“[People] want to give back, they want to help out, and the mistake is in presuming that the most effective and transparent way of helping is to do the work ourselves—to get on a plane to see and participate in it being done.”
Dr. Samantha Nutt has more than twenty-five years of experience providing humanitarian aid to war-torn countries. In 1999, Dr. Nutt founded War Child Canada, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of women and children. War Child now operates in seven countries across Africa and the Middle East, and recently opened a branch in the U.S. In 2011, Dr. Nutt published her book Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid about her experiences in humanitarian aid. Today, Dr. Nutt is a staff physician at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. On June 27th, Dr. Nutt and Merion West’s Erich Prince discussed her beginnings in humanitarian aid, the problem of “poverty tourism,” and what her organizations do to combat sexual violence against women and young girls in nations experiencing violence.
Dr. Nutt, good afternoon, and thank you for joining us. You started your career with a $1 contract from UNICEF to work in Somalia fresh out a medical school. Can you talk a little bit about the origins of your career and how things got started?
I finished a medical degree in public health and developing countries at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is part of the London University. Many of my mentors and teachers had worked for the UN and other humanitarian agencies, so this volunteer opportunity came out of that. I combined my work with UNICEF with my master’s thesis. I was—and what I still am—is a primary care public health specialist. I’m somebody who will go in if there’s an epidemic or an outbreak of some kind and try to set up programs that will benefit the maximum number of people. It’s not that one-on-one kind of care, but it’s really about program-planning and implementation.
Can you discuss some of your previous criticisms of organizations that seek to sensationalize the volunteer experience and War Child’s effort to distance itself from this approach?
I would say that’s more my individual criticism. War Child, as an organization itself, doesn’t have a particular opinion on this issue. For me, as somebody who also teaches in this field and writes about these kinds of issues, the overwhelming emphasis has to be on the capabilities and capacities of local community organizations. These are the people who are doing extraordinary things against all odds. When we portray those overrun with poverty as helpless, hopeless victims that are waiting for some foreign savior to come in and rescue them, we are doing—I think—the humanitarian movement a disservice.
We are feeding people in a way that I think is, frankly, outdated and really not the type of progressive development that is inclusive and respectful of those local partners. We can’t make a spectacle out of poverty by constantly portraying people as helpless—because they aren’t. They are absolutely extraordinary and amazing. They want and deserve those opportunities, so every foreign volunteer or earnest student will go and erect a classroom. The sad reality is that this is taking away the opportunity for young people and others within those communities to do that work themselves.
So my argument is always: ask yourself the hard question. Does it make more sense for you to spend your thousands of dollars on these opportunities to go overseas for this kind of busy-work philanthropy, only to come back and promote the work you did? Or does it make more sense to contribute to an organization that has strong, grassroots connections and is doing amazing work to create and help provide those opportunities for people within those communities?
I remember the first time I heard the phrase “poverty tourism,” and that really made quite an impression on me. Is that what some of this is?
Whether you want to call it, “poverty tourism” or “voluntourism,” there’s no question that people are coming at this from a really great, earnest, thoughtful place. They want to give back, they want to help out, but the mistake is in presuming that the most effective and transparent way of helping is to do the work ourselves—to get on a plane to see and participate in it being done. That’s the model for development, but the truth is that’s not the case.
The best model for development fosters an environment where those local community groups have the tools, resources, training, and opportunity to do that work themselves. That’s the best development model. It’s not dependent upon the expertise and goodwill of outsiders. Rather, it fosters the capacity of those within those communities. I’m not so cynical as to believe that people are doing work for their own reasons. I think people are genuinely motivated to do the right thing, except they often, at times, don’t really [have the expertise] to make informed choices.
I distinguish very much between the kind of endeavor that is thoughtful, longitudinal, respectful, progressive, and informed, and the kind of opportunism you get with sometimes even for-profit corporations that you pay money to for a feel-good experience.
My message to those people that I’m constantly hitting at is that there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist. Go spend your money in local markets, women’s cooperatives and give a boost to the economy. We know the Caribbean nations reeling from hurricanes last season are desperate for those kinds of tourist dollars. You’re already doing something good in that case, and don’t need to, in the process, unwittingly take jobs and opportunities away from local people.
And I guess this goes hand-in-hand with your commitment to having 95% of your workforce coming from the local communities?
For me, having been a part of big agencies that have a different development approach, when we talk about sustainability, really fostering change and removing the kind of aid dependencies that exist throughout the world, it begins with meaningful empowerments for those local community organizations and individuals. It means making sure that they do have jobs and are the driving force behind their community’s gain. They’re the ones that are investing in rebuilding their communities and are absolutely bought-in to the process. That, for me, coming from almost 25 years of doing this work, is the model and what will always have to be at the center of what aid and development means. It has to be driven by the priorities of those who know those communities best.
In the past couple of weeks, we’ve done a lot of interviews with photographers, who have photographed conflict zones around the world. The conversation sometimes turns to that very powerful photo of the Syrian toddler washed up on the beach during the refugee crisis and a number of other examples in film or visual media. What is the role of some of these depictions of events in generating attention across the globe?
First of all, I believe in correspondence. War photographers do an extraordinary job. It is really frightening, difficult stuff they do, but they can capture in an instant an image that can actually reverse the tide of public opinion. They can capture people’s attention in ways that, frankly, no op-ed and no academic paper can. That little boy, for example—we knew, at that moment in time, there were seven million Syrians that had been displaced by this violence. We knew that half were children, and we knew that their families were making desperate choices to try to get to the shores of Europe in order to rebuild a life for themselves. At that moment, it conveyed the desperation, heartbreak, and agony that these families and these kids lived through every day.
I think that this is something I’ve confronted for 25 years. I’ve seen these images up close and personal because I’m in them. I’m a part of those frames, and then I come home. It’s so hard to reconcile the indifference we have here about it. That’s probably the hardest part of my job, next to fundraising-which is also a hard part of the job. When somebody can capture the essence of that and create a wave of empathy throughout the world, I think that is incredibly powerful in every medium.
Whether it is film, literature—The Kite Runner, for example, with Afghanistan—whether it is photography, all of those images, it’s like a cliché: they speak to people in ways that are truly profound. There are some images, of course, that can be exploitative. We, as a policy in our organization, won’t show children looking as if they are in distress. But, when you can really capture the human toll of war, I think it reminds us of why we all need to strive so hard to avoid it at every cost.
I remember a passage from Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments where Smith gives the example of someone who knows that they’re going to lose one finger the next day. Going to sleep that night, he’s much more concerned with losing this one finger than the knowledge that thousands of people have died in some sort of tragedy in a distant part of the world. Is that kind of a human intuition or hardwiring that we’re always up against?
Of course, we all respond to what’s personal for us—what we live and experience and what feels familiar. It is why less than 10% on average of donations in Canada and the United States go to support international humanitarian causes. We have this belief that there are great needs here at home, and charity begins at home. So, the closer it is, the more impactful and effective it will be, and the easier it is to track those donor dollars.
But the truth is that any agency that’s doing important work throughout the world—and is doing it in a way that is responsible and transparent—has similar audit processes to hospitals, universities and everything else here at home that receives credible donations. It’s the quest of asking those organizations and doing your homework. That money can be very well spent and very well used, especially in parts of the world where the needs are absolutely tremendous. We know from studies of human beings and on lab rats that we feel things and respond to things more acutely when we have experience with it ourselves.
A major focus of your organization is limiting the sexual assault of women and young girls in war zones across the world and looking into legal avenues to curb this problem. What are some of the biggest problems that one runs into, legally speaking, when trying to deal with fighting sexual assault internationally?
The biggest challenge, in addition to lack of services for women who have experienced sexual violence, is accountability. Perpetrators go without apprehension, most instances do not get reported, police can be easily corrupted, and the judicial process can be easily subverted. From beginning to end, it starts with the assault and the lack of opportunity to pursue charges in a fair way and prevent future attacks from taking place.
There has to be accountability, and there has to be justice. In my experience, this is exactly what women throughout the world who have experienced this are looking for. The problem is that in many corners where we’re working, the infrastructure either doesn’t exist at all or it is very easily manipulated. [We’re trying] to break that cycle of corruption, infuse transparency, and strengthen the rule of law by creating that system for the lawyers and paralegals to practice making claims. It’s part of the long-term solution of holding perpetrators accountable and reducing the likelihood of the violence taking place.
Thank you for a very interesting conversation, Dr. Nutt.