Monday, March 22, 2010

Preliminary Thoughts about Haiti

I wrote this post before I went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake there in 2010. I was very burned out and very tired and struggling with the death of my father and hating my job. I was reprimanded for it at work but I no longer work there so I'm publishing it again (for whatever that is worth).

Haiti is a tough country and the earthquake has taken an already poor country that was devastated and made it even worse. What I see in Haiti is the worst poverty I've encountered - it was true when I worked at JSI and hadn't seen much of the world and its true now that I've been to some of the worst places in the world. I went with the nurse outreach workers on Thursday to a little shack in the median of the national highway where an old woman who was naked with a broken hip from the earthquake who has lost her reasoning takes care of a little severely malnourished girl. We bought them out for the Therapeutic Feeding Centre. It was one of the worst places to live I've ever seen. The passing giant 18 wheeler trucks were constantly honking as they went by, the rush of their wind caused the bed sheets that served as her wall to fly in and dust covered their meager belongings. The heat and the noise was unbearable. The floor was muddy and the old grandmother sat on a piece of cardboard and the 2 year old girl just sat their listlessly as we tried to examine her. I've been to India, Congo, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Somali border of Ethiopia, Guatemala, Liberia, and other hotspots and I don't think I've ever seen as much misery as I see here.

Of course, life goes on for those with money as well. The markets are booming and people are selling things. In the guest house that I was in by the Caribbean in Carrefours, men paid prostitutes to have sex with them in the ocean in front of our patio and music, beer, and good times flowed on their side of the wall and if you hadn't seen the collapsed building in front of the entrance to our compound, you
wouldn't know that anything was different from 2000 when I first came here.

I had a rough night last night. I'm in one of the expat houses and in this job, I am of course, the constant new person in the room. It's exhausting always being newly introduced to people and trying to be social and not a burden on the teams. I think Haiti must be affecting me more than I realized and a couple of beers unleashed some real sadness. But it was also partially due to the expat team here- I know that we have to be able to laugh at everything and the humanitarian aid workers of the world have a dark side but some of them take this world weary attitude too far. There was one woman in particular who had a cynical opinion about everything. But there are other colleagues who are proud of our work and fight to make us different from the others and to really stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti. Like anywhere else, with large groups of people, you get a mix.

I was talking with someone about a friend who killed himself a few weeks ago over a cultural issue in his country. I was trying to point out how fucked up the situation was with the arranged marriage and everyone jumped in with their opinions and attitudes and cynical beliefs - none of them knowing what a great person he was and I just couldn't take it - especially since I also lost a close friend of the family to suicide just a few months after my father died. Sometimes, our hardened "been there seen that" attitude really pisses me off. Why are we humanitarians if not to feel like humans?

Everyone here believes that someone has the right to die -which I believe too- but my point was that I wondered if he knew how loved he was and how it would impact people who barely knew him, if he would find life worth living. we believe that the little baby and the grandmother living in the median of the highway have the right to live -even though where they live degrades their human dignity, yet we accept without blinking when a talented and loving and warm colleague kills himself. Was it not mental health issues? Or a cruel and hopeless culture and society? Why were they not as outraged as I was? Or is it just a defensive measure taken to insulate themselves from the horrors around us?

I know I'm the "delicate flower" here (as my father used to tease me) and I sometimes think this was a bad choice for a career as I seem to be unable to block out the sadness and misery sometimes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bullies at work

I wrote this post on March 5, 2010 about Bullies at work. I got reprimanded by my supervisor but I don't work there anymore so I've decided to publish it again.

I"m heading to Haiti on Monday. I've been wanting to go since the earthquake as I used to work there before and had many friends there (who thankfully survived the earthquake). I"m a little apprehensive about it as the level of violence and destruction is supposed to be intense. People who have been there lately have warned me that its difficult to accept. I hope that our security regulations won't keep me from seeing Gerald and Guy-Claude, friends of mine from when I worked at JSI and Refugees International.

I was also invited this week to speak at the London School of Tropical Medicine and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine this week - I love public speaking and was excited about the opportunities to talk to the students. It is hard to stay an optimist and feel like I'm working to change the world in this current job - you'll see why in a minute. But teaching and talking to students who are still optimistic and interested in trying to make a change gives me hope and renews my own commitment to change.

This week, we were going through the mind numbingly ridiculous process of trying to reach an agreement about saying something about what is happening in Haiti between five sections of my NGO, all their attendant folk who advise the different sections, and all the people in the field in Haiti who are trying to make our operations work while also pushing this deformed enormous beast that is the organization into agreement. We simply wanted to make a statement about paying attention to health care in the Haiti reconstruction process. We've been there for over 19 years, we run some of the only hospitals in the slums, and we have been responding to the earthquake 24 hours a day as well as dealing with having staff kidnapped last week. It's high stress for the people in the field and our organizational culture in the headquarters doesn't help at all.

The way that people speak to each other and the disrespect that we have to endure as we give our opinions on the best things to focus on in this supposedly simple statement insures that nothing ever comes out of it. And indeed after a whole week of commenting on papers and heated emails and pressure - they canceled the whole thing. It's maddening. I really wonder why I bother. Nothing feels worse than to realize that everything you do is for naught and my chosen way to try to help the people of Haiti (advocacy) is not working. At least I'll be able to do some trainings on sexual violence while I'm there. But even that, doesn't always matter because we have such high staff turnover and if a manager decides that it's not really a priority in that country, then it doesn't happen.

But I really felt like shit on Friday after a week of pretty fun teaching and discussions in London and Liverpool with my colleagues in the UK who I really like and esteem a lot. it was fun traveling to Liverpool and meeting the northern UK people who were so funny and nice and real. Thursday afternoon, I was helping lead a session on using international law in advocacy, this character who has a ton of power in the organization sent me a text message and asked me to jump into the discussion immediately but respond only to him on email as soon as possible. I was trying to manage the web mail between breaks while teaching and accidentally cc'd the head of mission. I texted him immediately after to say that I had made a mistake. But I woke upon Friday morning to receive an email saying - when I fucking tell you to not cc anyone then you fucking do it. I was pretty calm about it and told him to chill out and that cursing at me was inappropriate. No response from him. He's one of the most powerful people in the organization so people accept this from him.

Then when I got to work, I went down to speak to someone else to clarify a date for a training and the guy flew off the handle at me and started shouting at me in front of everyone in the office. He's a notorious bully and has bullied a lot of his subordinates in the past. He's yelled at me before and has a hair trigger but never in front of a group of people before. Normally, I argue back with him and get him to calm down so we can resolve it immediately. I decided this time I didn't have to take it anymore so I yelled at him back and said "YOU DO NOT TALK TO ME LIKE THIS." The HR person who was sitting near him when it went down came up to my desk and asked me to file a report -which I have to say is unusual at my organization. We do not have a culture of accountability and people can make racist comments, use profanity at meetings, and generally act like sexist assholes. So I filed the complaint and cc'd the Director General. He came up to speak to me about it and assured me that he takes it seriously and will do something about it. I said I would be satisfied with an apology.

But you know where I work, its usually the person who files a complaint who gets in trouble or who is blamed for things. So who know what is going to happen. At this point I don't care. I am not going to accept to work in a hostile work environment and if I cant stand up to the bullies, how can I expect others to do it? But if I had to live with these guys afterwards? I don't know what I would do. And that's the situation for many of the people that we work with - in the field, you have to share a house and work with them with the only consolation being that you only work for about 9 months and can go home at the end.

Being able to go home and have a life outside of these stupid petty arguments and issues is the only thing that keeps me sane. I don't know how much longer I can keep doing it though. I don't want to start accepting this culture and I'm not sure I have the heart or stomach to change it.