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.
Taking the daisÂ at an unusual conference in Harvard Square, Michael VanRooyen is dressed immaculately in a royal blue shirt and gold tie beneath his white coat. Heâs handsome in a Clark Kent sort of way, with a square jaw and piercing blue eyes. And heâs got a superhero rĂ©sumĂ©, too. VanRooyenâs 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 institutionâs grounds. He was in Somalia during the âBlack Hawk Downâ 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 worldâs most dashing example of what can loosely be thought of as a career humanitarian. The Harvard professorâs exploits have inspired legions of followers to dedicate themselves to helping right the political, military, and environmental wrongs of the world. Heâs 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 â 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 todayâs kids want to right the worldâs 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 theyâll 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 âclusterâ 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.
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 itâs not enough for the nationâs 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.
âHow 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?â 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 heâs well aware of how things fall apart.
In the past few years,Â journalists, relief workers, and diplomats, alarmed by what theyâve 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: Whatâs 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 Polmanâs book, New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch â famous for his reporting of the Rwandan genocide â observes that âmoving 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.â
VanRooyen takes issue with parts of Polmanâs book, believing that she leans too heavily on her own observations rather than use evidence-based methods. But he doesnât 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. âThe model,â he says in his third-floor Brigham and Womenâs office the day after the conference, âdoes not encourage coordination, analysis and research, or ultimate outcomes.â In other words, there is a cost to business as usual. In many of the countries in which heâs 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 â 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 HHIâs 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 HHIâs 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. Itâs on the latter group that VanRooyen pins his highest hopes. Heâs developed a revolutionary series of courses, which offer Harvard and Tufts students an education in all aspects of disaster response â from water and sanitation to logistics, healthcare to transportation. Itâs startlingly hands-on. Each spring, students simulate a humanitarian crisis, combining a Darfur-like battlefield â complete with land mines and child soldiers â 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. Theyâre joined by staffers from 10 humanitarian organizations â approximately 200 in all â to track down âdisplaced populationsâ 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,Â you could say the HHI is using military-like tactics to build a newer, better humanitarian force. Theyâre centralizing the system, conducting rigorous research and development, and putting their recruits through boot camp. They even have access to a surveillance satellite â financed in 2010 with seed money from the actor George Clooney â which theyâve 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 Africaâs 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. Heâs 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, Sudanâs 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 presidentâs announcement, warning of an impending attack that could âresult in the use of indiscriminate and disproportionate forceâ 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 Grendelâs 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 friendsâ 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, âHow would you like to do that for real?â A few weeks later, after theyâd hung out a few times, Raymond offered him an internship. The pair ended up working on an investigation into abuses committed at CIA âblack sites.â
âI saw in him the type of analytic capacity and investigative intuition you canât teach,â Raymond says of Baker. âYou either have it or you donât. 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.â
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 Afghanistanâs human rights abuses. Around the same time, HHI cofounder Jennifer Leaningâs 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 theyâre traveling on, or a line of troops marching on a village.
âTraditional human rights reporting is: We parachute in if we can get access â for three to four days, three to four weeks after the thing happens â and then we tell you sad stories about what [a random villager] saw when the people on the truck came to his town,â Raymond says. âNow, weâre messing with them as theyâre moving.â Itâs about stealing the element of surprise and offsetting their rhythm. âOur greatest, greatest goal is to get out in front by a couple hours and be able to say to the civilian and humanitarian community: âGet the eff out, this is happening,ââ he says.
The SSP accomplished a slow-motion version of this last year, when they successfully predicted the Sudan Armed Forcesâ 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 âperhaps the most clearly forecast crisis in history.â
The SSP takes pains to conceal the precise locations of troops and weapons. Otherwise, says Benjamin Davies, its operations manager, âWe would basically be putting [the war] on steroids. But if we say, âThis city is going to get hit and weâre worried theyâre going to use disproportionate force,â we are giving an all-points warning: âAn ax murderer is on the loose in Cambridge. Beware.â Weâre not saying where yet, weâre just saying heâs out there and heâs got an ax.â 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 â 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, SSPâs 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 exampleÂ of what technology can do for humanitarianism, says VanRooyen. âItâs non-CIA, non-state-sanctioned surveillance â itâs crazy that this is the future.â And in that way, itâs one of the game-changing tools that heâs looking for.
But as heâs learning, itâs hard to revolutionize something as deep-rooted and complex as âdoing goodâ on a massive scale. Davies notes that his work is âculturally terrifying to humanitarians.â Case in point: Human Rights Watchâs Sudan senior researcher, Jehanne Henry, says that she doesnât put much faith in the value of the SSP findings. But after the SSPâs 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. âI donât think I could take them as hard-and-fast evidence,â she says. âThey looked like blobs on the screen.â She questions whether the International Criminal Court (ICC) would use these images as evidence â a hypothetical question, she says, since the court doesnât seem to be pursuing a case in that region.
But thatâs 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 âsignificant 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 Prendergastâs Enough Project. The satellites have been snapping pictures of northern Sudan since December of last year.â VanRooyen just may be on the right track. These changes are coming because they need to come, he says. From his perspective, they canât come soon enough.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/01/the-saving-game-can-michael-vanrooyen-build-an-army-of-super-humanitarians/