The Saving Game

By William Wheeler | Boston Magazine |

TAKING THE DAIS at an unusual conference in Harvard Square, Michael VanRooyen is dressed immaculately in a royal blue shirt and gold tie beneath his white coat. He’s handsome in a Clark Kent sort of way, with a square jaw and piercing blue eyes. And he’s got a superhero résumé, too.

VanRooyen’s travels to Zaire in 1996 included having an AK-47 shoved in his mouth and being held hostage for days by soldiers who were convinced he was a CIA operative. During the El Salvador civil war, he worked with the Maryknoll priests, who were targeted by death squads. He followed Tutsi rebels on their campaign to stop the genocide in Rwanda, taking over the administration of a blood-soaked hospital in Kigali where thousands of victims had been buried on the institution’s grounds. He was in Somalia during the “Black Hawk Down” episode, in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars, New Orleans for Katrina, the World Trade Center site after 9/11, and has spent time in southern Sudan and Darfur.

VanRooyen, in other words, just may be the world’s most dashing example of what can loosely be thought of as a career humanitarian. The Harvard professor’s exploits have inspired legions of followers to dedicate themselves to helping right the political, military, and environmental wrongs of the world. He’s not the only idol, of course. The field is glamorized by crusading journalists like the globetrotting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (who has more than 1.2 million Twitter followers) and mega-stars like Bono, Brad Pitt, and Sean Penn — mavericks in dark sunglasses and shaggy hair who are taking action, getting things done their way, and telling governments where they can stick their bureaucracy.

Crisis relief, in turn, has become irresistibly sexy to a generation of young adults brought up with instant access to vast amounts of information, much of it alarming. Many of today’s kids want to right the world’s wrongs, and they want to do it fast. And the quickest way to get to the action is to sign up with a humanitarian organization. Global aid, in fact, is now a $160-billion-a-year industry that employs 240,000 people in thousands of organizations providing services in more than 100 countries. In response, universities are scrambling to offer global health programs aimed at preparing students for the intricate life-or-death situations they’ll face on the ground. More than 200 U.S. colleges offer such courses, and enrollment has almost tripled over the past five years.

Which, VanRooyen explains to the academics at the conference, is pretty much the problem.

There may have been a time when providing aid was as simple as lending a hand where it was needed, VanRooyen says, but in this age of the 24-hour news cycle, advanced surveillance technology, and increasingly media-savvy bad guys, modern relief workers need more than good intentions. Every humanitarian endeavor is now fraught with political, financial, and health consequences, yet, he says, there are too many schools pumping out insufficiently trained humanitarian grads. These days, we can quickly mobilize vast numbers of people to crisis areas, but once on the ground, those same people can actually make the disaster worse.

For a prime example of this problem, you need look no further than Haiti, the poverty-stricken nation that suffered a massive earthquake in 2010. After the quake, nongovernment organizations rushed in to offer $9 billion in aid. They brought food, money, search-and-rescue services, and medical teams. To coordinate the efforts of 420 health organizations alone, the United Nations employed a freshly designed “cluster” system, but for the most part it was chaos. In one case, earthquake victims had their limbs unnecessarily amputated by disaster responders who lacked medical training. Even more distressing was that with most organizations focusing their efforts on the city of Port au Prince, few were looking out for the growing threat of a cholera outbreak in the countryside, where much of the population had fled. Despite the huge influx of money and workers, no one had the jurisdiction, interest, or know-how to implement a plan that would address this important issue. So in the end, lack of sanitation caused the deaths of 6,500 people and sickened half a million more.

Photo by Miller Mobley

  • Joshua

    This article is adulatory. VanRooyen is described in glowing terms. The author does not indicate any scepticism about the achievements and work of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute.

    Most serious critiques of the humanitarian business are rooted in the economic and bureaucratic institutions that humanitarianism has created. None of VanRooyen’s suggestions work to solve these problems.

    Furthermore, the author has not spent any time, it seems, either actually working out whether the SSP reports on Sudan are accurate, or looking at the effect of the distortions caused by the simplified language of these reports, which bang the drum for war at the expense of a considered understanding of the political dynamics on the ground.