The Saving Game

By William Wheeler | Boston Magazine |

Michael VanRooyen and colleagues meet inside the incident command tent at a field hospital in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

VanRooyen has seen all of that and more during his decades working in emergency medicine and global health. It was the industrywide tunnel vision, demand for quick results, and lack of long-term planning that led him in 2005 to cofound the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) with Jennifer Leaning. The multi-school program combines data-driven research, new technology, and fieldwork into a single academy designed to build a better humanitarian.

But the problem, VanRooyen tells the conference, which is made up of representatives from 12 other universities that have humanitarian health programs, is that it’s not enough for the nation’s various colleges, however well intentioned, to work in isolation. Right now, he says, there is no centralized humanitarian organization, no agreed-on standards and best practices, no single entity overseeing all the programs.

“How do we handle this crush of students who want to travel and see the world and get shot at but still come home safely, and help them do it in a mature and responsible way?” he asks.

His solution is to get all the programs to join ranks, to establish a new set of global protocols. He wants to do this because he’s well aware of how things fall apart.

IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, journalists, relief workers, and diplomats, alarmed by what they’ve seen, have begun calling for better coordination, training, and oversight among humanitarian organizations. Besides natural disasters like the one in Haiti, civil wars, ruthless dictators, oil money, and geopolitics are all factors that can warp efforts to help. In her book, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, the Dutch journalist Linda Polman argues that when humanitarians bring money and media attention into a politically charged region, they can actually exacerbate the violence. When they try to maintain neutrality in the face of atrocity, aid workers become easy pawns, ripe for manipulation by the nefarious forces that brought them there. In a review of Polman’s book, New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch — famous for his reporting of the Rwandan genocide — observes that “moving from mess to mess, the aid workers in their white Land Cruisers manage to take credit without accepting blame, as though humanitarianism were its own alibi.”

VanRooyen takes issue with parts of Polman’s book, believing that she leans too heavily on her own observations rather than use evidence-based methods. But he doesn’t deny her basic argument: Organizations that take in hundreds of millions of dollars after a major disaster in the end are accountable only to their donors. “The model,” he says in his third-floor Brigham and Women’s office the day after the conference, “does not encourage coordination, analysis and research, or ultimate outcomes.” In other words, there is a cost to business as usual. In many of the countries in which he’s worked, that consequence is calamity.

But VanRooyen believes this can change. As both an educator and a model for the global relief worker, he thinks we can develop critical thinkers who will lead the movement in a better direction. And he wants all the programs to join ranks, create a deep and broad curriculum, and help define the 21st-century humanitarian.

Photo by Justin Ide/Harvard University

  • 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.