Monday, February 22, 2010

Relief work in the age of Facebook

I will never know what it is like to help people and not be recognized for it. Since I have been in the DR I have been able to share my experiences through this blog and other programs like Facebook. I can’t imagine my service without them, even though these things have come about over the past few years and Peace Corps volunteers have been working for more than 40. With that said, I would like to accept that I am being a little bit hypocritical and spend a couple paragraphs complaining about the wonders of information sharing.

As I said, I don’t know what relief work was like before Facebook but I have to imagine there was a lot less photographs of patients with cell phones and iphones. On the second day the director of the project had to tell the staff to stop talking pictures of the Haitian patients out of respect for their privacy and respect for their suffering, he also told us specifically not to upload grotesque pictures of people in pain to Facebook or Picassa. He said he didn’t want to have to tell us twice, I figured it was bad enough that he had to tell us the first time. There were several groups that came through the hospital to pose with the patients (some even posed as if they themselves where doctors) and left immediately after. I couldn’t believe how many people were treating the largest catastrophe to hit the Americas like a tourist destination. By day three, as per the Directors request, I had to password protect the computers in the office because people where spending a significant amount of time blogging and Facebooking (He also insisted that because someone installed Skype on one computer that a virus had damaged the modem, which is ridiculous. I fixed the modem issue by unplugging it for 45 seconds and turning it back on). I wasn’t too bothered by the people in the computer room, except for the guy that loaded all of his pictures into iPhoto on my laptop, now I have a bunch of fairly creepy pictures on my hard drive of some dude and his girlfriend (or maybe daughter, we can’t figure out) back in the states. Anyway, the point is that there were too many people documenting their good deeds and not enough good deeds being done. At some point someone figured out that it is a lot easier to look like a hero on facebook than to actually do something helpful.

So the trip to Jimani had a lot of what I did expect. There were games of telephone in English/Spanish/Creole between patient and doctor, soccer games with refugees, cute children in casts and wheelchairs, moving religious ceremonies in a language I didn’t understand, Red Cross helicopters and a medical staff from everywhere between Barcelona and Los Angeles. There were some amazing people and several very sad moments but because two thirds of us were posing for photos it seemed to detract from both the work and the experience.


Douglas said...

I have been reading your blog regularly while you've been in the DR. It's been interesting reading your take on things that have happened. I've seldom commented until now. You were very diplomatic in your use of the word "us" when you described the admonishment your Director was dealing out to the "tourists" who showed up to "help". Truth is, to be truly useful takes at least one of three things. 1)special equipment. 2)special training. 3)sweat. Sweat isn't glamorous, but lacking the first two...and therein lies the rub. Chris, your mom and I are very proud of the work, sacrifice and sweat you've put into your job in the DR. You really are "making a difference" - Doug

Heather W. said...

Chris - Thanks for including this post. I esp. appreciate hearing what it's like for people like yourself on the ground, particularly from someone clearly not in it for a simple photo op.

We're all terribly proud of the work you do. And being unable to help the people of Haiti in person ourselves, it feels really good to know we have people like you there that really care.

Thanks for doing the dirty work!


Tom Forbes said...

I also regularly read the posts from the DR and want to thank you for the info. I am an RPCV DR 87-89 and have stayed connected to the country since. When ever we were doing projects and people from outside were around, pictures were always part of the process, before digital. I can't imagine people being so invasive but technology has taken in some strange directions.