/* Written 7:25 PM Apr 11, 1997 by vbritto in igc:women.dev */
/* ---------- "Disasters and development - Part 2" ---------- */
Talking about Development - an International Interview Series
This interview is part of the above project that can be
found at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~fiatlux/td/
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) Do you see this as a result of the end of the cold war? How has the
end of the cold war affected all of this?
The first thing is that there is only one ideology, there's only one
game in town. And it's taking people a little bit of time to realize
that. In a sense, they have to live with it now. Nobody else is
coming to the rescue.
In the US, for example, people try to recreate the cold war in other
forms, I keep reading things like "the coming war with
China," "the clash with Islam."
It's a bit like a security blanket. Like the drugs war... Why we need
to keep having wars, I'm not quite sure, maybe it's something with the
American personality, they want to go and kill people, but there won't
be that kind of thing again.
We're now beginning to perceive the complexity of the world we live in,
it's not simply black/white, freedom/suppression, whatever, it's
multi-hued. Even within a single ideology we're beginning to allow
different views, you know, the guy is not all bad or all good.
And it's taking us a long to time to understand that we can have a lot
of horrible little wars, that can be fought street by street,
rape by rape, anti-personnel by anti-personnel mine, and these wars
will be locally driven.
Aid is one product of that, because aid came out of these kind of
things, it was one way of fighting that particular cold war, it was a
bit like the virility symbol. You see this in every different way, the
way governments begin to compete, because there is not any other way of
doing it, governments are very stupid institutions.
Among the changes that have happened, then, we have a new set of politics
that we haven't fully understood yet. People are still clinging to the
past, they want nice, big conflicts that are easy to understand, they
want bogey men.
We've also got a situation where aid agencies in particular are
intervening directly in the heart of conflicts in a way that they would
never have done before. It's a bit like the medium is the message,
form takes content. The fact that you can go into a war zone and
you'll probably survive, because people don't get killed very
effectively in wars, makes people in aid agencies do it. So we've
massively increased the opportunities for people to go and spend money.
We're now beginning to learn that that's not very easy to do, that we
don't understand conflict, we don't know how to intervene in conflict,
that we may very well be provoking conflict or sustaining conflict or
fueling through the physical goods that we are bringing in, or even our
presence and the expectations they raise.
So we zip in, we interfere, we rush in, and I think that now we are
beginning to say, "well, hang on a second..." Maybe we'll never go back
to the old days where we just waited for refugees to arrive, whoever
survived the journey to come across the border. But I think that we
are going to have a new realism about what is possible to do, what is
cost- effective. If we haven't got the money, we can't go, no matter
how desperate the situation may be.
Another sort of change that's happening, it took the end of the cold
war, for many countries to sort of wake to up the fact that it might be
convenient to blame colonialism, it may even be right, but for example
in Africa, Africa is going to have to sort it out for themselves. Even
if they don't like it, they will probably have to trade their way into
development, they may have no other option, so they will have to do it
for themselves. So the end of the cold war has been useful in the
sense of people realizing that they will not be rescued.
I think the other thing that the cold war seems to have done is that,
previously, we were very government oriented. I'm not necessarily in
favor or against governments, they are one way of organizing things.
What we are now seeing in a lot of countries is a whole growth in the
third sector that we previously, when governments were *the* big thing,
you know, bilateral aid, you put money into governments, governments
did things with it, you supported government structures. Now we are
seeing the whole undermining of government, the growth of
privatization, the growth of structural adjustment, which is
privatization by a different name, we are creating a privatized
In that sense, the end of the cold war allowed that to free up. In
that situation it does become more complicated, if there's a government
there and the government provides health care, education, whatever,
it's very simple. If what you end up with is a patchwork quilt of
charities, churches, aid agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, plus
the whole of the commercial sector, that's a bit more complicated to
deal with. That provides a whole new set of actors and agents.
As I said yesterday, rather than worrying about China or Islam or
whatever, I'm far more concerned with how far we let the state to
wither. I don't think that we can allow capitalism to just reign
triumphant. I think we have to look at how far we can allow the state
to retreat, how far we want to advance with everything else. This is
not ideological, I'm just trying to be practical. If on the whole, we
do not want people to die for preventable reasons, then we have to
create mechanisms to prevent that. If people cannot afford medical
insurance, we have to have some element of a health net to catch
people. If people cannot grow enough food to feed themselves, we'll
have to find a way to deal with that.
A simple example, in the Caribbean, probably we're shifting to a period
of a lot of hurricanes. Even in the last 2 or 3 years, the insurance
companies have waken up to this. they now won't cover a lot of
hurricane risks. That therefore means that conventional economic
development becomes much, much, more difficult. Not only regarding
homes, but if you can't have businesses, you can't have jobs, you
cannot have economic development. Maybe there needs to be at the end
of the line a kind of backstop to this kind of thing. Otherwise
governments will have to say, "we can't have development in this
country, in this region, this patch." Bangladesh will not be allowed
to develop because it's very vulnerable to cyclones. The Caribbean
should be evacuated because there aren't many jobs left, nobody is
going to come a hurricane zone for tourism, and nobody will set up a
manufacturing plant or service industry or agriculture, when they have
no idea if next year they will be wiped out. So where is government in
this? Should it be in it? Well, probably. How is government going to
be in that one? I don't know the answer to that one, but probably the
government has to sit down with the insurance industry and say: what
should we do?
So the limits of government retreat, it's kind of interesting.
The other purely practical side of this is that private companies don't
want to take all of the functions
of government, like ethical decision making, deciding who lives and
dies, that's not what private companies do.
We're also expecting a lot when governments rush away from their
responsibilities and leave it up to charities. Charities are not
necessarily able to do all the things that they would like to do, they
don't have the funding, they may be cheaper, because they don't pay
their people as well... So there may be limits to how far forward the
third sector and the private sector can come. I don't know the
American situation very well, but this welfare bill will probably leave
a lot of people
very vulnerable and there won't be the jobs. The fact that people have
very little money will not mean that jobs will rush in, it takes time.
We'll see a situation where after the event, we'll realize that we
shouldn't have done something, that a lot of people have been harmed
and undermined, and obviously in this process, people lose resources,
they lose their capability to survive.
I don't think it's a left/right or any other kind of split on it, it's
a practical thing of saying given we live in a kind of mixed economy,
probably government are still going to do some things, how far do we
let it go?
I think that's a very important discussion in which aid agencies,
charities, churches, and so on, have a very important role to play,
because they are part of the solution, but they also have to define
their own limits. And this is a rather interesting area because there
is this kind of free for all atmosphere. There's a great temptation
for some people to say: Wow! we can go in and intervene in a war or
Wow! we can become a major service provider. And charities are usually
enormously enthusiastic as a whole, because you have to get people to
believe and so on, and are motivated in different kind of ways.
I think there are fewer responsibilities because there are different
ways of testing if charities do good. They don't have bottom lines,
they need to invent a few more bottom lines, they need to have a way of
testing their standards, their quality, it comes right back to this
evaluation issue, to know that they are doing good work, that they do
it better than other people.
If they don't have those tests, it then becomes very difficult to
decide among the alternatives, of whether it should be commercial
company, whether the charity should do it, who has the best comparable
advantage. I think that creates even a greater burden
upon charities to be absolutely honest about their skills, their
abilities, their capacities, and so on, and where possible, to define
their own limits.
And this is difficult because everyone says: Wow! There's some money to
do X, or to do Y, and this makes people very enthusiastic, and it
makes people take on these commitments. And they may not be the best
people to do it. But unlike businesses, charities do not go bust most
of the time, charities just keep toddling on, we've got millions of the
damn things now.
In any other kind of market, they would be willowing out. In this
world what happens is that charities become smaller and smaller until
their overheads take over their income and then they go moribund. And
that's the best scenario.
And other charities go on doing terribly bad work and keep getting
funded, wandering around, promoting themselves... You don't have any
way of judging!
The public doesn't have many ways of judging, because there's not
enough information. People in charities start doing creative
accounting... And the public is completely confused, it obviously has
the least amount of information when it comes to overseas work. No
matter the glitzy films and the fund raising appeals... You know, who
is helping the public understand whether this charity or that charity
is doing good work in Rwanda? Nobody! Journalists don't understand a
lot of the time what charities do, that's why I keep appealing to
charities, if charities want to have a better and more realistic
understanding of their work, they are going to have to invest in
helping journalists to understand it, you can't just assume that
journalists are going to learn by osmosis the realities of your
We need a more realistic interpretation of what's going on, what can
and cannot happen. We need journalists to be the public's eyes and
ears as they are in many other situations, which is very difficult in a
Rwanda. So I keep saying to aid agencies: Why don't you have writers
in residence, reporters in residence, photographers in residence,
broadcasters in residence? So they understand the realities, the
stresses and strains of the business you are in. Perfection is not
possible, everybody loses bags of grain, everybody has problems, people
do die because of mistakes that are made. But the journalists will
gain out of that a bit of the appreciation of the reality of this and
will be better able to do a job judging good work.
In a local situation it's much easier to tell. Your local church does
good work, you can see it, you can visit, you can talk to recipients!
Internationally, how many visits did you make to Rwandan refugees?
So we end up with a whole number
of organizations that are founded on a good idea, on a couple of
hundred bucks, and they never go out of business, no matter how
terrible they become. We have no way of scrutinizing or observing
As far as I'm aware, no aid agency has something like an ombudsman,
that a refugee can go to and say, "I got bad service." We have no
situation as far as I'm aware, in international terms, where you can
say to people, "I don't want your development." It's hard. Everyone
wants the money.
You certainly don't have, as far as I'm aware, in refugee camps where
refugee are offered a choice: would you prefer to be fed by Medecin
Sans Frontiers or Red Cross? Well, why not? I have advocated, it
doesn't happen, but I have advocated the idea that we move over to a
situation where we give refugees credit cards. And that credit card
could just be a cash credit card and they could buy what they want. We
get out of this trucking food around the place, which is what trucking
companies should do, not charities. Or charities should then have to
hire trucking companies, that's the way it should work. You certainly
could have a situation where you allocate people their food, their
water, heat, and light, and shelter, with a credit card situation, and
let them choose.
In the UK, for example, welfare recipients get cash. Food stamps are
an incredibly inefficient way of doing things, so I would prefer a cash
method, but I can understand there are difficulties because on the
whole, although we like to help refugees, we don't like to give them
money. We're very nervous about this.
Giving people food is one of the most inefficient ways of transferring
wealth that I know. When we're giving food in a situation, we're doing
two things, one is straightforward, we're trying to feed people, but
the other one is, the only resource people receive from us will be the
shelter materials, the food, and that's about it.
Therefore food is a form of income. And, as we all know, if you give
everybody food, that means the prices drop in the local markets, that
means you are giving people something that's almost worthless, but
that's the only thing they've got, so that's the only thing they can
sell. So they all
go out and sell the food.
We reported in the World's Disasters Report in 1995, I think it was,
that you could have people in Malawi refugee camps who had an
allocation of about 400 grams of food a day. If you had given them 350
grams as food and the equivalent of what it costs you to move the other
50 grams in cash, you would have given that equivalent of that 50 grams
as much value as the 350 combined.
So with that "50 grams" in cash, they could have gone to their local
market and bought 350 grams of food. You could have encouraged local
markets, it would have been a very efficient transfer... You can do
that with smart cards. So why aren't we doing that with smart cards?
Well, we don't want refugees to choose... We kind of want them to be
grateful recipients of our beneficence...
Well, let's give people something of value! And even within that, if
we are going to get smart about how we do these things, grain is not
necessarily the best thing, oil and salt have the kind of value factor
of: how much can you actually sell that good for in the local market?
Does it bring you back what it was worth? Maize never makes back what
it is worth, what it costs to buy and to ship in that situation. Oil
is sometimes worth more than what it costs to bring it in. Leaving
aside nutritional value for the moment... So I'm in favor of getting
to a situation where we give people a great deal more responsibility,
we let them sort out their own problems, we get away from the kind of
food stamp idea.
When you give poor people money in the UK, especially women, on the
whole they don't go out and buy drugs with it. We give them so little
anyway, they actually don't have a lot of choice, otherwise they are
going to starve to death.
VB) Wrapping up, is there anything you'd like to talk about that I
Shift South, move the money South, let people be responsible, let
people make mistakes, reward those that do things well, let them get on
with it. Be realistic about what aid can achieve. Aid is marginal,
therefore it has to be catalytic, it has to empower people.
You do not empower people by doing it for them. You empower people by
giving them the responsibility and standing well back and let them get
on with it, and if they fall on their faces, they learn from that. In
that sense, I'm hoping that we have a situation in the future where we
have less white guys wandering off to hot countries, and perspiring a
lot, and doing things for other people. We don't need more movements
of semi-skilled labor across the world.
If we were so good at development, we would now have a range of
strategies that were automatic almost. But we're not. We go into a
situation and each situation is different. So there isn't a magic
cure. If there isn't a magic cure, so how come we're peddling it as if
At the same time there is a clear responsibility with people working in
the North to keep an eye on what's happening, to report on it, to
lobby about it, to advocate, to fund raise, and so on. But let's start
focusing on that. I'm an advocate of knowledge, which is a two-way
flow, not an one-way flow of information, but a two-way flow of
evaluated information, of dialogue.
And what that implies for people in the North is to focus upon the
skills that are going to be marketable in the South, which is
knowledge, lobbying, advocacy, fund raising, and if we can avoid
sending doctors, nurses, logisticians, PR people... We won't have that
patronizing attitude of: Let's fly in with the grain shipment or let's
fly in with our development knowledge people to help develop people. In
that kind of a way, some of this thing will solve itself. Who knows?
But we've done it the other way for a long time and it didn't work, so
let's go and get smart.
Boston, MA - April 1997 - Original interview in English