Issues & Analysis
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ON THE MEDIA: America’s Local Newspapers Might Be Broke – But They’re More Vital Than Ever

Local journalism is doing great work across the country while fighting cutbacks and tight budgets. But we need people to stop expecting news to be free

By: Kathleen McLaughlin, September 11, 2017, for The Guardian

The Texas Tribune’s coverage of Hurricane Harvey wasn’t a magic trick; it was the result of truly persistent beat reporting. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

More than a year before Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, the Texas Tribune dug deep into how climate change and unchecked growth created a sprawling city vulnerable to devastation if the perfect storm hit.

In their investigation, the Tribune explained the factors behind Houston’s dangerously heightened exposure to hurricane disaster. In the days since Harvey flooded the city, ruined homes and businesses and killed at least 70 people in its path, the Texas Tribune’s work has been hailed as “oddly prescient”.

In fact, it was the natural outgrowth of great journalism by reporters who know their subjects and communities well and have covered these issues extensively.

One of the Tribune’s reporters, Kiah Collier, explained that she and her colleague Neena Satija reported at length on Houston’s debate “over how, and whether, to build some kind of storm protection system to block the devastating storm surge that would accompany Houston’s ‘perfect storm’”. When Collier moved to the Tribune from the Houston Chronicle in 2015, Satija was already in talks with Pro Publica about the project and she jumped aboard.

“This previous coverage was definitely important; I had a grasp on the issue from the get-go and a bunch of sources,” Collier told me over email.

Collier says she and her team knew the story would be predictive, but not so soon. Rather than being spooked by the Tribune’s accuracy and ability to foresee what was coming to Houston, let’s consider instead the years of hard work, digging and trust-building it took their reporters to get to that story. It wasn’t a magic trick; it was the result of truly persistent beat reporting.

In the face of massive cutbacks and tight budgets, this kind of reporting is happening all over America. I’ve been working this summer with the Guardian and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project on their new On the Ground project and I’ve been doing what might be the most fun part of the work. My job has been to create partnerships with local and regional news outlets like the Texas Tribune.

One of the goals of the project is to get these important stories about inequality in front of the people affected by them. We know that nobody does that better than local and regional press. Talking with dozens of editors, from Atlanta to Wyoming and Texas to Tulsa, has reaffirmed my belief that a massive share of the most important journalism done in America today is from reporters and editors committed to improving their own communities, not in amassing empty praise or followings on Twitter.

From beautiful new magazines to old-fashioned small-town daily newspapers, local journalism is still fighting a tough financial battle, but doing incredible work.

Missoula, Montana. Photograph: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

In Atlanta, the Bitter Southerner has turned gorgeous reporting, writing and editing, wrapped under a killer brand name, into a battle against negative stereotypes about the American South. In Fargo, North Dakota, the alternative weekly newspaper High Plains Reader is investigating racism and violence in one of the only states in America without a hate crimes law. In Oklahoma, the online outlet Oklahoma Watch picks one or two topics each year that its top-notch staff can dig into at great length, with consequential reporting and insights.

These are just a few of the outlets I’ve had the pleasure of exploring this summer. All across America, I’ve spoken with journalists who are committed, working their butts off and forever looking for new ways to keep their organizations going financially. There’s no shortage of the will to do solid journalism, to help people better understand what’s happening in their towns and cities. But with the death of traditional newspaper funding and the ongoing corporate consolidation of American local press, the situation can seem grim.

Even over the course of the summer, the media landscape in my home state of Montana changed yet again. (I wrote about Montana’s media and the dire state of local news in America earlier this year). Missoula’s only independent newspaper – the Missoula Independent – was bought by Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based company that already owns four of the state’s largest daily papers and several smaller outlets.

The Independent was probably Montana’s lone remaining widely read critic of Lee’s cutbacks and coverage in the state and though its management has promised to keep it independent, the truth remains to be seen. Separately, the Lee chain scaled back yet again on its political coverage, moving one of its two remaining state reporters into a local education beat. The change went unreported in their pages.

Montana’s shrunken press is but one example of what happens to journalism when the ultimate motive is profit. In a report last fall, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that since 2004, more than a third of US newspapers had been sold at least once, and that the largest newspaper companies continue to buy up papers and squeeze out cash.

“Concerns about the role and ownership of newspapers have been voiced and debated since the founding of the country,” they wrote. “However, the dramatic shift in ownership of newspapers over the past decade – coupled with the rapidly deteriorating finances of community papers – brings added urgency to a new version of an age-old question: In the digital age, what is the civic responsibility of newspaper owners to their communities?”

Yet it’s wholly unclear whether non-profit models are better at serving the public good. A new report from New York University questions whether foundation-funded journalism is just creating more reporting for those who already have journalism – the wealthy (sorry, I can’t use the word “elite” as it’s almost always a misnomer), who live in clusters of America where media remains relatively strong.

So what can you do? The simple solution lies with you, dear reader. Find a news outlet valuable to your life and pay for it. Plain and simple. It’s not a long-term solution, but we need people to stop expecting the news be the same as air and sunlight – absolutely free.

On Sunday, we got some very sad news that a potential partner for On the Ground was going away, for an indefinite period. The editor of Indian Country Today – an invaluable source of news and information and the Native American diaspora in the United States – has gone on hiatus to figure out a new funding model. This month, the Guardian published a beautifully reported and written piece by one of their journalists on violence against Native women. Without her deep grounding in the issue, built through years of reporting, it’s hard to imagine how writer Mary Pember could have done the issue such justice.

ICT editor Chris Napolitano told me he thinks there are ways to get people to support journalism again, but we may be well beyond the era of subscriptions supporting reporting. What lies ahead, he suggests, is in adding value, going beyond the headlines and daily news.

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ON MIGRATION: Disposable Africans – Migration and its Consequences

By: Nanjala Nyabola, June 21, 2017, for IRIN

Much ink has been spilt trying to make sense of the migration flow across the Mediterranean, a stretch of sea that has become the frontline of capitalism’s most urgent question: What’s more valuable – a human life, or the fraying concept of the sanctity of state borders?

Journalists and commentators have largely framed the boat crossings as a European crisis, and yet the vast majority of the migrants using the major route from Libya to Italy are Africans. They are also the majority of the nearly 2,000 people recorded to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year.

Why do young Africans choose to risk all for the attainment of a precarious existence in Europe? Why is Africa home to me, but uninhabitable to my peers?

I went to Palermo, the largest city on the Italian island of Sicily, to try to get some answers.

Broken

The day I visit Palermo’s docks, volunteers anxiously await the arrival of a commercial vessel – the Tuna I – that has just rescued 470 people from the sea and is heading to port.

The energy is a little unnerving. It’s heartening to see so many people give up their time to welcome the people who have been rescued, but when the boat arrives many volunteers take selfies in front of the hungry and disoriented people hanging listlessly over the railing of the ship.

While the volunteers scream and wave their welcome to the Tuna I, the response from the ship is far less enthusiastic. There’s something perverse about this, consistent with the voyeurism that has characterised the global response to the drownings at sea.

Most of the people who disembark the Tuna I are clearly broken in ways I may never truly understand. Many weep or struggle to walk. Some have to be carried off.

Their clothes are ripped and worn, and almost none are wearing shoes. Almost none. A few stand out: An Arab man in shoes and socks is quickly cornered by the police.

There is damage here beyond the physical. Many look but don’t seem to see, moving among the volunteers as if in a trance.

Where did they break? Who hurt them?

At a halfway house in the suburbs of Palermo, I ask a group of young people who survived the same journey months earlier. They all give the same answer: Libya.

The devil and the deep blue sea

Mediterranean rescue by Jason Florlo for IRIN

“Libya is not good. A person can’t live there. Africans are nothing to them [in Libya],” says Amir from Senegal. “[But] you can’t turn back once you’re in Libya, even if it’s not easy to come here.”

Everyone is scarred by Libya. Mention the name and eyes well up. In many ways, the reaction gets to the heart of what I went to Italy to engage with – what drives the momentum towards Europe, even when the journey becomes grotesque.

It turns out that once people are in Libya, going back is not an option. Libya is the devil to the Mediterranean’s deep blue sea.

Yet under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was a prized destination in itself for Africans from throughout the region, a place of well-paid employment. Gaddafi’s removal in 2011, helped by a European-led coalition, changed that.

For black Africans, Libya has gone from haven to hellhole in the shadow of the bloody conflict and political vacuum that followed Gaddafi’s death. Africans have been crossing through Libya for decades, but there is a tinge of vengeful anti-blackness in the horrors they survive today.

Slave markets where black bodies are displayed and bartered are popping up in Libyan towns. Many people testify to being held in dark, windowless rooms, sometimes for months on end, while waiting for relatives to pay ransoms to facilitate their crossing.

Young women will almost certainly be raped, and it is not uncommon for people to be shot for complaining about any aspect of their detention.

When I ask Amir why he didn’t just turn back once he got to Libya, he says: “Whatever I saw in Libya was worse than anything I have ever seen in my life. And the thought of going back to Libya – back to the desert – was enough to keep me going.”

No home from home

But Italy offers only a meagre respite from racism.

“I have faced many difficulties,” I hear from Boubacar, a young Gambian. “I don’t have my independence like I want to.

“To me it’s not worth leaving my home and coming to a place like this to be discriminated [against], to be insulted, to be isolated.”

Italy does more than most for Africans who survive the crossing, but it is less than a full life with few prospects of becoming home.

The people who disembark the Tuna I get a pair of shoes, a bag with food, and a medical check-up. But they will almost immediately be shipped to reception centres around the country for interviews, and many will be deported. Only minors qualify for a substantive, automatic protection of two years.

Any services provided at the dock are primarily provided by non-profit organisations like the Red Cross. European governments deliberately punish survivors by withholding key services to make a point to anyone else considering the journey.

But national policies don’t always capture what’s happening on the ground. Local politicians like popular Palermo mayor Leonluca Orlando, who insists that diversity fuels the vibrancy and success of his city, resist Brussels.

“In 50 years, I am convinced that current European leaders will be facing charges of crimes against humanity,” Orlando tells me, as he personally greets some of the people disembarking from the Tuna I.

Palermo’s lessons

A popular narrative in European capitals is that if there was less migration there would be more opportunities for Europeans. But people in places like Sicily see things with more nuance.

Orlando’s welcome of rescue boats – he welcomes each one – has not dented his popularity in Palermo, even though Sicily is one of Italy’s poorest regions.

That’s partly because of a demographic crisis – Sicilians are producing fewer children. So, the subsidised labour of migrants has become invaluable.

At the Centro Astalli, a one-stop service centre for migrants and refugees in a disused church, I meet Veronica who provides a personal insight into the situation in Sicily.

The conversation begins as an introduction to the centre. But as soon as we realise we are the same age, it becomes a familiar millennial exchange on how much harder it is to attain conventional markers of success today than it was for our parents.

“I started here as a volunteer,” she tells me, “but when we got funding to expand the project they took me on full time. But my sister is 28, and she graduated almost three years ago and still hasn’t found work.”

Astalli offers one year of free Italian lessons, access to a laundry and showers, a free breakfast and afterschool activities for children. The centre also runs an arts programme with local volunteers that brings together Italians and migrants in projects designed to foster assimilation and understanding.

The programmes are funded by the Jesuit Refugee Services and the European Union. But some Palermitanos resent that so much is available to migrants for free.

“For me, I understand because I work here,” Veronica says. “Many of the asylum seekers are my friends. But for people like my sister, it’s very difficult to understand.”

“Why do they still come here when they know it’s so bad here?”

This leaves structural racism as an enormous challenge for Astalli’s clients. Asylum seekers find it impossible to rent houses or find meaningful work. Only one of Astalli’s clients to date has completed university.

A young Gambian man, like Seydou, who I met, would rarely experience the kindness that I experienced as a tourist with an American twang.

“Maybe no one is going to fight you on the streets, but when it comes to real integration we have many problems,” Veronika says. “The Sicilians will stay with the Sicilians, and the refugees together in another place, but they don’t mix.’’

It’s a dynamic that leaves many people like Seydou vulnerable to exploitation. He was forced to move when he threatened to report one of his first halfway houses for siphoning money from the municipality intended for supporting migrants.

“Why do they still come here when they know it’s so bad here?” Veronica wonders. It’s a question I put to the people I interview.

Gambian migrants celebrate arriving in Italy, unaware of what is likely to follow. Photo by Jason Florlo for ISIN/MOAS

Seydou and the others tell me it’s about a chance at life – to escape a violent family or conflict, to being able to have optimism for the future.

None of the young people I encounter would encourage other Africans to attempt the crossing to Europe. But what European bureaucrats call pull factors, they call hope.

Cold war nostalgia

“Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons and are often defended beyond reason or necessity,” wrote Edward Said in 1984.

The world then was paradoxically more and less open than it is today. On the one hand, in the shadow of empire, African and Asian citizens of various nationalities could travel to Europe and beyond without the burden of invasive, derogatory visa procedures.

For much of Africa, the Cold War opened Europe up in ways that may never be experienced again. The ideological blocs competed for influence by showering African students and technocrats with fully funded opportunities to work and travel.

In cities like Berlin, African students like my father could drink beer with their West German counterparts while East Germans like 20-year-old Michael Schmidt were shot dead for attempting to scale the wall.

African students had not yet felt the sting of authoritarianism or economic austerity at home. Struggling with racism in Europe, many treated their stay as a necessary, temporary step to professional achievement rather than a shot at staying.

Only after structural adjustment hollowed out African economies and the establishment of the new, hyper-connected European Union, did visa restrictions for non-Europeans become common. At first, they were simply administrative hurdles, but today they are laborious and dehumanising processes designed to deter all but the most tenacious.

New realities

Yet Europe still needs migrants, especially in the south where dwindling populations have aggravated labour shortages in agricultural sectors that resist mechanisation.

Italian grapes, Greek olives, and Spanish oranges all need bodies to plant, process and harvest them. By 1992, the architects of a single Europe realised that wealth disparities between various European countries – not just along the East-West axis but also North-South, the struggling economies of Greece, Italy, and Spain – required creative interventions for successful management.

“Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons and are often defended beyond reason or necessity”

And so for much of the last 25 years, the Eurozone has both aggressively courted and turned away migrants: punishing people legally seeking asylum at airports and embassies, and more or less ignoring clandestine migration across the Mediterranean, until the European economy was pummelled by the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

Migration, or fear of migration, is today the bogeyman of European politics that might yet break up the European Union. Not because of the lie that a flood of refugees and migrants is on its way, but because of what Said observed: that the irrational and unnecessary over-policing of Europe’s borders is throwing up contradictions and triggering an existential crisis.

The impulse to keep people out at all costs leaves Europe with a paradox: While preaching humanitarianism abroad, politicians threaten to prosecute NGOs for saving migrant lives at sea because leaving people to die is considered a deterrence.

Europe is now trying to reconcile that gap with security-focused development aid. In late 2015, EU governments at the Valetta Summit promised African governments, including autocratic regimes in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan, up to two billion euros in funding to help stem African migrations.

People move

After watching the Tuna I dock, I wander into some of Palermo’s museums and encounter three fascinating exhibitions.

The first is a tour that takes you past centuries-old churches with dome-shaped towers – mosques converted into Catholic churches and a testament to Palermo’s Muslim past.

The second is an installation at the museum of contemporary art featuring family photographs intertwined with yards of jute and rope. The artist set it up to evoke drowning, and perhaps the idea that – given a different set of circumstances – any one of our family members could have drowned trying to cross the sea.

The third is an exhibition at the Royal Palace featuring art from countries banned from the United States under President Donald Trump’s executive order.

These three exhibitions challenge Palermitanos to rethink simplistic narratives about migration. To me, they evoke the timelessness of human mobility, echoing Mayor Orlando’s vision that in 50 years the world may have a different set of moral values. Perhaps freedom of movement will be claimed as a universal value. Or perhaps it will be lost forever.

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ON MIGRATION: The Stories Behind DACA, the Now-Ended Program for Young Undocumented Immigrants in the US

By: Amanda Lichtenstein, September 11, 2017, for Global Voices

Activists protest the end of DACA in Los Angeles, September 5, 2017. “Deport Hate, Not Dreamers” and “United We Dream/#DefendDACA.” Photo by Molly Adams on Flickr, permission under CC BY 2.0.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that the Trump administration would terminate a program that grants two-year renewable work and study permits to immigrants who were brought to the country as children without papers.

In the days following the policy shift surrounding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACAprotestswalkoutspetitions, “resistbot campaigns” and calls for impeachment have flooded the internet and the streets of the US. Critics accuse the White House of being cruel, as many DACA recipients self-identify as Americans.

DACA was put in place through executive action by President Barack Obama in 2012. A legislative version of the policy, known as the DREAM Act, has repeatedly failed to pass in Congress.

Nearly 800,000 DACA recipients, who are often called “dreamers” in reference to the DREAM Act, now face the possibility of deportation when their permits expire in six months if Congress does not act.

The decision triggered a renewed debate on the very definition of what it means to be an “American,” in this case referring to a citizen of the United States, with organizations like Define American at the forefront, using stories to put a face to the numbers.

Founded by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is himself undocumented, Define American’s mission is to use the power of story to “transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.”

Define American also invites undocumented people and their allies to create and upload text and video testimonials about the immigrant experience in the US.

Giovanni Amado, 23, arrived in the US in 1998 from Mexico City when he was just 3 years old. In his video testimonial, published a few days before the Trump administration’s announcement, Amado talks about his work as a fraud specialist in a bank and says he does not understand how terminating DACA helps anyone:

“The term American should not be defined by a document or the lack of one. It is more so the willingness to contribute to the country and help others out whenever possible.”

And Denea Joseph, a 23-year-old woman from Belize who came to the US at the age of 7, says DACA allowed her to finish her university studies. She defines American as:

“..an individual — immigrant or otherwise — who has lent their skills, knowledge, education, business acumen as well as labor that lends to this nation’s positionality as a hegemonic power.”

In addition to crowd-sourced testimonials, Define American recently launched#UndocuJoy, a social media campaign designed to combat victimizing representations of undocumented people by “flooding the media with authentic images of happiness.”

The campaign features a video in collaboration with poet Yosimar Reyes who narrates his poem “I Love Us” throughout a series of images of everyday undocumented people getting up, going to work, dancing, making breakfast, and being human:

“I love us / because we have constantly had to prove our humanity / and constantly done it beautifully / Because to stay human / Under these conditions / you have to have an understanding of / Beauty.”

The struggle for permanent sanctuary

In Attorney General Sessions’ speech announcing DACA’s termination, he referred to DACA recipients as “mostly adult illegal aliens.”

His choice of wording recalled Define American’s campaign #WordsMatter, launched in 2015, which urges journalists to stop using the word “illegal” to refer to people:

“Phrases such as “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien”  replace complex legal circumstances with an assumption of guilt. They effectively criminalize the personhood of migrants, instead of describing the legality of their actions.”

“Being in the US without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one,” the campaign continues.

Given Trump’s past disparaging comments about people of Mexican origin, as well as a series of controversial executive orders, pardons, and proclamations that involve minority communities, the move to end DACA and the language used to justify the decision have reinforced accusations that Trump is purposefully stirring mistrust and hatred in society.

Even before Trump’s rise to the presidency, the federal government’s deportation priorities led certain areas of the country to limit their cooperation with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Currently, four states (California, Colorado, Connecticut and New Mexico), as well as 37 cities and counties, have declared themselves as so-called sanctuary cities.

Following the DACA decision, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel doubled down on his city’s commitment to offering sanctuary, going so far as to declare Chicago a “Trump-Free Zone.”

But sanctuary cities aren’t a permanent solution for DACA recipients. Their fate now rests with Congress. Perhaps hearing the personal stories published by initiatives like Define American will remind lawmakers that there are real people behind the statistics and that being American is more than just a piece of paper.

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ON THE MEDIA: U.N. Human Rights Chief Condemns Trump’s Attacks on Media

By: Nick Cumming-Bruce, August 30, 2017, for The New York Times

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human rights chief, said the president risked inciting violence. Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

GENEVA — The United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday that President Trump’s repeated denunciations of some media outlets as “fake news” could amount to incitement to violence and had potentially dangerous consequences outside the United States.

The rebuke by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights, at a news conference in Geneva was an unusually forceful criticism of a head of state by a United Nations official.

Mr. al-Hussein was reacting to Mr. Trump’s recent comments at a rally in Phoenix during which he spoke of “crooked media deceptions” in reports of the violent clashes at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the death of a counterprotester.

In Phoenix, the president’s words also appeared to whip up audience hostility toward journalists.

“It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only a cornerstone of the Constitution but very much something the United States defended over the years, is now itself under attack from the president himself,” Mr. al-Hussein said. “It’s a stunning turnaround.”

Asked for comment, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in an emailed statement, “We believe in free press and think it is an important part of our democracy, but the press also has a big responsibility to the American people to be truthful. Their job is to report the news, not create it.

“Is it not ‘dangerous’ for the media,” she continued, “to create false narratives and overzealous attacks against the president that the American people chose to be their leader? The president is focused on growing our economy, creating jobs, securing our border and protecting Americans. Since those are also the priorities of most Americans, hopefully the media will make covering them theirs.”

In an attempt to deflect criticism that he had stoked racial divisions by failing to unequivocally condemn the actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as racist, Mr. Trump had accused the news media of giving a platform to hate groups.

He singled out by name The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post.

Mr. al-Hussein said that the violence in Charlottesville was “an abomination.” The Nazi salutes, the display of swastikas and the anti-Semitic chants had no place in the United States or anywhere else, he said.

“To call these news organizations fake does tremendous damage,” Mr. al-Hussein added. “I believe it could amount to incitement. At an enormous rally, referring to journalists as very, very bad people — you don’t have to stretch the imagination to see then what could happen to journalists.”

Mr. Trump’s relationship with the news media has veered from lobbing labels like “dishonest” and “enemy of the people” at certain companies to agreeing to cordial sit-downs with those very outlets, like a wide-ranging interview with Times reporters in July.

President Trump speaking in Phoenix last week. Photo: Tom Brenner/The New York Times

He was criticized for retweeting a short video meme showing him wrestling with and punching a figure whose head had been replaced by the logo of CNN, a network he has called “garbage journalism.”

But the president has shown a strong preference for programs on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox network, like Sean Hannity’s program and “Fox & Friends.”

Before the presidential election, Mr. al-Hussein had warned that Mr. Trump could be a danger to international stability, but on Wednesday, at a news conference to discuss Venezuela, the human rights chief focused mainly on more recent domestic events.

Mr. al-Hussein said the president’s demonization of the news media was “poisonous because it has consequences elsewhere.” If a journalist were to be harmed, he asked, “does the president not bear responsibility for this, for having fanned this?”

Countries that did not recognize the essential role of the news media could be inspired if journalists in the United States were attacked, he said. He noted that Cambodia’s government, for example, had withdrawn licenses from the news media and it had cited Mr. Trump as an inspiration for doing so.

Mr. al-Hussein also condemned the president’s comments regarding Muslims, minorities and transgender people as “grossly irresponsible.”

“It emboldens those who think similarly to sharpen their assaults on these communities,” he said.

The number of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States in the first three months of this year was 86 percent higher than in the same period last year, he said, citing figures from the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. al-Hussein compared Mr. Trump to a bus driver “careening down a mountain path.” From a human rights perspective, he said, “it seems to be reckless driving.”

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NIRVana: Another way to resist hate

NIRV Highlights, Issue 3, September 9, 2017

PDF, 3mb | Project Details | Issues: Training BeginsEditing and SalsaNIRVana – Screening NIRV Films

For this issue of NIRV Highlights, Community Supported Film is delighted to share the story of one of our donors and volunteers, Christine Arveil, herself an immigrant from France. She has cooked delicious meals for our training sessions, served as training photographer, and provided support for our French-speaking trainee from Haiti. On the day of the protests against hate and white supremacy in Boston on August 19th, she contacted us to see if we could use her help. Below is her own story of that day.


By Christine Arveil, arveil.com

Human beings are dangerously obstinate in lashing at history with whips that none of us would like to feel on our skins. On the morning of the 19th of August, I was about to join peaceful marchers gathering in Boston to protest hatred and white supremacy when it came to my mind that I should rather make myself available to those who were at work on developing shared respect and appreciation.

Boston, August 19, 2017. Spanish sign: “We are all immigrants and we have no fear!”

 

Upon offering my time and energy, I was immediately invited to Community Supported Film (CSFilm) where ten recent immigrants to the United States, tracing roots to Africa, Latin America, and Asia, were completing their fourth week of documentary filmmaking training.

NIRV Trainees at SoWa Market

CSFilm provides free professional documentary film training, enabling local immigrants to tell untold stories relevant to their communities. CSFilm helps to express voices that are usually silent, stereotyped in mainstream media, or little noticed in the relentless flood of information on social media.

As I arrived at CSFilm, I could not help thinking how one same word can represent opposite perspectives. The day before, I was with twenty two hundred people enjoying the bliss of a magnificent concert on Tanglewood greens in Lenox, MA. But that Saturday, on Lenox Street in Roxbury, a lonely old man was painfully trying to simply get up from the narrow steps where he had found some rest, so I could climb up to the door of CSFilm.

I tiptoed to the back of the room, hoping not to disturb the class in process. Ten young men and women, half the world around the table and probably several religions, were attentively focused on their teacher’s words. Their command of English was impressive, especially for some who had been in America only a few months. Now and then, however, I noticed their cultural differences in little things like the titles they chose to respectfully address their instructor, Michael Sheridan. He was, in turn, “Professor,” “my Colleague,” “Mr.,” or “Mikey.”

I felt comfortable with them, with their positive, somehow elegant, energy. Myself an immigrant to America from Europe, I know how difficult it is to leave everything behind to integrate with a new land. Forever will I remember the worker who unloaded my small trunk with my few possessions and said: “Here’s your stuff, Ma’am. Welcome!” That day, I understood that my true belongings were my energy, my brain and my passion for creating things of beauty and value to society.

Abdirahman Abdi (Somalia), Mubarak Nsamba (Uganda), Kiki Densamo (Ethiopia), Rafael DeLeon (Dominican Republic)

Michael Sheridan leading class.

As Sheridan projects films onto a white board covered with diagrams and notes, I recognize both the professor from Mass Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum documentary filmmaker I have observed before. He creates an atmosphere of comfort, ease, and respect. Everyone calmly engages in turn. He answers each question with precision and deep attention. The room seems to vanish as Sheridan focuses on each individual, his words somehow managing to address the person beyond the student. His hands enact the filming process, with fingers running as he explains how the camera should swiftly move, while his love of his chosen art animates everything. Sheridan becomes something more like a mountain guide: one of the tireless rock climbers who walk ahead of those who will claim new summits; a mountaineer who keeps walking when oxygen rarefies.

Today, the focus is on sound. A music lover, sound is Sheridan’s love as much as the moving images. He introduces the students to the manipulation of the microphone along with filming: “This is when this mighty fine device comes into use” (the boom microphone). He invites them to consider how sounds influence the narrative and affect the capture of images. The story will depend on intricate technicalities that the filmmaker shall master – but only through practice.

This Saturday, the afternoon assignment to practice new skills takes us to the SoWa Open Market just up the street. In teams of two, the trainees share a camera and assist each other in recording images and sound. My volunteer role is to document their process in still photographs.

Kiki of Ethiopia and Abdi of Somalia stop at a luxurious rug store, sit for a moment in leather armchairs, and joke that they feel like movie stars. But after a short while, it is “Let’s go back to work!”

Sayed of Afghanistan teams up with Qin of China and they relentlessly search for quieter environments. They retreat to the guts of a building where a designer weaves a Moroccan inspired coat. The space is small and packed. Sayed: “Qin, allow me to crawl where we need the camera.”

 

Mubarak of Uganda and Thelimo of Haiti set the camera in a flowers and butterflies booth. Intense discussions for the shot contrast sharply with the soft and playful setting. “Filming is serious business!”

 

Rafael of the Dominican Republic and Braulio of Cuba film an elegant coffee-making pushcart from a variety of angles. while Michael chats with the owner about the enjoyment of coffee, far from the fields where it grows.

Katsyris of Puerto Rico and Roman of Bangladesh: her solid calm balances his driving eagle eyes riveted to the viewfinder. They take turns handling the camera to shoot a giant game of Jenga that alternately rises and crashes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shooting feels professional, especially considering that most haven’t used a video camera or microphone 4 weeks ago. It is fascinating for me to watch the perspective of the vendors and shoppers shift from indifference or slight annoyance toward the film crews to curious engagement when they discover that it is a group of new immigrants learning a new form of communication with infectious purpose, dedication and laughter! Smiles are never long to appear and patience is surprisingly everywhere. As I document their learning, the trainees talk with me about how remarkably different filming a story is from capturing amateur video. They also tell me how heavy the equipment feels by the end of the day, but the quality they get is worth the discomfort, they say.

Late afternoon, after a hard week working in their day jobs and a long day learning to film, everyone relaxes. Laughs, spirited snippets of stories and jokes, feet moving to a dance step, youth, and conviviality combine to vanquish the sordid reality of hate that had clouded the day elsewhere in the city and the country. It feels so natural to be together though we were born in a dozen different countries: why do we allow ourselves to be taught otherwise? Terror has no space where creativity and fresh perspectives bloom and when we listen to those who speak softly.

As we head back from SoWa, I ask around to see what the word “immigrant” means for them. The answers shouldn’t have surprised me: Hope, Peace, and Misunderstandings. (I have hope for the future here. No peace in my homeland. So many misunderstandings about immigrants here.)

CSFilm calls the program NIRV for “New Immigrant & Refugee Visions,” but here again, the same term has another meaning for me. My time spent supporting these dedicated and optimistic people was definitely a day of enlightenment – NIRVana!

Boston-based artist Christine Arveil has been integrating painting and writing in her creations for 35 years. Born in France in 1958, Christine Arveil became the first of her working-class family to enter university, graduating with a master’s degree in Classics and French literature and later an MBA in Art management. In 1997, Arveil permanently moved to the United States. She integrates her life and artistic experiences into semi-abstract expressionist images for which she devised a unique painting technique and medium based on violin varnish. She is married with master bow maker and MacArthur Fellow Benoît Rolland. She has two children and twin grand daughters. arveil.com

Photo Gallery Below

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Thank you to all the Friends of CSFilm, and to: Jeanne Steig, Teryl Euvremer, Viren and Amita Mehta, Patrica Davis and Wesley Callender, The Pathfinder Fund, The Marika Foundation for Social Action, and The McMillan Stewart Foundation.

Thanks to The Church of St Augustine and St Martin for donating the training space and to editor Peter Rhodes and trainer Pat Goudvis for donating their time and experience.

Thanks to those who have volunteered to feed our training team (contact us to help):
Christine Arveil, Kate Carpenter Bernier, Anu Desai, Sayed Hashimi, Qin Li & Fresh Food Generation

Protest photo by Stephanie Keith/Reuters. All other photos by Christine Arveil.

Community Supported Film strengthens the documentary storytelling capacity in communities where the dissemination of balanced and accurate information is essential for development and conflict resolution.

Christine captured “portraits” of our trainees that day. We thought you’d enjoy the results. (click on any image to view all in a slideshow)

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ON HAITI: Welcoming Haitian refugees to Canada isn’t about generosity but justice

By: Martin Lukacs, August 29, 2017, for The Guardian

Canada has a hand in the misery Haitians are fleeing. Asylum should serve as reparations.

A family from Haiti walk to the US-Canada border to cross into Canada from Champlain, New York, U.S. August 11, 2017. Photograph: Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The minders of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s brand are surely displeased. He’s spent two years cultivating an image of Canada’s refugee system as the political equivalent of airport hugs and teddy-bears. And now the pressure is on him to act like that were remotely the truth.

The image of the country as a welcome haven was pitched to win the support of millions of people in Canada who rightly feel two things: compassion for the plight of refugees and disgust for the antics of Donald Trump. But refugee rights advocates had warned what would come to pass: desperate people would take Trudeau at his word.

Hence an influx of thousands of Haitian refugees from the United States—afraid of being deported back to Haiti by Trump—now await an uncertain fate in Canada. The Liberal government may have been happy to reap the political benefits of Trudeau’s PR posture. But apart from accepting a small number of Syrian refugees, they have dumped hundreds back in Haiti since they lifted a ban on deportations to the country in 2016. And they have studiously avoided removing other barriers that would make Canada a truly welcoming country.

The current debate has so far focussed on one such barrier: a 2004 agreement with the US that bars almost all refugees from making an asylum claim at a Canada-US border post. That’s why they are increasingly turning to precarious crossings—at which point they can at least get a hearing. This agreement—whose basis is the indefensible notion that the United States is safe for refugees—should long ago have been scrapped.

Instead Trudeau has turned to admonishing Haitians, dispatching a minister to the United States to warn Haitians against seeking asylum in Canada. “For someone to successfully seek asylum it’s not about economic migration,” Trudeau warned. “It’s about vulnerability, exposure to torture or death, or being stateless people.”

“Economic refugees,” of course, are not entitled to asylum. And this is where the base ranting of right-wing tabloids and anti-immigrant racists, who have stoked hate and fear of “selfish queue-jumpers,” dovetails with the high-minded reasoning of elite pundits and Liberal policy-makers preaching pragmatic limits and strict refugee criteria.

Both adhere to a brand that is much more enduring than this latest Prime Minister’s: the brand of an innocent Canada, whose benevolence is indisputable, whose humanitarian impulse is never in doubt. What they disagree about is whether Canada should bestow it on refugees.

Astonishingly, what has merited not a single mention in mainstream discussion is that Canada doesn’t stand at a remove from the misery that Haitians are fleeing: we had a direct hand in it. Ignoring this history—and absolving Canada of responsibility for Haiti’s situation—has created the greatest barrier of all to refugees receiving the welcome they deserve.

Haiti’s long-suffering people, who have endured a line of dictatorships, had a brief respite in the last quarter century: a popular democratic wave that swept priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. He raised the minimum wage from mere pennies, disbanded an army that bullied the population, and started providing education and medical care to the poor majority.

Defying the agenda of the Haitian elite and multinational companies who used the country for cheap labour made Aristide enemies—the US, France, and sadly, Canada. in 2003, the Liberal government of the time hosted US and French officials to plot Aristide’s ouster. They cut aid to his government. And when US marines invaded the country, Canadian soldiers guarded the airport while they flew out Aristide and dumped him in Africa. A United Nations military force, commanded for a period by Canadians, occupied the country, providing cover for the regime installed after this coup d’état. Thousands of Haitians were killed.

The Canadian government’s role was hardly based on humanitarianism: having refused a full role in the US war on Iraq, they needed to get back in the good graces of George Bush. In a moment of candour out of sync with our humanitarian brand, ex Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham explained: “Foreign Affairs view was there is a limit to how much we can constantly say no to the political masters in Washington…eventually we came on side on Haiti, so we got another arrow in our quiver.”

The cost to Haitians of this cynical calculus was incalculable. Since the coup, Haiti has lurched from disaster to disaster, compounded by governments more accountable to the US than its own people. The devastating earthquake of 2010 was shaped by inequality and deliberate under-development that Haiti was plunged back into after Aristide’s ousting. The impact of similar storms on neighbouring Cuba—whose measures to lift people out of the most impoverished infrastructure have not been blocked by western governments—was a fraction of what it was in Haiti.

Western governments have tried to wash their hands of their victims. In the wake of the earthquake, Obama’s administration built a fortress around Haiti: coast guards cruised the waters to prevent any from fleeing; air force bombers dropped messages in the country, warning that “if you leave, you will be arrested and returned”; and a US private prison company started setting up a detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, while Haitians had not yet dug themselves out of the rubble.

And the reconstruction effort that millions of people around the world compassionately contributed to? Botched by the U.S. and Canada, it left Haiti with plenty of industrial parks for sweatshop employers and luxury hotels for tourists and NGO officers, but virtually no new housing for the million Haitians who had been made homeless. To make matters even worse, the occupying UN force introduced the world’s largest cholera epidemic into the country — it has killed 30,000, infected 2 million people, and rages on.

Canada has “slapped some make-up” on the situation to justify deporting people to the country, says Haitian human rights lawyer Patrice Florvilus, who fled to Montreal from Haiti in 2013 after facing death threats. “Canada claims things have returned to normal. They have not. There is criminalization of homosexuality and dissent, assassinations, a corrupt justice system. So much suffering has flowed from the coup onward, and the state now has no capacity to protects its citizens. Canada should assume responsibility for the chaos and injustice it helped create.”

Haiti is today sliding back toward dictatorship: disastrously bad elections, sanctioned by the US and Canada, have produced a parliament packed with thugs and drug dealers, the old army is being revived, and leading figures in the current government have links to the dictatorships of old.

All of this could hardly be a better example of the slogan repeated by migrant justice movements around the world: “We are here because you were there.” Western government’s wars, their ransacking of resources, the manipulation and impoverishment of poor countries, has led to an inevitable flow of displaced and persecuted to our shores.

“If Canada wants to become a real beacon for refugees, here is an opportunity prove it,” says Florvilus, who believes Canada should grant special refugee status to the arriving Haitians.

He’s right. After all of our crimes toward that country, asylum should serve as the barest of reparations. The refugees arriving are hardly a “flood,” or “unsustainable” — they are drop in the bucket alongside the immigrants that arrive every year. As climate change wreaks devastation around the world, these numbers are sure to grow.

In past decades, mobilizations led by the Haitian community in Montreal have forced the Canadian government to act more in line with its rhetoric. That can happen again. Now is the time to fight for the values that will govern how we address the graver refugee migrations to come.

In the final account, welcoming refugees isn’t a matter of generosity, or burnishing Brand Justin — it’s a matter of justice.

 

 

 

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ON MEDIA: Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival

By Nick Rice for Clash, 17-07-17

Clash – DocFest 2017, Strong Island

Inspiration overload at one of the international film industry’s most important annual events…

The Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival, or Doc/Fest as it’s widely known, is a welcome highlight on the international calendar of any filmmaker or documentarian and for the vastly growing audience of compelling and crucial non-fiction films.

For six days in June, Sheffield city centre becomes a cosmopolitan heaving hub of activity that celebrates and elevates a palette of film work that is as rich as it is relevant. With swanky boutique, brand spanking multiplex and cosy old favourite cinemas across the city all involved, alongside other venues such as the Crucible Theatre, City Hall and Town Hall – plus free outdoor screens with deckchairs dotted around – the Doc/Fest requires some careful navigation. Thankfully, everything is within walking distance, so every talk, masterclass, screening, live performance, workshop, exhibition networking party or piss-up, is only a quick march away.

For one itinerary-busting week festival-goers are exposed to the latest works of internationally acclaimed veteran filmmakers and vital emerging voices that reflect the world we share. As the CEO and Festival Director Liz McIntyre succinctly puts it, “We’re reeling from seismic change as we witness events that we know will become the most pored over scenes in future documentaries. Doc/Fest 2017 is brimming with documentaries that are funny and quirky, powerful and influential, heart-stopping and heart-breaking”.

The Opening Night film of the 24th edition was the world premiere of Daisy Asquith’s Queerama, coinciding with 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which marked the slow process of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK. Given unlimited access to the British Film Institute’s archives, with some material dating back to 1919, Asquith has crafted an eye-opening and entertaining account of gay experiences in the last century.

Clash – DocFest 2017, City of the Sun

With a soundtrack by John Grant, Alison Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair the film transports us into the lives of gay men and women throughout the 20th Century. Black and white footage and testimonials from homosexuals in the 1940s and ‘50s offer a rarely seen glimpse into the intensely difficult challenges that society once imposed. The film and its playful editing (staggering given it was accomplished in months rather than years) shines a welcome light on how far society has progressed in the face of ugly prejudice. After the premiere John Grant performed several tracks used in the film and joined Asquith and the prominent creator of contemporary British queer cinema Campbell X for a lively Q&A.

The Talks & Sessions are one of the most popular elements of Doc/Fest and this year the stellar bill continued. Louis Theroux interviewed one of his heroes, Nick Broomfield – the acclaimed filmmaker who during his forty years in the industry has made films such as Biggie and Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Kurt & Courtney and the hotly-anticipated Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me which premiered at the Doc/Fest. Broomfield and Theroux made for an infectious duo and after a riveting tour through the elder’s career one City Hall audience member shouted out the suggestion that they should collaborate, which quickly received noisy cheers of concurrence.

The redoubtable and always likeable Ian Hislop was also at City Hall in conversation with the BAFTA-winning actor and satirist Jolyon Rubinstein (The Revolution Will Be Televised, Revolting). The pair were intensely amusing bedfellows and unpicked the world of post-truth and satire, lambasting prime targets like the excruciatingly smug Piers Morgan and the sickeningly repellent Katie Hopkins in their stride whilst presenting the modern media landscape encountered by the long-time editor of Private Eye and the only panel member of Have I Got News For You who has never missed a single episode, even when requiring an urgent operation for appendicitis.

Clash – DocFest 2017, A RIVER BELOW

At the Crucible Theatre the legendary director and artist Peter Greenaway CBE, whose work stretches back to the 1960s and includes The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, gave an uncompromising speech in which he slammed the need for writers in filmmaking and called instead for a “painter’s approach” to the art. In a densely-filled hour Greenaway championed non-narrative styles of storytelling and urged for more pioneering forms of artistic approach to respond to the febrile social and political changes at hand.

One of the most enlightening talks came from the explorer, BAFTA-Award winning presenter and skilled documentarian Bruce Parry, who discussed his extraordinary career to date with journalist and presenter Katie Puckrik. The Showroom Cinema hosted a packed session and screened sneak previews of Parry’s latest project – the result of four years of work, pleasure and pain – the new feature length documentary Tawai – A Voice From The Forest (due for release in cinemas this Autumn), in which he returns to reconnect with the tribes from his amazing adventures when making the ‘Tribe’ BBC series. Returning to India, Malaysia and the Amazon and to the Penan tribe of Borneo, Parry discussed the film and how his fascinating documentary work and journeys have brought him to a fully rounded re-evaluation of his views on human nature and how humankind relates to the natural world.

The Marketplace segment of Doc/Fest offered a huge programme of initiatives and pitch opportunities for anyone either already making films or eager to do so. TV stations, Production company’s and content providers such as Channel 4 and The Guardian hosted live pitching sessions where audiences observed the entire process from a candidate’s pitch through to the final decision making and filmmaking prizes. This is another one of the numerous fantastic things about Doc/Fest – it’s such an inclusive and supportive environment. Whether you are simply a keen documentary fan, a fledgling filmmaker or a bonafide legend, there is always something to engage and inspire.

Not least the actual films. A total of 60,856 attendances were enjoyed by everyday cinema-goers and international and UK industry delegates, with a record 250 screenings at 14 screens across the city.

Clash – DocFest 2017, City of Ghosts

In its first year at Doc/Fest, the Art Doc Award, which has been created to celebrate new forms of storytelling and recognises bold, innovative non-fiction films, was given to ‘City of the Sun’ by first-time filmmaker Rati Oneli (United States, Georgia, Netherlands, Qatar, 2017). The film moves seamlessly between fact and fiction and lays bare the honest realities and ups and downs of four different sets of lives in what remains of a small mining town in Georgia.

The Environmental Award was taken by A River Below (Dir: Mark Grieco, Brazil, 2017), which highlights the alliance between a renowned marine biologist and a reality TV star who are both campaigning to save Brazil’s pink river dolphin, whilst also posing questions about the ethics of activism in the modern media age.

The Tim Hetherington award, given to films and filmmakers that resonate with the late journalist Tim Hetherington’s legacy, was won by Strong Island (Dir: Yance Ford, USA). Through unflinching testimonials and stylish cinematography we bear witness to the grief endured by a family whose son was murdered on Long Island, New York, and the disinterest of the police in bringing to justice the killer of a young black male.

The Grand Jury Award went to City Of Ghosts (Dir: Matthew Heineman, USA). The film centres on the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and in a heart-pounding 90 minutes it exposes the unspeakable horrors of life under ISIS rule.

Festival Director Liz McIntyre mentioned that “we strive to increase the visibility and accessibility to documentary story-telling for inspiration” and Doc/Fest does that and much more in extraordinary fashion.
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An early bird price of £159 + VAT for a ‘Lightning Pass’ – giving access to all of next year’s films and events – is available HERE.

The 25th edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest will open on Thursday 7 June 2018 and close Tuesday 12 June 2018, with the Annual Awards’ Ceremony and Closing Night Film.

Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival report

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ON IMMIGRANTS & REFUGEES: Olympic Stadium In Montreal Turned Into Welcome Center For Refugees From U.S.

The Trump administration extended that status for just six months — and urged Haitian refugees to “prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.” The administration cited “Haiti’s success in recovering from the earthquake,” although Haiti continues to struggle with a number of crises, including an ongoing cholera epidemic, a nightmarish sewage problem and a catastrophic hurricane.

That helps explain why a sudden surge of refugees are leaving the U.S. As to why they’re entering Quebec, the CBC cites the large Haitian community in Montreal.

“Obviously, there is a stronger attraction to coming to Quebec for Haitians than in other provinces,” PRAIDA spokeswoman Francine Dupuis told the CBC. “They have the help of their community to get settled.”

But it’s not clear if the Haitian refugees arriving in Canada will be permitted to stay, the CBC reports. The challenge is fundamentally the same as in America: A government evaluation of just how bad life is in Haiti.

“Asylum seekers originally from Haiti who have crossed the Canada-U.S. border could be deported back to Haiti if their application is refused because Canadian authorities deem Haiti as a sufficiently safe country,” the CBC writes.

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ON HAITI: Millions Spent and Still Nowhere to Go

By: Rebecca Hersher July 30, 2017 for Pulitzer Center 

After the 2010 earthquake, NGOs dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage at the end of the Port-au-Prince city landfill, which borders the sea and is not lined with an impermeable material. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

After the 2010 earthquake, NGOs dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage at the end of the Port-au-Prince city landfill, which borders the sea and is not lined with an impermeable material. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

The rain began on Good Friday. It fell into the roofless ruins of Port-au-Prince’s Catholic cathedral. It swirled through stalls in the market downtown. In the hills above Haiti’s capital, the rain ran off the clay roof tiles of upscale homes.

No matter where the rain fell, it was all destined for the same place: the system of concrete canals that cut through the city and down to the sea.

At the edge of the city next to the shore, the rain pounded on the zinc roof of Jean Claude Derlia’s single-story cinder block home. His neighborhood, Project Drouillard, is dense with families packed into homes like his. Most people who grew up in Project Drouillard have stayed, as he has. The community is close-knit, poor and socially isolated from downtown Port-au-Prince.

It is also extremely vulnerable to flooding from the canal full of trash and raw sewage that bordered it on one side. After a rainstorm a few years ago, Derlia had been swept away by a wave of sludge and nearly died before neighbors fished him out. He was sick for weeks after it happened, but he survived.

Now, over the sound of the rain, Derlia heard people shouting, “The water is coming!” There was nothing he could do but wait and pray that the water, or the things the water carried with it, wouldn’t kill him this time.

A City Without a System

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is one of the largest cities in the world without a central sewage system. There are no sewers connecting sinks, showers and toilets to hulking wastewater treatment plants. Most of the more than 3 million people in the metro area use outhouses, and much of that waste ends up in canals, ditches and other unsanitary dumping grounds where it can contaminate drinking water and spread disease.

It’s a problem that has attracted international donors, some of whom have acted to do what the Haitian government cannot afford to: build a sewage treatment system. Since 2010, international groups have spent millions of dollars on a plan to build open-air sewage treatment plants across Haiti. In 2012, the first facility opened at a site called Morne a Cabrit, about an hour from downtown Port-au-Prince. At the time, a government official told NPR that funds were in place for facilities in seven other cities.

But five years later, that construction plan has stalled. Morne a Cabrit is still the only operational sewage treatment plant in the country, another $2.1 million facility is all but abandoned and the volume of sewage being disposed of safely in Port-au-Prince is actually decreasing.

At its core, the floundering sewage treatment strategy is about money and power. Haitian economist Kesner Pharel, who has advised both the Haitian government and international nongovernmental organizations on investment and development in the country, says the stalled plan reflects a fundamental flaw with how infrastructure projects are funded and implemented in Haiti.

Because the Haitian government is so dependent on outside money for infrastructure, “it is very easy for [international donors] to come in and say, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,’ ” he explains. The result is that the country’s leaders become more responsive to funders than to Haitian voters. “Where is the accountability?” he says, “not to international donors, but to your people?”

In the past five years, the story of one failed sewage treatment plant project offers the clearest example of the good intentions, poor governance and bad luck that contributed to Haiti’s current sanitation crisis. It began with a young woman and a huge earthquake.

How Not to Build A Sewage Treatment Plant

Edwige Petit has been called Haiti’s “sanitation champion.” Trained as a civil engineer, Petit, the current director of sanitation at the Haitian water and sanitation agency DINEPA, has also been called less laudatory names because of her expertise. “Sewage wife, trash wife, lots of names,” she says, laughing.

Her first experience with sewage treatment came a few months after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. Aid groups provided clean water and toilets to hundreds of thousands of people in displaced-person camps. The groups needed somewhere to dump the more than 10,000 gallons of human waste the camps generated each day. Initially, the government directed them to an unlined pit at the edge of the landfill.

Edwige Petit, the director of sanitation for Haiti's water and sanitation agency DINEPA, is in charge of planning and building internationally funded sewage treatment plants. Image by Marie Arago/NPR.

Edwige Petit, the director of DINEPA. Image by Marie Arago/NPR.

Edwige Petit, the director of sanitation for Haiti’s water and sanitation agency DINEPA, is in charge of planning and building internationally funded sewage treatment plants. Image by Marie Arago/NPR.

 Petit was an expert on the landfill and immediately knew dumping there was not a good solution. The pit was unlined and right next to the sea, so the sewage could easily contaminate fishing areas and sources of drinking water. But for months after the quake, with the economy in shambles and the city in ruins, large-scale sanitation projects were never a political priority. “People don’t have enough money. What can you say when people cannot even eat? You’re talking about waste?” she says, channeling her detractors. “They cannot eat, they cannot s***! So that’s the deal. Too much poverty.”

Then that fall, U.N. soldiers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti. “Only the cholera could make us have [the first sewage treatment facility],” Petit says. “Only cholera. Because we were afraid, totally afraid of cholera. For this reason, everyone agreed.”

In October 2010, the government of then-President Rene Preval announced it had found a location for the country’s first sewage treatment plant, on land formerly leased by the Haitian American Sugar Company and left empty for years. The site was named for the nearby area of Titanyen, where thousands of people had been buried in mass graves after the earthquake.

The initial budget inscribed on a now-faded sign at the entrance was $1.9 million — it would later grow to $2.1 million — to be paid by the Spanish government, which would also fund a public education campaign about cholera prevention. Construction began immediately, but just three months later, it stopped.

Powerful people had leveraged their connections to the president, alleging that they owned the land under the sewage plant and demanding compensation under eminent domain before construction could go forward.

“For each [piece of] land, we had not one, but two or three people who said they were owners!” Petit remembers, still fuming more than six years later. “They went directly to president.”

At the city landfill, men look for metal near the edge of a pit that used to be full of raw sewage. Construction delays at the Titanyen sewage treatment plant meant that raw sewage continued to be dumped at the landfill for months after the cholera epidemic began in 2010. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

At the city landfill, men look for metal near the edge of a pit that used to be full of raw sewage. Construction delays at the Titanyen sewage treatment plant meant that raw sewage continued to be dumped at the landfill for months after the cholera epidemic began in 2010. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

For nine months, nothing was built at the Titanyen sewage treatment plant. In that time, disease surveillance data suggests more than 2,500 people died of cholera in Haiti. Without a safe dumping site open, DINEPA data suggests more than 100,000 cubic meters of raw sewage was dumped elsewhere in and around the city.

In the end, the Haitian government had little choice but to pay the alleged landowners, since the rest of the Spanish funds were unavailable as long as construction was stalled. In the meantime, funding the plant appeared to be a point of pride for the Spanish government. Queen Sofia of Spain even traveled to see it.

When the sewage treatment plant finally opened in May 2012, after the cholera epidemic had peaked, a press release from the Spanish aid agency AECID said nothing about the construction delay. It pointed to the project as an example of “strengthening of Haitian institutions” and said it would “contribute significantly to the health of the population and halt outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.”

The facility operated for just 18 months before a technical problem — huge bubbles in the lining of the second waste treatment pool — forced it to close. Since then, it has remained closed. DINEPA says the aid agency plans to spend an additional $617,000 to repair it beginning this fall.

Since 2013, the $2.1 million sewage treatment plant at Titanyen has been closed. The lining of one of the disinfecting basins developed massive bubbles due to an engineering defect. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

A spokesperson for AECID declined to comment on its sewage treatment plant projects in Haiti, citing turnover in its staff in the region.

Haiti’s sewage champion, Petit, still believes that sewage treatment plants are a good investment for Haiti. She is using the agency’s investment funds, 96 percent of which came from international sources last fiscal year, to build at least 30 waste treatment facilities across the country. Three, including the still-shuttered site at Titanyen, are under construction or repair.

“The government has a duty to build the plants we should need,” she says. “I can say I am doing my part.”

Meanwhile, the one sewage treatment plant that is already open is below capacity and struggling to cover its operating costs. International money covered its construction, but domestic funding and customer fees are insufficient to cover long-term maintenance and payroll. Inadvertently or otherwise, the availability of international money for infrastructure appears to have motivated the construction of sewage treatment plants in Haiti, whether or not there is local demand for the facilities.

The Easter Flood

Without a sewage system to divert waste out of clogged canals, the Good Friday rainstorm filled the streets and alleys of Project Drouillard with 3 feet of raw sewage. Seven people drowned in the canal. Jean Claude Derlia got an infection that still hasn’t gone away.

Project Drouillard resident Widline Charles, 21, fled her home during floods over Easter weekend this year. Months later, her street is still covered in a foot or more of mud, trash and sewage. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Project Drouillard resident Widline Charles, 21, fled her home during floods over Easter weekend this year. Months later, her street is still covered in a foot or more of mud, trash and sewage. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Residents blamed the flood on poorly excavated canals and on the waste dumped by rich people who live on higher ground. Both are undoubtedly true, but the waste clogging the canal also came from right there in Project Drouillard. Scattered throughout the neighborhood are sets of cinder block pit latrines, most of which are filled to the top with waste.

Two options for relieving oneself in Project Drouillard: a pit latrine and an open field bordering a canal filled with human waste. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Two options for relieving oneself in Project Drouillard: a pit latrine and an open field bordering a canal filled with human waste. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

“We can’t use these,” says 27-year-old Bernard Paulemon, gesturing to a set of six stalls near the headquarters of his neighborhood group, Foundation Alovie. “The people here, they can’t pay.”

He is referring to the cost of maintenance. When a latrine fills up, residents see two options: They can padlock it and leave it, at which point some people resort to relieving themselves in an open field near the canal, or they can pool money to hire someone to clean out the pit.

Magdala Simeone lives a few houses away from a block of six pit latrines, each with a padlock on the door. Four of the six stalls are too full to use. Kids come and go with the keys for the other two. A few weeks ago, Simeone and her neighbors raised money to hire someone to clean one of them out.

Project Drouillard resident Magdala Simeone and her neighbors recently pooled $75 to get a shared pit latrine emptied. She never met the person or people who did the work and doesn't know where the human waste was dumped. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Project Drouillard resident Magdala Simeone and her neighbors recently pooled $75 to get a shared pit latrine emptied. She never met the person or people who did the work and doesn’t know where the human waste was dumped. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

The total cost: $75. Her share: about $8. She never saw who cleaned out the latrine and doesn’t know where they dumped the contents. A trip across the waste-strewn field adjacent to the canal holds a hint — the canal is completely filled with muddy excrement.

She would prefer to have a company clean out the latrine. “The company will clean it better” than the informal latrine cleaners known as bayakou, she says, but “a private company will ask you for a lot of money.”

Sanitation companies in Port-au-Prince see the potential for big profits in neighborhoods like this one. “There are lots more people who could pay us, but they haven’t heard of the company. They don’t know what we do or why they should give us money,” says Marguerite Jean Louis, the CEO of the Port-au-Prince-based sanitation company Sanco.

Sanitation company Sanco sends pump trucks to empty septic tanks for high-end clients such as hotels and government offices. The trucks transport the waste to the sewage treatment plant at Morne a Cabrit. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Sanitation company Sanco sends pump trucks to empty septic tanks for high-end clients such as hotels and government offices. The trucks transport the waste to the sewage treatment plant at Morne a Cabrit. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

She is banking her new company’s future growth on educating middle- and low-income Haitians about the importance of paying for sewage pickup and disposal.

This is the “market first” model of sanitation reform in Port-au-Prince. Simply put, it’s the belief that the limited cash available for sanitation should be invested in increasing the demand for sewage removal rather than in large-scale infrastructure projects like sewage treatment plants.

Flaure Dubois, the financial director at Jedco, the largest sanitation company in the country, says the government’s focus on sewage treatment plants is frustrating because there is so much public education work to be done around sanitation. She sees her company as more aligned with aid groups doing sanitation campaigns than with DINEPA and its construction plans.

“We need to change the culture,” says Polyanna Domond, Jedco’s marketing director, showing off a Jedco sign that explains in Creole how to use a portable toilet (Sit on it, don’t hover above it!). “We are investing in public education, so people know that waste can make them sick. The government should ask us for help.”

The Worst Job in the World

Everyone in the neighborhood could smell it; a heavy, earthy stench, like rotten eggs and feces.

In the back corner of a neat courtyard surrounded by single-story houses, four men were getting ready to empty out a pit latrine. The leader, a 35-year-old who said his name was Gabriel Toto, was standing over a 15-foot pit filled with human excrement, his pants rolled up to his knees, shirtless with yellow rubber gloves and a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Gabriel Toto, 35, has been working as a bayakou, or latrine cleaner, for a decade. On nights without a journalist watching, he generally works naked. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Gabriel Toto, 35, has been working as a bayakou, or latrine cleaner, for a decade. On nights without a journalist watching, he generally works naked. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

He explained that Toto is a nickname he used when he discusses his job, to minimize the stigma and ostracization he and his family face because of his occupation.

For the same reason, he and his men work only at night.

“I am a working man,” he said, just trying to make a living without getting caught up in the organized crime that dominates the economy in his neighborhood near Project Drouillard. “I don’t want to do anything bad. So, whatever I need to do — whatever I have to do — I will do it. Anything.”

For the last decade, doing “anything” has meant working as a bayakou. The job is dangerous, disgusting and difficult. To watch Toto work is to see an expert perform his craft, moving confidently and carefully to remove about 400 gallons of human waste from an underground, candlelit hole in less than three hours, using only his gloved hands, a bucket and a rope.

Even for a pro, the work is risky. “I have had stitches on my legs, my feet,” Toto says. “I even lost one of my toenails one day when I was working.” Another bayakou, Derisma Merisier, says an infection is responsible for his red and puss-filled eyes. He has been living with it for years.

And the latrines are full of hidden dangers as well. People throw all sorts of things in the hole. Sticks, rocks, trash and razor blades are nightly hazards. On this night, an excrement-covered handgun shows up in one of the buckets.

Dangerous objects frequently make their way into pit latrines and can injure the men who clean the pits. This residential outhouse had sticks, razors and a handgun buried in about 15 feet of excrement. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Dangerous objects frequently make their way into pit latrines and can injure the men who clean the pits. This residential outhouse had sticks, razors and a handgun buried in about 15 feet of excrement. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

The owner of the outhouse paid Jedco about $170 for the cleaning service. As subcontractors, Toto and his men will each take home about $3.90 for the night’s work. They make eight to ten times more working for themselves, but as the companies have moved into the market, many bayakou feel forced to work as contractors.

Working for a company could theoretically offer perks. On this night, Jedco provides five pairs of coveralls (in plastic packaging), rubber gloves, boots, goggles and even blue Jedco baseball caps (new with the tags still on). The men laugh wryly when they see the protective gear.

“They usually don’t give us these things,” says Toto. The clear implication was that the protective gear is related to the presence of journalists. Usually, the men work in little or no clothing. By the end of the night, the goggles are fogged up and useless, gloves are ripped and most of the men have discarded some or all of the gear.

As it is, Toto says he doesn’t make enough to support himself and his three children. After a night’s work, he spends the day looking for hourly labor jobs, although a lot of people won’t work with him or even touch him.

Bayakou are frequently wounded on the job. Men describe deep cuts, missing toenails and persistent infections from exposure to human waste. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Bayakou are frequently wounded on the job. Men describe deep cuts, missing toenails and persistent infections from exposure to human waste. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

“You’ve seen what I have done,” he says, standing in the parking lot of the sewage treatment plant at 2:30 a.m., his hair still wet from a bucket bath. “Some people will never stand close to me, talking to me the way you are talking to me, as close as you are. They’ll stay away from me because they see what I’m doing with my own hands.”

The Haitian government and private sanitation companies talk about public education campaigns and sanitation market development and infrastructure. But as the person who does the work of bringing human waste from the city to the dumping site, Toto feels ignored and abused.

“The first people in the community who should give value to the work we’re doing are the companies,” he says. “When they sit behind a desk in the air conditioning, they don’t care. If they don’t give value to what we’re doing, who else will give value to that?”

Rebecca Hersher is a freelance journalist. Contact her @rhersher. This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Andre Paultre contributed reporting in Port-au-Prince.

Piles of human waste are left at the Morne a Cabrit sewage treatment plant. The latrine cleaners who dumped them work in the dark because of intense stigma associated with their profession. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

Piles of human waste are left at the Morne a Cabrit sewage treatment plant. The latrine cleaners who dumped them work in the dark because of intense stigma associated with their profession. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

TRANSCRIPT

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Port-au-Prince, Haiti is a city of more than 3 million people with no sewer system. International donors have spent millions of dollars on infrastructure meant to help the situation. But a multi-year plan to build sewage treatment plants all over the country has stalled. And residents say things are getting worse. Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Port-au-Prince’s low cinderblock housing projects are the frontline of the sewage problem in the city. Project Drouillard or Project D is hopping on a sunny Friday afternoon. Men are playing dominoes. Kids are shooting marbles in the narrow dirt alleyways.

(CROSSTALK)

HERSHER: The sound of dance practice spills out onto the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT NOISE)

HERSHER: The zinc-roofed buildings here are tightly packed along a canal where people throw trash and plastic bags full of human waste. There’s an outhouse for every 10 to 20 homes. Around the corner is about a foot of hardened mud inside a row of abandoned houses.

GABRIEL MONTREUIL: (Through interpreter) See the dirt, mud, trash? It’s because we had two floods in April – one on Good Friday and one on Easter. No house was spared.

HERSHER: Gabriel Montreuil (ph) has lived here his whole life. He says every time it rains, raw sewage floods his home. It’s scary. Among other dangers, there’s a cholera epidemic in Haiti. And the floods are getting worse.

MONTREUIL: (Through interpreter) The first time, it was 1-foot high. When it came back, it was 2 feet. And this time, it was 3 feet. As the adult, I needed to save the lives of my children.

HERSHER: The family slept on the street for a night and then came back to clean up. Montrieul blames the floods on sewage and trash clogging canals that run through Project D. You can smell them. One of Gabriel’s neighbors, who goes by Calypso, takes me over to see the nearest canal.

CALYPSO: (Through interpreter) Right here, the flood killed seven people in April.

HERSHER: Is there human waste in here?

CALYPSO: Everything. Everything.

HERSHER: Everything goes in the canal. The raw sewage should be trucked out to a sewage treatment plant. But there’s no government-run sewage disposal operation. And most of the formal waste removal is done by private companies. Most people can’t afford it. And international aid money isn’t available to help with that. As a result, the government estimates less than 10 percent of Port-au-Prince’s waste ever makes it to the treatment facility, which is called Goat Mountain. It’s pretty simple – just three basins that slowly use the sun and wind to disinfect raw sewage over the course of months. But the manager, Ricky Constant, says it’s not designed to handle such small volumes of waste.

RICKY CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) So now the basins are not working properly the way they are supposed to be working.

HERSHER: When the level gets too low, the water just sits there instead of flowing from one basin to the next. And there are other design flaws like a mountain of trash that’s accumulated next to where companies dump raw sewage.

CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) One of our issues is we shouldn’t have that much trash here.

HERSHER: Trash and sewage often travel together in Haiti. Remember, most people aren’t using toilets. They’re using pit latrines and throwing other stuff in there, too. But the treatment plant is only designed to handle human waste.

CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) This is a misunderstanding, a bad approach of the sanitation issue in Haiti.

HERSHER: Why do you think that happened?

CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) Haitian engineers made the conception of this site. But it’s a copycat from foreign countries. This is the first experience of Haitians dealing with that.

HERSHER: This kind of international influence is a big reason for the stalled sanitation infrastructure plan in Haiti. Since the 2010 earthquake here, the expertise and money for sewage plants have come from outside the country. Donors with good intentions nonetheless fund projects that are not always a good fit for what Port-au-Prince needs. Up the road, a second identical sewage treatment plant is overgrown with weeds.

I wonder when the last time this gate was open. Oh, it’s getting stuck in the trees.

The Spanish government paid $2.1 million to build this plant, starting in 2010. It’s been closed since 2013 because of engineering problems.

The pools are full of really green water. And the birds love it.

Even though it’s not working, funding the plant appears to be a point of pride for the Spanish government. Queen Sofia even visited it when it was under construction. And even with the demand for sewage treatment facilities falling, Spain is planning to spend another $617,000 to fix this facility. Construction begins in the fall. Back in Project D, Gabriel Montreuil feels abandoned.

MONTREUIL: (Through interpreter) In other countries, they take care of the population. Here, we rely on God. We cannot rely on the government.

HERSHER: He doesn’t see the sewage treatment plants or the international money. He just sees a Haitian government that doesn’t seem to listen to people like him. For NPR News, I’m Rebecca Hersher in Port-au-Prince

GONYEA: Their story was supported by a grant from Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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ON DEVELOPMENT: Aid Credibility at Stake as Donors Haggle Over Reporting Rules

By Ben Parker for IRIN from GENEVA, 21 July 2017

Photo by Ylenia Gostoli/IRIN

The world’s rich countries spend billions at home but report it as “aid”, exploiting a loophole that enables donors to mislead the public and cut vital development budgets. IRIN has dug into the data to reveal the worst offenders and the extent of a practice that topped $15 billion last year, seriously undermining the credibility of aid statistics. Given the wide differences in how they apply the ambiguous rules, donors have been trying to set new boundaries on in-donor refugee aid since February 2016.

However, progress has been slow, and the process again stalled at a meeting in Paris on 10 July. A working group on the issue will now need further rounds of negotiation if proposals are to be ready for adoption at a high-level meeting in late October.

Under current accounting rules, the costs of receiving refugees can count towards a donor country’s total overseas development assistance. In-country ODA has ballooned: In 2016, leading donor countries reported $15.4 billion of domestic spending on refugees as ODA, a huge rise from $3.9 billion in 2012 and several times more than they spend on refugees abroad. That’s also more than they spent on emergency aid in foreign countries, and more than three times the income of the UN refugee agency.

In Denmark, where a quarter of ODA was reportedly spent in-country, national auditors say the government misreported some figures. But Isabelle De Lichtervelde, policy manager for development finance at the ONE campaign, told IRIN that Denmark is among some “very concerning countries” and is showing “poor behaviour” in aggressively chasing the in-donor category of ODA.

Six countries met the UN target of 0.7 percent of gross national income spending on aid. However three – Germany, Denmark, and the UK – only reached the threshold by including in-country ODA. The Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, Switzerland and Denmark all report over $20,000 per new refugee as ODA.

While Denmark and some others apparently lobby for a broad definition, a swathe of civil society groups is against reporting in-donor refugee costs as ODA at all, let alone widening the loophole. Julie Seghers, OECD policy and advocacy advisor of Oxfam, told IRIN “it is legitimising the spending of ODA money within donors’ own borders, and for an objective that doesn’t serve aid’s core purpose, which is to fight poverty in developing countries.”

The Danish audit

Denmark has released its own view of the accounting rules showing how it intends to extend its interpretation this year and add more to the category. According to preliminary OECD and national data, Denmark allotted $420 million in 2016 but granted asylum to only 7,444 new refugees. Its response to the OECD suggests it would aim even higher in 2017. For example, it plans to include more costs such as police time and asylum appeals processing as well as other administrative expenses that go far beyond core spending on food, accommodation, and language training.

Denmark’s national auditors however have warned Danish MPs that the accounting for some aspects of refugee ODA is “neither rigorous nor transparent”. In addition, some was double-counted or wrongly allocated, according to a June report. The fluctuations and changing methodologies on in-country ODA may lead to “less predictable” foreign aid spending, the auditors found. In response, Denmark has enacted a new regulation to smooth out the impact of fluctuations in refugee spending on overseas development planning.

An analysis by Oxfam of Denmark’s policies in December found its ODA refugee spending “staggering”. The report claims “it is not unlikely that Danish development aid is co-financing empty housing facilities in Denmark”, due to an excess of capacity funded by the government despite falling refugee numbers. The government chose not to respond.

A spokesperson for the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged that Denmark was “actively” involved in the talks on in-donor refugee costs but declined to go into details. The official said Denmark supports work to make the rules “more precise”, and to increase “transparency and comparability”.

Betwixt and between

Stuck in the middle are the staff of the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), a membership organisation of major economies, often called a rich countries’ club. The Paris-based OECD is the venue where the ODA rules are made. Its secretariat back in 2001 was already uncomfortable with what they call the in-donor element: “donors’ expenditures on refugees who arrive in their countries – while commendable from a humanitarian point of view – do not make a sufficiently direct contribution to the economic development and welfare of developing countries to qualify as official development assistance. Including such data undermines the credibility of the ODA concept.” OECD officials today rarely criticise their member states openly, but try to hold the line on the principle of development aid in private.

OECD official Brenda Killen, writing in a personal capacity from Uganda’s recent refugee fundraising conference, did remark pointedly that the OECD should aim for “fidelity” to the original purpose of ODA, which she phrased as “the economic development and welfare of developing countries”, and said: “we need more and better data on aid from donor countries, including what is being spent inside their own countries.”

Few details have emerged about the ongoing negotiations, and donors are tight-lipped. “No decisions regarding ODA guidelines were taken”, at the last meeting on 10 July,  according to an email response to IRIN from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Nevertheless, IRIN understands the biggest remaining sticking point is about the costs of handling asylum seekers whose claims are rejected. One observer told IRIN the “dangerous precedent” of in-donor ODA means it’s critical to get it right. The new rules are unlikely to apply until 2019. Donor countries want recognition for taking on refugees, but, the observer said, ODA was the wrong yardstick for measuring their fulfillment of their refugee convention obligations. In donor countries, a range of ministries now have their eye on the development budget and the rules must prevent donors “gaming the system”, the observer added.

Seghers told IRIN that NGO advocates, including Oxfam, argue that any changes should be careful not to encourage donors to pad out their figures. She said the new rules should clearly define what’s not allowed, and give more detail and transparency on how the figures are arrived at.

294 pages of rules

The OECD’s statistical directives, including tables and annexes, already come to 294 pages, many about reporting ODA.

Closed-door committee meetings at the OECD regularly update the definitions of what’s allowable as ODA and how it should be calculated. Last year, for example, the members agreed new guidelines allowing certain types of military and security assistance to count. The debates tend to roll on: discussions continue on what support to the private sector should be included and how to measure it, while peacekeeping and security spending are attracting another round of attention.

However, given the migration “crisis” in Europe, and pressures on development spending in general, the eligibility of refugee spending is now a top issue for the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. In February 2016, OECD DAC members agreed it was a priority to sort it out: “It is necessary to improve the consistency, comparability, and transparency of our reporting of ODA-eligible, in-donor refugee costs… We therefore agree to set up a clear, transparent, and inclusive process to this aim.”

Sixteen months later, the definitions remain ambiguous and donors continue to draw up figures based on their own interpretations — and consciences. The current rules, laid down in 1988, allow “official sector expenditures for the sustenance of refugees in donor countries during the first twelve months of their stay”. They exclude measures for “integration”, without saying what that means. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, observers point out.

Do donors include the costs of processing asylum seekers whose claims are rejected? Should the clock therefore start after the determination of refugee status? Should they charge the costs of all healthcare and education? Can they factor in police time or the expense of hearing legal appeals?

The answers to a lengthy questionnaire compiled by OECD confirm an inconsistent range of reporting practices. Donors report between zero and $31,000 per refugee as ODA (in 2014 figures). Australia, Luxembourg, Poland, and South Korea decided to report no in-country refugee costs at all. But the Netherlands reported $31,933 per head, the UK $3,261, and Japan $337. Denmark reported $21,791, according to the survey.

Why does it all matter?

Development advocates say the labelling is misleading and provides cover to cut foreign aid. For example, in-country spending has allowed Germany to meet the target of aid spending being 0.7% of national income, but $6 billion never left its borders. A cut in Norway’s foreign aid spending has been camouflaged by its in-country spending.

“How credible is aid data when aid money is being used to fill in domestic budget gaps?”, said Oxfam’s Seghers. Massaging the figures means a loss of confidence in the data: “this puts the credibility of ODA as the yardstick of development aid at risk”, she added.

The debate over definitions may be “extremely technical”, but “they’re also very political”, said De Lichtervelde. Aid is a “crucial resource… you need to protect it.”

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ON AFGHANISTAN: National Solidarity Program Transformed Scores of Lives in Kandahar Province

The National Solidarity Program is the reason CSFilm director, Michael Sheridan, first went to Afghanistan to document Afghan initiatives from the Afghan Perspective. It remains a gold standard for integrated disarmament, economic and social development. A number of our Afghan trainees/filmmakers did storys on the NSP such as Knocking on Time’s Door, http://csfilm.org/films/fruit-of-our-labor/#knocking

Submitted by ABDUL QAYUM YOUSUFZAI 07/20/2017 to The World Bank

Not so long ago, 15 years to be exact, I remember when people in the districts of Kandahar used animals to transport their agricultural harvest to the provincial center. There were a few, if any, motorable roads, and we had a limited number of health centers and schools in the province. Most of the infrastructure laid in ruins. But worst of all, the economic condition of the average Afghan was quite bad with little or no access to income, opportunities, and facilities.

The National Solidarity Programme (NSP) improved lives of millions of Afghans across rural Afghanistan. NSP’s successor, the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project aims to improve the delivery of core infrastructure and social services to participating communities through strengthened development councils. Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank

Things have changed since 2003. While many development projects have been implemented in Kandahar Province, the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) has been one of the most popular and high impact. Running from 2003 to 2016, NSP was implemented in 16 of 17 districts and set up 1,952 Community Development Councils (CDCs), which implemented over 3,300 projects.

In Kandahar, communities are very conservative, and, overall, the province is highly traditional. When the program was launched, people in Kandahar were not interested in establishing CDCs through holding elections at the village level.

In 2005, as an engineer with UN-HABITAT working as a Facilitating Partner with NSP, I ended up travelling to many districts in Kandahar. One of these was Arghandab district. In my interactions with locals there, I realized they were not ready to accept women as equal decision-makers.

To address this, NSP conducted social awareness trainings and encouraged people to join the program for overall development and infrastructure management. These trainings encouraged some villages to establish CDCs and they realized that working with women eased the implementation of projects in their villages. This encouraged a behavior shift in neighboring villages as well.

Gradually, other villages and districts became eager to establish CDCs and join NSP too. Village by village and district by district, NSP became one of the most popular programs in the province. Most importantly, NSP accessed the very remote villages in Kandahar, where residents did not even have Tazkiras (national ID cards), and linked them with government departments.

Between 2003 and 2016, the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) provided block grants for over 3,000 development projects in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar Province. Over 1,952 Community Development Councils (CDCs) have been elected to decide on their respective community needs as well as to oversee and monitor project implementation. With support provided by the World Bank, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and other donors, NSP ensured citizen engagement and meaningful development with decisions being made at the grassroots level. It brought communities closer, one project at a time.

One of the biggest achievements of this program has been increasing women’s participation in the overall economy. CDCs brought women out of their homes and provided them with an opportunity to take part in the development of their villages.

I have been working as a Provincial Director with the MRRD for four years now. When NSP was active, I had more than 400 visitors per day in the office, including women. They were all CDC members from different parts of Kandahar and they were eager to implement more projects in their villages. Most of the CDCs had active female members and the men listened to them.

Now when I compare Arghandab district in 2003 to 2016, I can really see the improvements and development. In 2003, Arghandab had hardly any roads, culverts, schools, or bridges. Villages were not connected to markets and some villages were insecure. There were no women participating in the decision-making process. But now, we have women members in CDCs and there is not a single village in Arghandab left untouched by NSP development activities.

During my visit to Arghandab district recently, Saleh Mohammad, head of the Mirab Khoran village CDC told me, “We are happy that we accepted NSP. We built a bridge that connects both sides of the village and made transportation easier for all villagers.”

At the initiation of the Government of Afghanistan, the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP) replaced NSP. The objective of the CCAP, a social contract between the government and CDCs, is to improve the delivery of core infrastructure and social services to participating communities through strengthened development councils.

In terms of resources, we already have well-functioning CDCs with full representation of men and women and over 13 years of experience in implementing projects. For the first round, we will implement CCAP in the three districts of Spin-Boldak, Takhta-Pul, and Panjwayee. Under CCAP, we want to implement the projects equally in all the districts of Kandahar and work on improving coordination to make our work more effective.

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Community Supported Film announces participants from ten countries for the New Immigrant and Refugee Visions project!

First CSFilm Training, Afghanistan, 2010

Community Supported Film is pleased to announce that participants from ten countries have been selected for the New Immigrant and Refugee Visions documentary filmmaking project!

Local Voices Strengthen Global Perspectives

Ten men and women will begin their 15-week training in documentary filmmaking on July 29th. The participants bring a wide variety of immigrant and refugee experiences from their places of origin, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Haiti, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Afghanistan and Uganda, to communities in and around Boston.

Wilson Thelimo Louis from Haiti, 2017 NIRV participant

These women and men have a diversity of skills, interests and community engagement activities related to social and economic justice. We look forward to working with them to visualize the immigrant and refugee experience from their unique insider perspective and to sharing their films with the American public, media, educators and policymakers.

The training will run from July through November during which time we will be providing regular updates on the process and the stories being produced by the trainees.

Funding

Please help us raise the $14,200 still needed to complete the NIRV training, production and initial public engagement.

With your support CSFilm is able to model an alternative approach to documentary storytelling. Our approach puts locals in charge of defining the story. With local knowledge and lived-experience they examine the issues of concern to their communities from the inside out.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Tumblr for the latest news. View documentaries from our previous training projects in Afghanistan and Haiti on our website.

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