Q&A: War Child's Sam Nutt Discusses First Book and Pros and Cons of Humanitarian Aid
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As the founder and executive director of War Child Canada and War Child U.S.A., the non-profit organization that helps raise awareness and support of war affected children globally through local and international initiatives, Toronto’s Dr. Samantha Nutt has seen her share of atrocity.
In her new book, Damned Nations – Greed, Guns, Armies & Aid (Signal/McClelland & Stewart), in stores October 25, Nutt examines the plight of humanitarianism on the frontlines of such war-torn countries as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, with heartfelt and startling eye-witness testimony on one hand and a sober analysis of the realities and actions that would result in a massive turnaround to help end war and suffering.
Nutt, recently awarded the Order Of Canada for her contributions to improve the conditions of citizens in the world’s worst conflict zones, explains in her book why eliminating the gender divide, implementing education and employment opportunities, and installing a stable infrastructure of legal aid offer hope for the future.
On a personal and local level, she offers several suggestions on how people who want to rally for change can get involved, from donation tips and consideration for where your money is going to lobbying for changes to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) policy.
Dr. Nutt recently spoke with Samaritanmag.com’s Nick Krewen about Damned Nations and what can happen when inexperienced people and organizations try to do good.
Samaritanmag.com: In Damned Nations, you really personalized the experience of living in war-torn countries for all of us.
Samantha Nutt: “That’s what I was hoping to accomplish. It wasn’t easy to sort of figure out how all the pieces would fit together, but I just pressed forward and hopefully it worked (laughs).”
Samaritanmag.com: You’ve really examined the whole business of philanthropy and how charitable organizations function in many of these countries of conflict. It seems the biggest battle we have to overcome is ignorance.
SN: “I agree. I don’t even call it ignorance. What I usually say — and I get into this in the book — is that I’m really hoping that the stories in the book and the issues that it addresses will raise people’s development literacy. That they will be more aware of what is working, what isn’t working, and consider how they make a contribution and what actually has the greatest impact.”
Samaritanmag.com: It seems like it’s almost unimaginable to evoke change of any sort because in some nations, where violence and lawlessness runs rampant, it seems there’s no culpability and a big challenge to bridge the disconnect.
SN: “It isn’t always easy and straightforward. One of the things — and this is something that I’ve struggled with over the years, as well — there are times — and I got into this with the last example in Darfur — where even I wonder what is the point of any of this? We’re barely scratching the surface. When we are demonstrating programs that work and that are successful, we’re often not allowed to continue because there’s no political appetite for it, or because a security situation deteriorates or because there simply isn’t enough funding and goodwill to continue on, even when you know that things are working.
“And then often times as well, you feel that the problems are so massive and so insurmountable that any amount of humanitarian initiative is just not going to be enough. What I have found, though, over the years, is that even when you are confronted by those realities, there still are those opportunities to assist and to affect change and to empower and enable people who are living in really difficult circumstances to be the architects of that change. It’s not an argument in favour of incrementalism, but when you do begin to see those small successes, you’re surprised at how much of a difference that is able to make. The only problem is that we don’t often stick with it and it takes a generation to see aid working well, unfortunately.”
Samaritanmag.com: So even if some of your suggestions to remedy the situation take hold, you won’t see the effects of them for 20 or 30 years?
SN: “I wouldn’t say 20 or 30 years, but I’d say on average it takes at least a decade. There are things that you can do in the short term when people are really under threat, then you’re talking about emergency intervention: food, water, shelter, blankets. To really make a lasting change and to stop that pattern and to break it, that cycle of violence and misery, you do have to be invested for the long haul. Afghanistan is a good example. From a development perspective, Afghanistan hasn’t been a failure. Their rates of education are up. Primary school enrollment is up. The proportion of girls in school is at historic highs for Afghanistan, so you are beginning to see those changes. The problem is going to be the next 10 years. You have to sustain those initiatives over the next decade and that’s where you’re going to continue to see the greatest gains. But, unfortunately, we have very short attention spans and we expect really quick results. And that’s just not how development works. If you look at many countries around the world that have been successful from a development perspective, it’s taken literally decades. And that’s what it’s going to take in many African contexts as well.”
Samaritanmag.com: You note that the U.S. is the largest donor of money towards aid. Yet look at something like the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the fact that there is still much recovery needed there. You have to wonder about the competency and effectiveness of a government who can’t even properly handle a crisis in their own backyard.
SN: “That’s exactly it. The thing about the U.S. is that they’re the largest in terms of the total amount of money — or they have been — in terms of the total amount of money. But as a percentage of their GNP [gross national product], as a percentage of their economy, it’s one of the smallest. It’s only about .17 percent, whereas the Scandinavian countries are getting well into the 1.2 to 1.3 percent of their gross national wealth. So that’s a disparity that you see, that as a percentage of a country’s actual wealth, their contribution is not nearly what it should be.”
Samaritanmag.com: Some of the things you mentioned in Damned Nations, again, one of the biggest problems seems to be lack of communication between people that are actually offering the aid. One of the most unsettling examples was when you mentioned the airdrops of food parcels in Afghanistan that were identically packaged to cluster bombs.
SN: “Absolutely. You see this all around the world, unfortunately. The rise in — in one way, they’re inexperienced groups; in other ways, it’s just people — and I talk about this — I think there are many examples where communities and countries are plagued by misspent altruism: that we think that we’re doing the right thing, and we end up inadvertently doing the wrong thing. And again, it speaks to the lack of the professionalization of the sector: that we all think it’s enough to mean well. But sometimes you can mean well, and you’re shipping your surplus t-shirts overseas or your used t-shirts overseas, and hundreds of thousands of textile jobs in Africa have been lost that relate directly to those transactions. The cluster bombs and food packages in Afghanistan are another example. Water riots when troops were handing out clean drinking water in the south of Iraq during a conflict.
“Recently in Somalia we saw Turkish aid groups handing out straight cash to people. I mean, they’re lucky that there wasn’t a stampede. And you can think to yourself, well, this is really effective and transparent aid — I’m giving $20 and $20 is being handed out directly to a refugee person who really needs it, but then there are all kinds of disparities that take place. You’re not going to cover all 400,000 refugees; you’re picking a select group. You’re probably putting those refugees at risk. You then have problems with the militias coming into the camps at night and trying to extort that cash for weapons and for other things from civilians who have received it. So again, it speaks that it’s not enough to mean to do well. It is a sector that requires experience. It requires training. It requires professionalism. And we have to understand the full nature of our impact. And sometimes in our rush to help, we don’t take the time to consider those longer-term consequences.”
Samaritanmag.com: One of the interesting solutions you also mentioned, and something you’re very heavily involved with in War Child, is legal aid.
SN: “Legal aid is critically important. You see in so many conflict and post-conflict communities, the dead — what becomes the real challenge in the aftermath is this culture’s impunity. So how do you address that? How do you stop sexual and gender-based violence in places where there is no penalty or process for raping, where there are no judges, where the police force is either ineffective or has been disbanded? So, it’s one of those things that’s extremely complicated to explain to people — the importance of legal infrastructure, but it is so critically important. And, unfortunately, these are the kinds of initiatives that don’t get a lot of traction because they’re complicated. People want to send textbooks or build a school or give a goat, but often times it’s these much more complex structural deficits that are equally, if not, more important, that are often ignored.”
Samaritanmag.com: Many of these renegade factions involve youth. You have, of course, African child soldiers, but even in America, it seems that they’re running out of people to man their operations. You hear about U.S. soldiers who are conscripted and just when they assume that their military tour of duty is over, they’re suddenly sent back to the front lines because of a shortage of personnel. Are we sacrificing our global youth?
SN: “Well, I think in war, it’s primarily youth who are sacrificed. That’s the great tragedy of war. In many parts of the world, though, you’ve got 50 percent of the population, if not more, upwards of 60 to 80 percent of the population, under the age of 30. In many complex, conflict situations, unfortunately, there is a vast pool of young people to draw on when it comes to waging war, and those who wage war exploit that. It’s very easy in places like the Eastern Congo, to get a 12-year-old to enlist by giving him $300 for the year. And there’s nothing else for these kids. So in many contexts, you don’t suffer from a lack of kids as available foot soldiers. It’s just the way that gets exploited and abused — many of these kids are abducted from their homes and forced to kill their relatives as a way of indoctrinating them into the armed militia groups. In those contexts, the phenomenon of child soldiers is very real. Here, again, I think with the great military expansion that we’ve witnessed over the past decade, the U.S. in particular, has had a hard time replenishing its base. And this is one of the consequences.”
Samaritanmag.com: You also provide evidence in the book that with all the war going on, it’s an unsustainable economic model. What is going to happen in the future? If we can’t sustain this forever, something has got to give.
SN: “Absolutely, something has to give. I think that when you’re looking at the impact of the lingering economic recession, and the cost of waging war around the world, the levels are wholly unsustainable. I think, in part, some changes that we’re going to see are going to be dictated by our financial circumstances, which will mean cutting back on military expenditures. Barack Obama had been talking about that much more recently. The problem is, cutting back on those expenditures is one thing, but unless that’s matched by, or unless you see an augmentation in the amount of overseas development assistance that we’re contributing on a global level, we’re going to run into a situation where we’re not able to sustain peace, or prevent conflict, in many volatile countries around the world. That’s going to be the real issue. You know when you look at what’s happened in North Africa and the Middle East; when you look at the percentage of the population that’s under the age of 30, the high, high rates of unemployment; the economic deprivation in many of those countries; the rising cost of food prices; conflict over resources of water, food and land, in the next 10 years, we’re going to be confronting these issues more and more. And unless we’re prepared to invest in the prevention now, I think we’re going to enter an era of greater instability. From my perspective, the only way out of that is to continue with that kind of development and investment and to begin addressing those education and economic and employment deficits.”
Samaritanmag.com: How has this changed you?
SN: “You know, I feel really lucky. I feel that I have had a very interesting and varied career. I have met people who are extraordinarily courageous and compelling and who are doing really innovative things all around the world, some of whom have paid with their lives in terms of doing this work. So for me, I feel lucky that I have been able to witness transformation in different parts of the world, and to be inspired by that, and to believe that it is possible to undo war, and what that actually means to people’ s lives, because it is the greatest human tragedy, and the violence and the horror that people experience as a result of war is immeasurable in many ways. People ask me, ‘What impact does this have on you?’ and more and more I just feel really lucky. Every day. I feel lucky when I’m able to lie in bed at night and not hear the crackle of automatic gunfire. I feel lucky that I go to work and feel inspired by our local partners working all around the world doing courageous and important work, seeing the volunteers. It’s remarkable to be able to be at the center of it, and more than anything, I’m just grateful for it.”
Samaritanmag: Now that you’re a parent, has anything changed for you?
SN: “Yeah, I get less sleep (laughs). I obviously don’t travel as much as I used to. I’m in the field now a couple of times a year, usually doing assessments for War Child or looking at the impact of our programming. And I’m not in a situation where I want to be away from my son for long periods of time, and I’ve always been really careful about my security. I’m even more careful now about my security — it’s becoming more and more dangerous. This line of work is becoming more and more dangerous, and I do want to be around for my son. So it has changed me in the sense that I’ve changed how I advocate for the issues. That’s why I had the opportunity to write a book, and I want to do more writing in the months and years ahead. I do a lot more public speaking and public education around these issues, and fundraising. And as I mature as a humanitarian, I try to find ways that I can make a contribution that also works with the realities of my personal life.”
Samaritanmag.com: When you were documenting your experiences for this book, was there anything you discovered?
SN: “What I think was a discovery for me was how well all of the pieces actually fit together. When I started writing this book, I saw them all — the experience in Burundi, experiences in Somalia, in Iraq — as very disparate things. And when I saw how they came together and how they shaped my thinking, that was definitely new and surprising. Some of those are experiences, I, to be really honest with you, have tried really hard not to think about over the past seven to 10 years, and some of them were not easy to write about, definitely not. It kind of forced me to confront some of that sadness and some of those demons. I certainly hope that by writing about these experiences, that these stories will translate for other people and that they’ll have a different view about what’s going on in the world, and what it means to live with war, and what they might do about it.”
Samaritanmag.com: The title of your book — Damned Nations — is an interesting paradox, because I feel it refers to both the helpless nations that are under siege, and anger against the nations who are powerful enough to make change, but place political interests before humanitarianism.
SN: “That was exactly what I was going for. The title came to me while I was listening to a Rage Against The Machine song — don’t ask me why, but I was trying to get into that. It was that double entendre, that dual meaning of the two words and that word ‘damnation,’ and how what we are doing is contributing to a lot of strife and a lot of suffering, and how it’s criminally irresponsible in many ways, but at the same time, how we have countries that appear to be locked in a cycle of violence. Much of it is avoidable, if only we are prepared to think and act in a different fashion.”
Samaritanmag.com: You’ve labeled some of the TV pitches by charities as “poverty porn,” designed strictly to fund their efforts. Obviously, we’re being manipulated by some agencies to loosen our purse strings and donate. How can that be avoided?
SN: “There have been a number of international initiatives to try to stop this particular practice because I think that ultimately it is harmful. It is regressive. It puts out racial stereotypes that play on our sympathies and I don’t think are respectful in any way of the people that we’re trying to help. But it’s twofold: it has to come from organizations themselves to recognize that this isn’t a useful contribution to the discussion and the dialogue around international development, but it also has to come from donors. Aid organizations rely on these kinds of images because they know it works. These kinds of advertising campaigns are among the most effective that you will ever find from a fundraising point of view, which is why people don’t want to give them up.
“So until we’re in a situation where people who are giving and who are concerned about these kinds of issues say, ‘You know what? Don’t do that for my benefit because what I want to know is how we’re making a difference and what initiatives you’re undertaking that will break this cycle.’ Until they ask for something different, it’s not going to change. And maybe it’s generational, maybe as younger generations mature and become a larger share of the donors within NGOs, that their expectations will be different — and I do genuinely see that — I see a lot of young people who are kind of cynical about those types of campaigns. And so maybe they’ll bring that forward, as they decide to give and who and what to give to, but it is both of those things: it’s the responsibility of the organizations themselves, but it’s also the responsibility of those who give to those organizations to say, ‘You know what? Don’t do that for my benefit because it’s not the kind of thing that I want to support.’”
Samaritanmag.com: Over the past few days, we’ve had the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Bay Street protests. Will protests like these impact charities and how government and corporations become involved and react to them?
SN: “I hope so. I hope that the message that’s being sent is that we don’t support the status quo, and we expect people in business and in politics to make moral choices. And I think that that could have a ripple effect, absolutely: That it’s not profit at any price, and that people are invested in social justice on a more global level. And so I’m hoping — certainly some of the ideas that I bring forward in the book, and some of the stories that I tell — whether you’re talking about the arms trade and the irresponsible nature of that and the profiteering that goes along with that, or resource extraction in unstable countries, that these are all very linked. It really has to do with what we stand for as people, and what we’re prepared to accept and tolerate. And I’m encouraged, frankly. I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing, that people in the Occupy Wall Street movement, that people are turning around and saying, ‘You know what? Enough is enough. We expect a higher standard of behaviour and we’re going to hold you to it.’ I don’t know what the future of that movement holds, but in my mind, anyway, I think it’s an important discussion that needs to happen and that by engaging in this, they’re moving that agenda forward.”
Samaritanmag.com: In general, what are you hoping this book accomplishes?
SN: “I hope that it sheds light on what’s happening in other parts of the world. I really tried to balance the humour with stories with the journey with the factual information. But I hope that people will see and understand some of these issues in a new way, perhaps find them a little less daunting, and will allow people who are reading the book to make different choices — different choices about what they are prepared to tolerate and support so that we can be much more invested over the long term in the kinds of initiatives that really make a difference in people lives.”
* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.