of the U.S. military action in Libya, key women on Obama's staff were more pro-intervention than their male colleagues. Maureen Dowd gives a representative overview in a recent NYT column.

Dowd already makes clear just how simplistic this gender stereotyping is, but now Charli Carpenter has an excellent and thoughtful discussion of the issue over at Foreign Affairs, titled Flight of the Valkyries: What gender does and doesn't tell us about operation Odyssey Dawn. One crucial point Carpenter makes: the international context within which political actors come of age likely has far more to do with support or opposition to the intervention in Libya than gender.

A similar message emerges from an illuminating new book by my former colleague Mia Bloom, titled Bombshell: The many faces of women terrorists. The book strikingly illustrates the similarity across genders of most motivations for terrorism (rape is a key gender-specific exception). In fact, gender disparities in terrorist activities appear driven largely by sexism and chauvinism among those who recruit terrorists ('demand'), rather than by gender-based differences in willingness to engage in such activities ('supply').

There is something amusing about the fact that, in this respect at least, the leadership of Al Qaeda appears to have quite a bit in common with the Washington, DC press corps.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How to contribute to disaster relief

Yesterday I posted some critical comments regarding disaster relief aid. These should under no circumstances be taken to imply that I think disaster relief aid is not valuable, or that it is not important to contribute to such aid. The key point is that it is worth thinking very carefully about making sure each contribution actually makes a difference.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig has a very good list of "Dos and don'ts of disaster donations" on her blog; these were written for the 2004 tsunami and updated for last year's Haiti earthquake, but they are no less valuable today, applied to Japan's earthquake/tsunami. I highly recommend reading through these before making any donation.

One important point that comes through in Saundra's list is that disaster aid is most likely to arrive when it is comparatively less needed. Organizations that are already active on the ground are best positioned to provide aid in the immediate aftermath. By the time donations from around the world arrive in the bank accounts of these organizations, they have already incurred most of their startup costs.

At the other end of the timescale, much of the crucial rebuilding work happens after the world media has moved on (when did you last hear or read something about the ongoing rebuilding effort in Haiti?), and thus also after new donations stop flowing in.

This has two implications: it means that it is less important to give as soon as possible than people sometimes believe, and it means that some of the most important donations take place before a disaster takes place. For this reason, I highly recommend not earmarking donations for a specific crisis. If you do wish to earmark a donation for a specific crisis, donate to an organization focused on the rebuilding process, rather than on emergency disaster relief operations.

On the other hand, if you want to support emergency disaster relief, consider contributing to an organization for which disaster relief is part of the ongoing mission, regardless of where disasters may occur. One excellent example in this category is Doctors without Borders/Médécins sans Frontières (MSF). MSF is acutely aware of potential pitfalls associated with disaster relief aid, and deliberately is not accepting donations specifically earmarked for Japan. Read their statement here.

In the case of Japan, I also want to reiterate the importance of asking what the added value of a contribution to disaster relief there is likely to be, given that:
1. Japan is a rich country which, moreover, can print its own money. This means that shortage of funds is unlikely to be the determining factor in limiting relief operations.
2. Japan is also an open, well-functioning democracy, with a government that cares about the well-being of its citizens. This means that situations in which the government deliberately neglects particular affected groups or areas (and in which relief organizations could play a key role) are unlikely to arise.

In contrast, there are numerous conflict- and disaster areas around the world where neither of these two conditions holds. MSF is active in most of them. So is the Red Cross. Consider giving to these organizations so they can make a difference where they are needed most.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How babies are like natural disasters

A few years ago, when good friends of mine had just had their first child, I remember talking with them about how one set of grandparents was great to have visit, whereas the other was not. The difference was not that that the second set loved them or the grandchild any less, but that they were unfamiliar with where everything was in the house, with the neighbourhood where my friends lived, and they had their own ideas about what my friends needed to help them through the first weeks with a baby. Because of this, the second set of parents actually made for more stress and sleep deprivation, rather than less.

I think most people readily identify with this problem: just about everyone has friends or family who, however well-intentioned, seem unable to be of any real help — whether they try to help with a baby, with home repair jobs, with yard work, or anything at all, really. They simply require more time and attention to coordinate and point in the right direction than they save by taking some jobs off your hands.

This, I believe, is how one should think about disaster relief aid. No matter how much we want to help in the aftermath of a disaster, we should ask ourselves what our help would be like. Have the people we are thinking of helping asked for help? Do we know their circumstances and "neighbourhood"? Can we provide the kind of help they need? Or would we (or those we fund) simply be in the way and underfoot? If not, those we wish to help might prefer not to receive our assistance, even if they may also be too polite to say so.

In the specific case of Japan's earthquake/tsunami disaster, it is not obvious that Japan needs or wants money. Japan, after all has its own currency, and with current inflation levels very low, the government can simply print more money.

Nor is it obvious that many of the organizations that are now raising funds for disaster relief in Japan are familiar with the area and have the requisite local contacts. GlobalGiving, for example, which has raised more than $2 million so far, is an organization set up to promote projects in the developing world, not in one of the richest countries in the world. In fact, their website indicates that they have never previously been active in Japan. Moreover, they appear not to have quite figured out what they will do with the money they've raised, saying "We will post more details of the specific use of funds as soon as possible."

This seems sort of like hiring an actor who plays a parent on TV to help you out when you have a baby. It could turn out well, but chances seem pretty slim.

It is possible that this analogy appeals to me at the moment only because I am a brand new parent. If it fails to move you (or even if it does resonate), I highly recommend reading the discussion of the issue on the blog of GiveWell.org, an organization whose sole purpose is to figure out the most cost-effective and useful ways to give aid intended to improve the lives of others. They argued about 10 days ago that there appears to be "no room for more funding" and followed this with a clarification last Thursday that further elaborated their position.

Everyone their own charity?

It has long been a truism in development assistance that aid coordination could go a long ways towards making aid more effective (and less of an administrative nightmare for recipients to manage). Unfortunately, most donors — governments and individuals alike — tend to support aid coordination only as long as others coordinate with them. This means that governments coordinate much less than you'd expect, and that individuals continually start new non-governmental aid organizations.

A similar pattern is evident in disaster relief. It appears that the IRS has, over the past few weeks, received 4500 applications for new non-profit organizations set up to respond to the disaster in Japan. Nor is Japan's case unique: lots of new relief organizations were created in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as well. Although there may be some fraud involved, the vast majority of such organizations are undoubtedly well-intentioned. That does not mean, however, that they are needed.

Even many well-established disaster relief organizations are currently simply standing by, waiting to see whether there is something they can do to help in Japan. The chance that a brand-new organization would be able to accomplish something they cannot is vanishingly small. And the chance that it's presence will be counterproductive is actually quite high (for example, by further taxing an already heavily overstretched local infrastructure).

A recent article in the Guardian by Conor Foley, titled "good intentions are not enough," discusses the case of fifteen British volunteers who had flown to Japan with relief supplies, but who had been refused permission to work in the quake region. In the end, they handed over their supplies to the Salvation Army and were forced to leave. It would have been better for everyone involved if they had contributed those supplies to the Salvation Army directly. They could have then increased their donation by the cost of the fifteen tickets to Japan that they would not have needed to buy.

Post-disaster aid to rich countries: the case of Katrina

Major natural disasters offer countries an opportunity to rise above the normal standards of international interaction. For example, a large number of countries offered generous help in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Some, such as Cuba, offer aid purely as a public relations ploy, with no expectation that it will be accepted. Conversely, some such aid may be rejected, for similar symbolic reasons.

Still, that leaves a lot of countries. Wikipedia has a page on the international response to hurricane Katrina, listing pledges from more than 100 countries and international organizations besides Cuba, including such unlikely candidates as Vietnam (pledged $100,000), Mongolia ($50,000), and Albania ($308,000).

Interestingly, most of that aid was not claimed by the United States. A Washington Post article by John Solomon and Spenser Hsu, written two years after the hurricane, noted that "Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil."

Sometimes the problem was aid was earmarked for specific purposes where it was not needed. At times bureaucratic red tape was the problem. In addition, some "valuable supplies and services -- such as cellphone systems, medicine and cruise ships -- were delayed or declined because the government could not handle them." Indeed, Administration officials admitted in 2006 "that they were ill prepared to coordinate and distribute foreign aid and that only about half the $126 million received had been put to use."

Some of the problems can be chalked up to incompetence and ineptitude, but it is clear from the article that the logistics of handling and coordinating all these aid offers taxed well-meaning officials to their limit. The article provides sobering reading for anyone thinking about how best to (or even whether to) provide aid to Japan in its current crisis.

One clear conclusion to be drawn: well-established non-governmental organizations with some local institutional infrastructure and specific preparedness in disaster response — most obviously, the Red Cross — are most likely to be able to put disaster relief aid to good use; more so, even, than a government as rich, powerful, and (generally) well-run as that of the United States.

Libya is more than a coastline

I'm doing some research on disaster relief, and encountering a number of interesting items along the way. Since updates to this blog have been woefully infrequent recently, I'm going to link to a few without too much comment.

First up: lots of people have noted that much of the Libyan population lives very close to the Mediterranean cost. For example, Christopher Hitchens, writing in slate, calls the country "in effect a long strip of coastline, with a vast hinterland of desert." However, that hinterland is not empty.

In fact, it contains both towns and, more importantly, weapons arsenals. Alex de Waal points out that Libya's neighbours are quite concerned about this, since groups aiming to overthrow their governments have long sought shelter in Libya. Now that Gaddafi has made his arsenals available to anyone willing to fight on behalf of his rule, "such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease." Not only that, de Waal reports that "Mercenaries, freebooters and rebels from across the Sahel, and even beyond, are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take all you can arms bonanza."

This is not an issue that has been much discussed in the international media, but given the number of long-simmering conflicts in the region, it is a problem well worth monitoring more closely.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lying on the television news

A famous 1986 column in The New Republic by Michael Kinsley noted that "Worthwhile Canadian initiative" was perhaps the world's most boring headline imaginable (it was a real headline, from a New York Times column). Boring, in part, because Canada keeps putting forward worthwhile initiatives, again and again. Indeed, Kinsley wrote a column of his own titled "Worthwhile Canadian initiative" on the Atlantic wire just last summer.

The past few weeks, on the other hand, have brought us the worthwhile Canadian initiative-stopper. As RFK Jr. points out in a Huffington Post column, Canadian regulators decided to reject attempts to repeal a law that forbids lying on broadcast news. The country's "Radio Act" forbids the broadcasting of "false or misleading news"; the country's right-wing Prime Minister, among others, wanted this changed, to make possible a Fox News-style channel, as well as right-wing talk radio of the kind that is so popular in the United States.

Ironically, the vice president of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada — a union representing more than 20,000 journalists — is Peter Murdoch. Murdoch called the proposal to repeal the law "totally bizarre". I think it is safe to conclude he is not related to Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch. :-)