The Saving Game

How do you make a natural disaster in a developing nation even worse? Send in the relief workers. Now Harvard's Michael VanRooyen wants to change all that with an innovative program that uses satellite technology and tactics borrowed from the military to turn out a new breed of super-humanitarians.

By William Wheeler | Boston Magazine |
Michael VanRooyen

Photo by Miller Mobley

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.

meeting at a field hospital in Haiti

Michael VanRooyen and colleagues meet inside the incident command tent at a field hospital in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Photo by Justin Ide/Harvard University

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.

VanRooyen set up the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) to develop a brand-new tool kit and train people who can use it. HHI researchers, for example, wanted to figure out how emergency aid providers could prepare for a crisis in an unmapped, overpopulated slum. Many of these densely built communities (which are growing rapidly in developing nations worldwide) sit on lowlands — making them essentially defenseless against flooding. Without maps or demographic information, crisis responders come into flooding emergencies completely cold. Imagine New Orleans after Katrina, but without the evacuation, without streets wide enough for boats, and without navigation tools. How do you know where you are and how to get where you need to go? Using Nairobi as a model, the HHI is developing a prototype map that would provide the information emergency responders might need. Instead of just charting out roads, in other words, their model would identify the vulnerable populations, resources, and potential safety zones. It is the HHI’s hope that these maps can be used to predict the most effective methods to help such poor, densely settled regions before a crisis occurs.

HHI researchers are also looking at the more granular issues. Their Women in War program documents how social instability and violence affect a population, and how women can be agents of social change in a society. Through HHI’s Program on Humanitarian Effectiveness, faculty from diverse backgrounds apply quantitative analysis to past crisis responses, evaluating their performance and coming up with better approaches for the future. And each year, the HHI holds its Humanitarian Action Summit, at which more than 60 major agencies share best practices and tackle emerging issues.

All of this research and development is designed to support both people in the field and the new crop of humanitarians. It’s on the latter group that VanRooyen pins his highest hopes. He’s developed a revolutionary series of courses, which offer Harvard and Tufts students an education in all aspects of disaster response — from water and sanitation to logistics, healthcare to transportation. It’s startlingly hands-on. Each spring, students simulate a humanitarian crisis, combining a Darfur-like battlefield — complete with land mines and child soldiers — with a simulated flood. In so doing, they practice humility in the face of extreme stress, a necessary skill if you want to survive such conflicts. They’re joined by staffers from 10 humanitarian organizations — approximately 200 in all — to track down “displaced populations” in the Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover. During the summer, students conduct fieldwork in Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or post-quake Japan. The goal is for them to emerge from the program as fully functioning critical thinkers in the field, ready to dig a pit latrine, negotiate a roadblock, or use international law to identify human rights abuses.


In some ways, you could say the HHI is using military-like tactics to build a newer, better humanitarian force. They’re centralizing the system, conducting rigorous research and development, and putting their recruits through boot camp. They even have access to a surveillance satellite — financed in 2010 with seed money from the actor George Clooney — which they’ve been using to track potential crises before they happen. Called the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), this arm of the HHI operates in near-real time, analyzing images taken only a few hours earlier. With this capability, they can go beyond merely recording evidence of crimes already committed and perhaps prevent them from happening in the first place.

Isaac Baker, 32, is part of the 14-member SSP team (four staffers and 10 interns) monitoring the fighting in Sudan via satellite from a nondescript office on Story Street in Harvard Square. On a brisk Thursday morning in early November, he hunches over his keyboard and opens Google Earth Pro, then scrolls over the screen, clicking his way to a small, light-brown strip that overlays the village in question. As a branch organization of the HHI, the SSP is trying to deter human rights abuses before they occur in Sudan, the location of Africa’s longest-running civil war, which has killed an estimated 2.2 million people. By examining highly detailed satellite images of the East African landscape and corroborating what he sees with reports from sources on the ground, Baker is helping pioneer the field of human rights surveillance. He’s learned, for example, that military or police vehicles parked in the streets of a fallen city may mean the government is carrying out house-to-house killings. Checkpoints might not be set up to keep people out, but rather, to keep people in and cull the population. A lot of cratering on the images indicates buildings were destroyed by artillery fire. But burned homes without cratering or scorched earth in between often indicate that someone destroyed each house, one by one.

Baker is particularly interested in the town of Kurmuk. In late September, Sudan’s president began telegraphing his intentions to attack the rebel stronghold, a town of 10,000 located where Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia meet. A few weeks earlier, Baker and the SSP team had witnessed, via satellite photos, that tanks and heavy weaponry were indeed heading toward Kurmuk. When they saw that, they issued a report five days ahead of the president’s announcement, warning of an impending attack that could “result in the use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force” against civilians. But the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) cut right, attacking the village of Sali instead.

Last night, before Baker left the office to grab drinks at Grendel’s with his coworkers, he saw a Reuters report that the Sudanese army had finally invaded Kurmuk. Though both the SAF and the rebels are now saying that the town has fallen, Baker wants to see what happened for himself. It will be several hours before the high resolution images are fully processed.

Two years ago, Baker was new to town and crashing on friends’ couches while working at the Cellar Wine and Spirits in Cambridge. One night, Nathaniel Raymond, then the director of the Campaign Against Torture at Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), came in to buy beer and found Baker reading a British spy novel. The two talked for a while, then Raymond asked, “How would you like to do that for real?” A few weeks later, after they’d hung out a few times, Raymond offered him an internship. The pair ended up working on an investigation into abuses committed at CIA “black sites.”

“I saw in him the type of analytic capacity and investigative intuition you can’t teach,” Raymond says of Baker. “You either have it or you don’t. It was like seeing a young Ted Williams, but in an investigative sense. You see that sweet swing and you just know he gets it.”

Raymond, 34, signed up with Physicians for Human Rights straight out of college, and within two years was deployed to Pakistan to assist with investigations into Afghanistan’s human rights abuses. Around the same time, HHI cofounder Jennifer Leaning’s team uncovered evidence of the massacre of 1,000 Afghan fighters by an Afghan warlord. Raymond was assigned to work on an investigation of the massacre, and much of the information he gathered was published in Newsweek in 2002. Later, he learned that several of the sources for the story had been murdered in reprisal. It was a stark lesson about the unintended consequences of humanitarianism.

Now Raymond and Baker work together at SSP. While Raymond runs the program, providing strategy and guidance, Baker focuses on evaluating the lunarlike images that come in from the satellite each day. His colleagues say he has superhuman vision because he can see on satellite photos what they cannot: curlicue tracks in the tank-trampled grass, trucks and other menacing vehicles painted mud red to match the color of the road they’re traveling on, or a line of troops marching on a village.

“Traditional human rights reporting is: We parachute in if we can get access — for three to four days, three to four weeks after the thing happens — and then we tell you sad stories about what [a random villager] saw when the people on the truck came to his town,” Raymond says. “Now, we’re messing with them as they’re moving.” It’s about stealing the element of surprise and offsetting their rhythm. “Our greatest, greatest goal is to get out in front by a couple hours and be able to say to the civilian and humanitarian community: ‘Get the eff out, this is happening,’” he says.

The SSP accomplished a slow-motion version of this last year, when they successfully predicted the Sudan Armed Forces’ invasion of a disputed territory called Abyei. They did so by piecing together disparate scraps of intelligence: the building of an elevated road (for moving heavy armor, they inferred); the construction of a fueling facility; and the buildup of forces and materials, including tanks, artillery, MI-24 attack helicopters, and infantry. As a result, Rebecca Hamilton, the Washington Post special correspondent in Sudan, said the invasion was “perhaps the most clearly forecast crisis in history.”

The SSP takes pains to conceal the precise locations of troops and weapons. Otherwise, says Benjamin Davies, its operations manager, “We would basically be putting [the war] on steroids. But if we say, ‘This city is going to get hit and we’re worried they’re going to use disproportionate force,’ we are giving an all-points warning: ‘An ax murderer is on the loose in Cambridge. Beware.’ We’re not saying where yet, we’re just saying he’s out there and he’s got an ax.” In this, like in many aspects of their work, the SSP team has to write its own rules; there is no playbook.

As with all HHI programs, the SSP is a collaboration among unusual partners — in this case, publicly traded DigitalGlobe provides the satellite imagery and aids HHI with its analysis, while the Enough Project does the advocacy. And though the seed money comes from Clooney, SSP’s budget is reliant on DigitalGlobe, which gives the project access to satellite imagery worth millions of dollars. DigitalGlobe is funded in large part by the U.S. defense community.


The SSP is an example of what technology can do for humanitarianism, says VanRooyen. “It’s non-CIA, non-state-sanctioned surveillance — it’s crazy that this is the future.” And in that way, it’s one of the game-changing tools that he’s looking for.

But as he’s learning, it’s hard to revolutionize something as deep-rooted and complex as “doing good” on a massive scale. Davies notes that his work is “culturally terrifying to humanitarians.” Case in point: Human Rights Watch’s Sudan senior researcher, Jehanne Henry, says that she doesn’t put much faith in the value of the SSP findings. But after the SSP’s report on mass graves in the South Kordofan region made headlines on CNN and in the New York Times, Henry did check out their images of the graves. “I don’t think I could take them as hard-and-fast evidence,” she says. “They looked like blobs on the screen.” She questions whether the International Criminal Court (ICC) would use these images as evidence — a hypothetical question, she says, since the court doesn’t seem to be pursuing a case in that region.

But that’s changed. On December 3, Time magazine reported that the ICC was compiling verification of recent war crimes in southern Sudan, allegedly directed by Sudan Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, the same man said to be responsible for the crimes eight years ago in Darfur. According to ICC documents acquired by Time, a “significant portion of this new investigation is based on data from the Satellite Sentinel Project, a network of private spy satellites and analysts organized by George Clooney in partnership with John Prendergast’s Enough Project. The satellites have been snapping pictures of northern Sudan since December of last year.” VanRooyen just may be on the right track. These changes are coming because they need to come, he says. From his perspective, they can’t come soon enough.

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