/* Written 7:22 PM Apr 11, 1997 by vbritto in igc:women.dev */
/* ---------- "Disasters and Development - Part 1" ---------- */
Talking about Development - an International Interview Series
This interview is part of the above project that can be found
I interviewed Nick Carter, during the symposium "Lifeline Media:
Protecting Civilians in Conflict," sponsored by ICHR (International
Centre for Humanitarian Reporting). Mr. Carter has a journalistic
background on environmental issues and has been working with
development and communications for many years. He is currently
co-editor of the World's Disaster Report and we discussed a variety of
issues concerning development and disasters.
Main topics: development, disasters, refugees, end of the cold war and
impact on development, aid/development agencies, North/South relations,
non-profits, privatization and government.
The interview has been divided into two parts for smaller file sizes.
VB) Tell me about what you currently work in.
I run a small network consultancy out of the UK, called Words and
Pictures, and it's been around for about 10 years. Essentially what I
do is I have a network of people I regularly work with on a whole
range of different projects. We're a commercial organization, though
the only things that we do focus on are issues of environment,
development, disaster, human rights, education, this kind of thing.
We've done some work on AIDS. Usually with international
organizations, although we've done a certain amount of things with
VB) And when you say work, what do you mean by that?
Well, we work mainly in the media area, also management consultancy,
but we mainly work in the media area. So we do straightforward media
relations, we'll communicate their message to others, we can advise
them how to do it themselves, we write reports. The largest single
project we have at the moment is the World's Disasters Report which is
an annual global production. It's a 208 page book that comes out every
year in English, published by the Oxford University Press globally, but
it also comes out in six or seven other languages: Frech, Spanish,
German, Japanese, Finish, etc. In a sense we define disaster such as
the kind of thing the Red Cross movement gets involved in, it's
supported by the Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent
Societies, I'm a co-editor, it's every thing from diseases, we're doing
a chapter on epidemics, through to standard natural disasters in the
Caribbean, into things like war and crisis, and so on.
VB) A lot of these topics are intrinsically related to "development."
What's your idea of development?
If I have to sum it up in a single sentence: to make people rich. That
may sound a bit crass, we can come from the outside and get into some
very complicated definitions of development in terms of people's
welfare, and their health, and this and that... Rich people don't die
young. Rich people don't die in childbirth generally, they don't catch
diseases, when things happen to them, they recover very easily. And
our problem in the world at this moment is that more people are getting
poor. People are getting poorer and there are more poor people. I
think as a percentage, the amount of hunger in the world is going down,
but the absolute numbers are going up. So maybe we are getting a
little better, but that's a pretty crude way of looking at it. On the
whole, bearing in mind the usual caveats about rich people and
environmental problems, if people are richer, wealthier, that would
imply a whole series of things about their rights, about their access
to land, about their general security and welfare, and if we could
achieve that where everybody had a reasonable standard of living in
terms of their income, leave it up to them what they want to do with
it. So I take a much more privatization-Thatcherite "let people get on
with it" view. I'm very keen on indigenous led development.
One of the great troubles I have with all of the development/aid
business, is that the great temptation to interfere, the great
temptation to feel
we must be there, we've got to fly in... I was in a conference
recently where there was a guy from an Indian network of organizations,
very experienced in disasters, who said: "We love to have friends
arrive, but we're busy." Essentially what he was saying was don't come,
you know, just give us five minutes, no disaster tourism.
I think also in developmental terms, the longer I go in this business,
the more I am absolutely convinced that I know nothing about it all and
our level of ignoraance
about how societies work, how economies work, how people "develop" is
enormous and growing by the day.
The fact, the idea that we can come in into somebody else's society and
do things for them is ridiculous. And the idea that we even understand
what's going on is probably pretty futile. We would never expect the
average Indian, Chinese, Latin American person to come to this country
and tell us how to run, say, Boston. You just don't understand it! Or
think about getting into zoning discussions or planning... And yet we
feel very comfortable in going into Africa and start talking about the
structure of a village and how people should plan it and communal
ownership of land and this kind of thing.
In terms of my thinking and my work, I do focus much more on disasters,
but then disasters are very interesting ways of looking at societies,
it exposes a lot of things that are going on. Disasters are also
tremendously effective mechanisms for making people poorer. People who
were already vulnerable, insecure, with low income, in disasters they
lose out very badly. People who even have quite marginal levels of
wealth and security actually can do quite well in disasters, but
unfortunately have to do it by scraping the people at the bottom.
But disasters are also an interesting way of cutting the cake to
understand poverty and lack of development or underdevelopment. I was
recently writing up on Ethiopia and working with people who were saying
with the studies they were doing that they can now predict who will
live and who will die in the next famines in certain villages. And
they worked with people's security and land ownership and the fact that
they had trouble before. The same people are relentlessly being ground
by disaster after disaster after disaster.
So I find it hard to see development in quite the same smooth, rosy
glow that I suspect people who talk about development do: "it's very
long term, but there's a steady flow." I don't see it in that kind of
way. I see an awful lot of people have a series of cataclysmic events
happening to them, hundreds of millions of people a year are affected
by disasters. When we look at development we are looking at a
massively interrupted process.
One of the things when people talk about development, I get worried
because they don't factor in things like disasters. Even people at the
World Bank find it very hard to factor in that probably projects will
be interrupted by very difficult events and so on which will then upset
the whole thing and set it back.
Unless you've thought about it in advance, you're not going to be very
good in dealing with it, or managing the process, or thinking: we are
probably going to have an earthquake, or a war, or something like that,
which will make life very difficult. How will we cope with it? What
do we do? What structures are we putting into place that are not so
This comes back to issues of sustainability, of durability. Again, if
it isn't indigenous led, it isn't going to work. If people haven't
thought through it in advance, they are going to have real problems.
VB) How have your current ideas of development changed over time?
I came from a very conventional view in the past. My whole background
is as a journalist and I spent 8 years in conventional journalism. I
think certainly that I moved from thinking that development is
something that you can impose, or that you can introduce, or you can
encourage, to seeing that development is something that people do for
themselves. And if you want to help them, that's a great idea, but
it's a very difficult thing, because the moment you arrive at a
situation you alter it.
When external people turn up, the expectations go through the roof. No
matter what you say, the very presence of foreigners in a situation,
people think "any minute now, we're going to have this, this and
this." Despite the fact that in the every situation, people who have
been survivors of disasters or working in a situation, often report,
"We see a lot of foreigners come and they ask us a lot of questions and
then they go away again and another new group comes again and nothing
But the expectations are there. So, in that sense, over time, I have
ceased to be as naive, wouldn't everybody? I certainly see it as a
situation where the key issue, in my view, is it's very good to work in
immunization, child health, or rehydration, but fundamentally these are
treating symptoms. People in that sense die from being poor. They
have problems with disasters from being poor. Therefore, if you do
things that do not focus on making people rich, you're probably not
going to get anywhere. You could have the healthiest population in the
world, but if they are so poor that they cannot scrape a living out of
the ground, or when something happens to them, they have no reserves to
fall back on, they'll die! And we are making life more difficult for
those people, we are giving them less safety nets...
When I talk to people in Aid agencies, people still find it almost a
little bit rude when I say: What works? What did you do that was right?
What did you do that was wrong? How do you know?
Evaluation is still very imprecise. There's a lot of work done in
evaluation and people are waking up to the fact that if you keep doing
things and never know if it's any good, you could be wasting all of
I think we are beginning to learn that we have to be very careful with
what we do. I think it revolves around income, if people are poor it's
very hard for them to get anywhere, bootstraps and all that. and we
find an increasing number of people who are right at the poorest level.
The process of globalization, commercialization, privatization of land,
all of these are undermining people, and we are going to have to work
within those constraints. There's only one game in town at the moment,
there's only one superpower, there's only one ideology, so a lot of
what we do in the aid and the development business is soften the edges
of capitalism. Capitalism can be quite violent to people. We know
that, that's absolutely obvious, it can be very destructive because of
the kind of inequalities within it.
I remember hearing a former American from the trade sector saying they
were going to merge markets "with a crow bar." The crow bar open
markets... Now the imagery is very interesting. I'm not a believer in
holding back that process, it's probably inevitable. I think the
globalization of business and commerce and trade is not something we
are going to stop. We have to be very careful, though, in analyzing
how it's going to affect people.
I think we have to think about proactive ways, protectionism and this
kind of thing, in the end, it doesn't work. In the end the crash that
comes is harder. Somehow we have to think of better ways of working
within that ideology, within that dominant economic system, that are
going to let people have a chance to survive. So we have to do things
like microcredit, these other kinds of things. And we have to think
about issues of land tenure.
I've been a local reporter and one of the single biggest issues in any
community is planning, it's about land, it's about who's got the right
to do what, where, and so forth. I think this is the same for a
peasant in Latin America as for a villager in the North of England.
We have to think about people's fundamental access to land and the
security that that brings. At the moment what's happening is some very
fundamental changes going on in terms of land tenure in places like
Africa. And they are happening without a great deal of thought. A lot
of the time when people get into issues such as land tenure, they talk
about trying to establish land rights in a conventional paper manner.
Bits of paper very rarely are able to express an African or traditional
context the web of rights and benefits and responsibilities that people
have. To write down what's happening to a piece of land in Africa is a
book! Because people will have access to land, some people will own
it perhaps, some people will have rights to use it, some people will
have access to take some of its products, some people will traverse
across it. A piece of paper probably won't be very useful if we try to
squash it down and say: "you own it." What's going to happen is that
you are going to have that bit of paper and a lot of other things that
go on the side. And if the bit of paper doesn't reflect the rest of
it, there are just going to be more disputes. Because you will be
crystallizing a situation which is fluid and you will be preventing the
ebb and flow of things.
So I think land tenure will be a very important issue in the future.
If we don't get that right, what will happen is that we will remove
millions, billions of people from the fundamental thing that can keep
them alive. We are already seeing that.
In one sense, when we look around the world, people who live in cities
are very vulnerable, they depend upon immensely complex systems.
People who live on the land are in many ways less vulnerable.
We have 18 inches of snow, the electricity goes out, the traffic
doesn't move, you can't get food into the place...
This comes back to if we got one dominant ideology and one economic system,
we have to think about how that affects people, we have to work very
close with them, they have to understand what's going to happen to
them, they have to accommodate to it and deal with it. I'm not
necessarily in favor of, let's say, massive resistance movements, I
think one has to be realistic about what is possible. For example,
yesterday we were talking about how Freeport is working in Papua New
Guinea. I'm actually quite keen on Irian Java, I'm actually quite keen
on this idea of American lawyers doing class action suits against
American companies on behalf of peasants in whereever.
That seems to me like a good way to make the system work. I think the
idea of people who are existing on bows and arrows can run an effective
resistance movement against a multinational company which has got the
permission of the government and the back up of mercenaries or military
forces, I think that's asking people to go and get themselves
slaughtered. In which case, what we probably need to work on is to get
laws right, establishing good consumer movements, establishing good
connections between the North and the South and getting clearer on what
we can do to help each other.
One of the things I certainly think is happening is a trend in aid, a
shift of buying power South. The amount of official development aid,
ODA, has probably just about peaked, we're about 65 billion (bilateral,
multilateral, including disasters, it doesn't include all of the costs
of peacekeeping, but a fair amount). Of course the absolute amount of
money bears no relation to the actual GNP of the donor countries, the
GNP of the recipients, or the scale of the problems. But these are
very small amounts of money in real terms compared to
trade or financial flows. The amount of private direct investment in
developing countries, in developing economies, although very skewed
towards the Chinas and the South Africas of this world, I think it
overtook official development assistance about five years ago, and is
now way more important. And obviously trade flows, coffee or tea, or
even cut flowers, there is a massive amount of money these days. So
aid is very small, so it better be very catalytic, if it's going to
have an impact.
The way things happen now is that donors give the money to Northern
friends, people they work with a lot. I would prefer to see it going
into Southern NGOs (non-governmental organizations), Southern
institutions, organizations. There are a lot of them out there, they
are growing in numbers and size, in professionalism. And the best way
for them to grow in professionalism, etc., is to give them a chance to
grow, which is to give them the money. Some of them will do it very
badly, some of them will do it very well, and everyone else will muddle
through, and in that process we will find out the people that can and
those who can't, and then you reward those that can.
On the whole, Southern NGOs are much more realistic, much more
entrepreneurial, they have to be, to survive. On the whole,
generalizing wildly, I suspect that they are much more of a hybrid
between profit and non-profit, that they will find ways to accommodate
themselves to the reality of the environment. If we give them the 70
billion, people who have NGOs, consumer groups, action groups in the
South, will then be able to say what do we really need the North for:
for fund raising, lobbying, advocacy...
Now aid agencies don't really like this, to talk about working
out of a job, i'm not sure they fundamentally find that a very easy
concept, because they are terribly bad at downsizing. Whenever aid
agencies have to sack people, there's an agony about it, they're not
used it, I mean, they are used to growth! We've had 20, 30 years of
growth in the aid agency field, development and disasters. In 1971,
the entire overseas development assistance was something like 200
million dollars! And Rwanda in 94/95 cost 1.4 billion! Now having
gotten to this stage, we're coming down the other side maybe. So we've
had massive cutbacks in the UK, the UN is downsizing, finally, at last...
Boston, MA - April 1997 - Original interview in English