Bright Ideas with Daniel Wordsworth

Bright Ideas with Daniel Wordsworth
Daniel Wordsworth, president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee, was the featured guest on the program "Bright Ideas" on November 30, 2010. Minnesota Public Radio's Stephen Smith hosted the live discussion in the UBS Forum at MPR's St. Paul headquarters.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Stephen Smith discusses the work done by the American Refugee Committee with his guest, ARC's president, Daniel Wordsworth. In Liberia, the organization provides microfinancing to get small businesses off the ground.

In Rwanda, they build the infrastructure to provide safe drinking water. They moved into Sri Lanka to help rebuild after the tsunami of 2005. All this work and more is supervised from a headquarters here in Minnesota.

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Stephen Smith: Each month we invite a guest to the forum to talk about critical issues and ideas facing Minnesota, and to take questions from the studio audience here. Our guest this time is Daniel Wordsworth, president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee.

ARC is the Midwest's largest humanitarian relief organization. It provides shelter, medical care, developmental assistance and other services, to some 2.5 million people a year, in seven countries.

ARC is now exploring a new aid program in the chaotic and war ravaged country of Somalia. Minnesota has the largest population of Somali refugees in the United States, and the American Refugee Committee is experimenting with ways to involve them, as well as other Minnesotan's and people across the Unites States, in the organization's work.

Welcome, Daniel Wordsworth.

Daniel Wordsworth: Thank you.

Smith: So Daniel Wordsworth, you are a native of Australia.

Wordsworth: Yes.

Smith: As we will hear from your voice, shortly. And, you trained as Navy pilot. How did you go from training to be a naval aviator to relief work?

Wordsworth: Hmm, that's a long time ago now.

Smith: Yeah, but presumably you know the story.

Wordsworth: I know the story, yeah. I think I just reflect that I had wanted to be a pilot most of my life, and I like that kind of life. But, I think you get to a time, and I was just thinking through my life. And, I just realized that I really wanted to spend more time helping people than harming them.

Smith: How old were you at that time?

Wordsworth: I was twenty.

Smith: OK. And, you were aboard ship somewhere, starting to think about this.

Wordsworth: Actually, I wasn't on board a ship at that time. I was on the Barrier Reef doing experiments with crown of thorns starfish. So I had some time to think.

Smith: Oh, OK, so you and the starfish were there. And, you decided you wanted to help people. But, how did you get into the idea of doing, at first your relief work was in Australia, was work in the city. Talk a bit about that.

Wordsworth: Well, I actually had no clue what to do. And, so one of the things, I just basically went to the capital city, looked around for any kind of work that I could find to help. And, the work that I ended up doing was as a house parent for children who were really terribly abused in their home life. And, so they were so seriously abused they couldn't be fostered out to other parents.

So I was a house parent at the age of twenty, with six of these children and with two older ladies. And, we were there twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

Smith: So you made up your own organization, essentially.

Wordsworth: Well, I joined that organization. I made up my own one shortly after that experience. But, I spent time there, and really I think I was completely out of my depth at 21, trying to look after kids like that. And, as you do at the age of 21, you also think that you can do it a better way. So I grabbed a friend of mine, and we rented a house in suburban Sydney. And, we found two other guys that had an adventurous spirit.

We rented a big mansion like the Addams family, and we put into every one. There were four bedrooms, and so we set up bunk beds in each room. We used our own salaries to pay for the rent.

And, then, we sent out letters and messages to all the halfway houses, youth refuges, crises centers around Sydney, and said, "If you have anyone that's too wild for you, anyone that you've banned, if your too full, send them to live with us. We don't ask any questions." And, so for two and a half years, we ran kind of an animal house, if you like.

Smith: Well, we'll talk more about how you came to the American Refugee Committee as we talk about international relief and your involvement in it. So tell us more about the ARC. It's got something like 1, 700 employees, and 30 or 40 of them actually work here in Minnesota. The rest are scattered all over the world. Explain what it does.

Wordsworth: Well, we're an organization that's really focused on working in the toughest environments in the world, with people who have lost everything, typically refugees or people who are refugees within their own countries. We call them internally displaced people, but folks who have had to flee war or disasters like the ones that are happening currently in Pakistan and Haiti.

And, we basically set up programs to respond to the needs that they have. We do things like camp management. We also do health care and provide health care and health services to those people. We do water and sanitation.

We work with children. We have quite substantive programs protecting women and children from violence. And, we also work over a long time with them, as they go through the process from the event where they've lost everything, until they go back home.

And, so we try to return with them back to the countries where they started, and to help to rebuild their lives through things like job creation and things like that.

Smith: So you do repatriation. Do you do relocation, as well, from refugee camps, say, to the United States?

Wordsworth: No. We don't do any of that.

Smith: That part of it is not part of your relief.

Wordsworth: We actually started that way of working with refugees in the U.S. But, about 20 years ago, we've just moved and focused purely on the international work.

Smith: OK. So let's talk first about the program that you're running in Haiti. Was ARC in Haiti before the January earthquake?

Wordsworth: No. No, we weren't.

Smith: All right. So you went down there. Remind people, January 2010, massive earthquake that left something like 1.3 million people homeless, and almost as many living in squalid or uncertain circumstances, makeshift housing, that kind of thing. How did you first decide to go to Haiti? What was it? I mean, big earthquake, you just go? Or, how do you decide that that is the place to go?

Wordsworth: Well, one, we are geared to do that kind of thing. So we are always watching and waiting for those things to happen, and we are prepared to be able to respond quickly to an emergency like that. Actually, I wasn't there on the day of the earthquake. That was January 12th. But, my team got together.

We basically sit in a room. We monitor what happens. We begin to see what happens over that first day, and how many people have lost their lives, how many people have been displaced, and how large the emergency is.

When an earthquake like that happens, the first reports you get are, "There's been an earthquake in Port au Prince." You don't hear much else. But, over the next few hours it begins. You begin to understand more and more, and you get more and more information.

And, we realized it was a very large, catastrophic emergency. At that time, when it moves into that level, the leadership team of the organization get together. We decide that we want to go and do something in response to that.

We ask our board of directors to convene a meeting, and we get approval from them to go. And, then basically, we mobilize a small team to get on a plane and go down.

Smith: How many people do you have there now? On the ground?

Wordsworth: Well, we have about 16 international staff, and around 200 Haitian staff.

Smith: And, what are you doing in Haiti? What sort of things are you providing?

Wordsworth: I think one of the key ways to think about what we do is we take, in Haiti in particular, we're taking a strong geographic orientation. So what we do is we find camps of people. You mentioned the fact that there were 1.4 million people displaced, but those people have been forced to move into church yards and sporting fields. And, there's one famous camp that's down the middle of a median strip on a highway. So people have just jumped over the fence and found any place they can go.

So what we do is we manage camps. We find groups of people. Anything from around 1, 500 people, to the largest camp that we manage is around 50, 000 people, and we manage those camps.

In some of those areas that we then provide health care. We have clinics that operate with doctors and nurses. We're providing treatment for cholera, for example, right now.

In the early days, we hand out and deliver tarpaulins to get people under some kind of shelter or tents. We construct and sink wells providing clean water. We set up toilets. And, we also set up centers for children to play in.

And, then, we try to coordinate with other actors who are on the ground to make sure the food is being delivered, that clean water is coming, all those kinds of things.

Smith: Our guest on "Bright Ideas" today is Daniel Wordsworth of the American Refugee Committee in Minneapolis. So the ARC has a camp called, at Corail, or is it called Corail?

Wordsworth: Corail. It's spelled Corail, but it's pronounced "cor ray."

Smith: OK, Corail. And, it's come in just recently for a bit of criticism. [8:17] There was a Canadian newspaper that said, and you can tell me whether it's fair or not, that the conditions there or the situation at this camp represents everything that's gone wrong with international relief in Haiti. That it represents an ill conceived plan with no oversight in the chaotic rush to help.

And, the problem with this camp, as I understand it, is it was set up for about 5, 000 or 6, 000 people, but it's surrounded by 120, 000 squatters. They see a situation that's under control, where people are being fed, where tents and shelters and housing is being built, and it looks pretty good. They figure why not go there.

So what's the situation there from your perspective. And, is the criticism, either of that program or of aid overall in Haiti, accurate?

Wordsworth: Hmm. There are certainly some big challenges with the Corail camp. For those of you that don't know it, Corail camp is actually quite a famous camp in Haiti. It was the first one that the U.N. and the government of Haiti established as a planned camp.

The other 2, 000 settlements that I mentioned are all what's called spontaneous camps. They were just where people gathered.

Corail is famous because it was the first supposed planned refugee camp in that country. And, the idea was that the camp is in five zones. Zone one is like a tent city.

So the idea is that the relief community looked around at the camps that were in place around Port au Prince and found the families that, basically, their lives were at risk in the environments where they were living.

For example, they were living on the side of a mud hill. And, people were concerned that, during the rains, there'd be a mudslide and those people would be killed.

So a survey was done in all of the camps to find the families that are most at risk from hurricane, most at risk from rain. There were about 7, 500 people initially identified. The tent city was where those 7, 500 people were moved.

Then in the next zone, organizations like ours were building more permanent, we call it temporary shelters, but they're kind of in between a tent and a full home, a temporary shelter where people can live for two years.

There would be enough shelters built for the 7, 500 people, and they would be moved and transitioned from the tents there. And, then, the next group of 7, 500 people could come.

What happened at the time was that, then the biggest criticism of the Corail camp, is that it's located miles away from Port au Prince. So it's actually sitting out in the middle of nowhere, north of Port au Prince.

Smith: And, as I understand it, there's no stable water supply, natural water supply, in this place.

Wordsworth: Well, you have to sink wells, but you do most of that across Haiti anyway. The problem, it's just a giant, open field. If you'd been reading or watching the New York Times over the last three months, Corail gets profiled maybe every second week. It's the camp that's got a sort of yellow earth, white tents, barrack like tents, and a beautiful blue sky in the background. It's always a front page, because it's very picturesque, and it's also a very tragic place.

Now, the problem with it was that you had to move these people into an area in the middle of nowhere, and so how do they find jobs? What's going to happen to those people after they've been there for some time? So even if you build them temporary shelters that last two years while you're rebuilding back in Port au Prince, what do these people actually do?

It was hastily found, and it was hastily planned. And, at the time that we joined it, the one group that they couldn't find were the people that would manage the camp.

There were volunteers to sink the wells. There were volunteers to provide health services. And, there were volunteers to help construct the temporary shelters.

Smith: But, you mean international volunteers.

Wordsworth: Well, I mean organizations like the American Refugee Committee. But, the big one that they needed to find was an organization who was willing to manage the camp. And, everybody at that stage was [whistles] when that one got brought up, because being a camp manager is like being the mayor. And, imagine being the mayor of the worst place in the world. It's not a fun place to be.

And, you can only really afford, we can only afford with the budget that you get, is to find one international person who's like the mayor. And, he has two or three very nervous looking Haitians that work alongside of him or her.

And, we put our hand up and said, "OK, we believe strongly in the notion of camp management." We think of it like a mother hen kind of thing, where you really get involved with people. You're with them all day, every single day. You're much more intimately involved with their lives.

The plus side is that we feel like we're more closely connected and we can respond in a more intimate way. The downside is that whenever anything goes wrong, you're the lightening rod.

Smith: So you're saying this is a good deed that is naturally going to go punished. There's no way around it.

Wordsworth: There's no way around that. This is a good deed that will naturally go punished. But, so it should be. I mean, it's terrible to live there. We're not saying, "Woe to us." It's much worse to be living in that environment, and this is why we exist. So to your point, it was set up quickly, because people had to be moved out of dangerous areas fast. And, so people were moved out there quickly.

It is incredibly difficult in Port au Prince to find a large expanse of land where you could move what was initially planned to be 25, 000 people. There's just nowhere for them to go in Port au Prince. So they had to be outside of it.

Now, this is, I suppose, one of my issues with the criticism. I think criticism is great, and we should be challenged. I'm just always open enough for ideas.

I'm completely with you on the fact that we don't want to move these people miles away from Port au Prince. That's not good. Just, can you just tell me quickly, where's this large expanse where we can house 25, 000 people?

Because, the problem the government has is how do you rebuild a permanent house if a person's living on it now? So you have to move people away from their neighborhood so that you can rebuild the neighborhood. So you move them away. Where do you put them? This was the challenge.

Smith: Right, and you're talking about what is very nearly a failed state to begin with. A government that is marginally functional. A population which is in the deepest poverty in the hemisphere. And, what interests me is that there's also this reverse criticism that happens whenever there is, certainly, a natural disaster like this, which is, "Man, it is taking way too long for the relief, for the aid to get to the people who need it."

This is a criticism one hears with virtually every disaster like this. But, I've always wondered, this must be coming from people who've never been to a place where there are no functioning roads, no functioning electricity, et cetera.

It's a softball for you, but I assume you think that that criticism is unfounded.

Wordsworth: [15:15] Well, yes and no. So I'd like to talk to the yes bit first, and then I'll go on to the no bit. There were a couple of quite well known journalists at the time in the early days of this crisis. And, I remember watching it on the news and getting a little bit upset about it. So it still sticks in my mind.

And, these two journalists said, "What's so hard about all of this?" We managed to get an airplane." This was in the first, say, four or five days. "What's so hard about all of this? We managed to get on an airplane, get down here. We're here. We're filming. We're on the ground. We're in these camps. Where are the INGOs, and what are they doing?"

Now, good point. Now, we're all there. Now, here's the problem that we have, OK? I'm the two of the journalist, I need to get two cameras in a bag. OK, and that's not easy. But, I've got to bring two cameras to Port au Prince.

If I'm the organization, like an organization like Oxfam, my job is to provide clean water to 400, 000 people every single day. I have to provide them. There are international standards that we all agree to in the amount of services that we provide.

So, for example, on water. If you take the responsibility for providing water to people, you've committed to providing 15 liters of water per person, per day. Now, 15 liters is about five gallons. So you've committed to doing that.

Now, you're responsible for, say, well, there were 1.4 million people in these camps. So what's 1.4 million times five gallons? That's about eight million gallons, right? That's eight million gallons of water every single day have to be provided to these people.

Now, what's the first question you'd ask? Where is all this water, one? Secondly, where are the water tankers that we need? So my question to these two guys was, cameras are good, but do you have 300 water tankers in your bag?

Because, that's the problem that Oxfam has. They have to find 300 water tankers to set up convoys to get water to people. And, the difference is, if you don't deliver that water, what happens? People get sick and die. There's big pressure to do that.

In those early days, the World Food Program delivered food to 1.9 million people, 1.9 million people. The organizations like Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services delivered water to 1.4 million people. 600, 000 tarpaulins were delivered within two weeks.

Smith: A tarpaulin, for those of us.

Wordsworth: Yeah, a tarpaulin, is that what you?

Smith: A tarp.

Wordsworth: 600, 000 tarps. Now, I have to tell you, that's an amazing feat. That's a truly amazing feat. And you're doing that in a place that's been affected by an earthquake. So what's the difference between an earthquake and something else? An earthquake implies that every road is full of debris.

Smith: And unlike a lot of countries that you might be in, say a Peru or a Pakistan even, no really functioning military to help you with logistics.

Wordsworth: No. No military. The electricity is gone. Telecommunications are gone. The government has been destroyed. The U.N. headquarters building has been wiped out, and 100 U.N. staff have been killed. Now, they managed to turn around in that environment and deliver those kinds of services. I take my hat off to them.

Smith: But, you said there are still things that could be done better.

Wordsworth: Yeah, the thing that has to be done better is all of that is well and good, but we just have to somehow do this better. We just somehow have to do it faster.

Smith: You mean better in a generic sense? You don't have a specific...?

Wordsworth: Well, I think we just... What happens in that environment is there's a lot of chaos. So what might happen is one organization may bring water tankers to one camp, and then at another entrance another organization's bringing water tankers. So you have duplication of effort. Sometimes you'll have organizations focused on one set of camps, and you won't realize that just 200 feet away is a camp that you can't see that has 2, 000 people living in it that no one's been to for four or five days. And, you just don't know it's even there.

So we have to get faster at finding where all of the people are. We have to get more efficient in coordinating all of the different organizations and what we do. And, we have to just ensure that we can meet those standards in a faster way.

Smith: But, there is a level of coordination now that there wasn't even five, eight years, as I understand it. It's something called the cluster system, and it's run out of the United Nations, I take it?

Wordsworth: Mm hmm.

Smith: Without getting too technical, can you explain how that works? Because, I bet a lot of people think when stuff just tumbles down in Haiti, all these organizations basically get on their separate flights and head there willy nilly.

Wordsworth: Right, except for the willy nilly, but the rest of it. Now, there is a little bit of willy nilly. Just between us in the room here, there was a little bit of willy nilly when it came to Haiti. There were 8, 000 organizations that responded to Haiti.

Haiti's a very special category. There are many different groups that have long term affiliation with that country. And, so many folks got involved in this, more because they were committed to Haiti than they were knowledgeable or experienced in dealing with large scale, catastrophic emergencies.

So I'm not being critical of that. It's just a factor that was very substantive when it came to a think like Haiti. Now, what then happens and how the cluster system works. The cluster system emerged out of the tsunami, when the international community after that time sat down and said, "OK, we need to, " much the same way that I've been saying, "We need to do this better. We need to coordinate ourselves better. So how can we do this?"

So the U.N., and through a thing called the Inter Agency Standing Committee, interesting stuff there. You can memorize that one. But, we all got together. Not me personally. I wasn't there at that time.

But, what I mean by we, is the United Nations, bilateral organizations like USAID or the British government, and then INGOs like the American Refugee Committee or World Vision or CARE, meet together and we talked about how do we deal with this problem of coordination.

Now, the end result was a thing called the cluster system, and the cluster system is like a hub and spokes model of coordinating. In the middle of the hub is the United Nations office coordinating humanitarian assistance, and then out of there are spokes. At the end of every spoke is a cluster focused on a particular sector. So what happens in a...

Smith: By a sector, you mean a region of a country.

Wordsworth: No, actually, like health.

Smith: A service sector? OK.

Wordsworth: A service sector: health, nutrition, water, logistics, protection, anything. Basically, there are 10 sectors. An emergency like Haiti involves organizations working in all 10 of these. We do water, you join the water cluster. If you do health care, you join the health cluster. If you're involved in nutrition, you join the nutrition cluster. .

So when this first emergency like this happens, the U.N. puts a big tent up in an empty field and makes that the U.N. archer tent. Then, around that tent, they put up the tents for the different cluster heads. Then, whenever an organization like us arrives in Haiti, the first thing we do, we go to that coordinating center and we put ourselves on the cluster.

So an organization like us, we work on camp management. We work in shelter. We work in health care. We work in protection and water. So we will then go from each tent, "ARC is here. Put us down on the cluster. ARC is here, put us down on the cluster."

They then tell us, "First coordinating meeting for nutrition is tomorrow morning at nine o'clock. The first one for shelter is at 10 o'clock. The first one for food is at 11 o'clock."

Smith: So it's an emergency bureaucracy, and its purpose is to make things run. That's the cluster system.

Let's talk now, Daniel, about Somalia. You have been thinking very carefully and very deeply about that country. For more than a decade now, it's been a lawless place wracked by civil war. It's produced something like two million refugees displaced people within the country, as well.

What can the American Refugee Committee in a little place like Minneapolis do in a place that is so dangerous, confusing and difficult?

Wordsworth: [23:17] We can do an amazing amount. That's the shocking thing to me after doing this for 15 years. We often think the things that are most difficult are the things that are external to us, and the things that are easiest are the things that are internal to us. What I've noticed in doing this is its just amazing how straightforward it is to make a huge difference in the life of a person, a family or a community.

I don't sit here wracking, and we don't sit here wracking our mind about how we can transform the entire governing structure of a place like Somalia. The good news is there are other smarter people who are more skilled at that kind of thing than us who are thinking about this every single day. We work on the assumption that they're doing that.

What we know that we can do is we can be dropped into a camp of 10, 000 people who have been sitting there from anything between 10 years to 10 days. They have no water, no health care. Their children have never even seen a school. They have absolutely nothing. No food is arriving.

That if you're a woman in that camp and you're giving birth, you're giving birth alone. If you're giving birth at night, you're giving birth alone at night in complete darkness. Now, I know my wife when we had our child, she's eight years old, my wife had complications. So I know that if we were living in a camp in Somalia, my wife would be dead now and my child would be dead.

So if you say to me, "What difference does it make to get in there and actually work with a woman who's giving birth to a child, and help her give birth safely, and ensure that that child survives those first few months?" That's a huge thing.

Smith: Sure, but this is place where lots of relief organizations, and even U.N. protection organizations and, of course, the U.S. military famously, have not been able to work. How are you planning to figure out a way to get on the ground and to start making this difference?

Wordsworth: Well, we were actually there from 1993 to 1999. The security situation deteriorated. The point that Said makes, and Said's in the audience. He's a dear friend of mine, a Somali who's been living in Minnesota now for 10 years. His point is that when we talk about Somalia, what we're really talking about is Mogadishu. That all the news that we see, chaos and disorder, bullets flying, flames, things exploding, that's Mogadishu. That's in the south of the country.

There are two regions in Somalia that are far more stable than that, a place called Puntland and another one called Somaliland. In both of those areas now, you can operate. You can work.

There are people who have fled the violence in the south. They're living in places in Puntland and in Somaliland where you can actually reach them. You can get involved with them. You can do programs with them. And, that's where we plan on going.

Smith: OK. So with the largest Somali population in the United States being in Minnesota, it's sort of a natural thing for you to do. And, you're thinking and trying to take your relief organization in a direction that most have not gone before. [26:26] Typically, relief organizations, they're the professionals. They ask for the money. They go do the work. And, you get brochures a couple of times a year with pictures and descriptions and stories of individuals.

You are hoping with, I suppose, Somalia as a test program, if you will, a demonstration project, to reframe the way relief work is done. Tell me about that.

Wordsworth: Well, and I'll add to this in that, I think, to your earlier question about what can we do differently from others. Actually, most of the others are talking about engaging more strongly in a place like Puntland. So actually, there's a rising sense that people can operate there more, and there is a humanitarian imperative that drives us to actually go there and do something.

Smith: So you're saying there's a sense among relief organizations that this can be done in this particular part of the world, yeah?

Wordsworth: Yes.

Smith: But, you're talking about a different approach in this work.

Wordsworth: And, this is where I think we are standing apart. Our belief very strongly, and maybe we'll get to this later in the program, is that that model that you described, where we're the humanitarian professionals. We know what we're doing. All we need to do is people to give us money, and then leave us alone. And, then we'll come back to you at the end of the year with a report, is it's not a full enough picture.

We do know what we're doing with humanitarian work, but actually we can take a whole lot more advice, guidance and a lot more resources. We think there's a huge amount of creativity that exists latent within the community that can be brought to bear to these problems.

Smith: Do you mean the Somali Minnesotan community? What community are you talking about?

Wordsworth: Actually, it would include people that are sitting in this room. The natural starting point is the Somali community, but we actually think we can take it further than there and actually seek to work with a broader group. There's one Somali doctor who puts it well. He says, "If you're treating a patient for 20 years and they don't get better, you need to change what you're doing." Now, what our belief is that what we need to do when we go into a place like Somalia is not just go in and do the usual thing, but instead, tread a new path.

And, the new path for us is that we'll go in partnership with the Somali community. We will use their strength, their resources, their ideas, in partnership with our strength, our resources, and our ideas. And, that together, we make a bigger thing, and that if we do this truly in a sense of partnership, that the end result will be much better for us.

We'll have help on how we navigate into a very dangerous, very complex environment. But, more than that, the program itself will be richer from that experience. So we're starting with the Somali community, but we're hoping to expand that to Minnesotans more broadly.

Smith: And, why would this be such a particularly...? I mean, this is something of a breakthrough for people, working in humanitarian relief. Why wouldn't they have been involving people on the home front before this?

Wordsworth: I think people would say they have involved people in the past. I think there has to come a shift, though, in a person's thinking where it's the notion... [29:34] The way I think about it is that often when we in organizations like the American Refugee Committee have talked about involvement, and we've talked about it through the lens of transparency. We've said that actually what people want to do is be able to see more clearly what we're doing so that they trust us and they're willing to give us their resources.

So I think of that as the belief within nonprofits like ours that people are looking for more mirrors that organizations like ours are like black boxes, and that's a quote.

Many people have said, "You guys are like a black box. We don't know what you do in there, but you're doing something. But, it's very inaccessible for the rest of us. And, when we come near you, you say, 'Look, this is just too complicated. This is Somalia, right? What can you bring to Somalia? It's tough enough for us.'"

So we're like a black box. I think, then, the thinking that's evolved is this notion of creating windows, where you can look through, see what we're doing. We're more transparent. We're more open and more trustworthy.

Our belief is to take that to the next level. And, our belief is that people don't actually want windows. What people want are doorways. That people want to be able to come walking in to our office, come walking into our programs. Sit down at the table with us and actually help shape the program that emerges. That we actually have a much greater degree of trust for the donor.

I think we're trying to flip the trust thing around. In most nonprofits, when we talk about the issue of trust, what we say is, "Are you willing to trust us with your money? Are you willing to trust us with your resources?"

For us, what we're saying is actually it's different from that. The trust is really our problem. Are we willing to trust the Somali community to be partners with us and shape the programs that we're doing? Are we willing to trust average Minnesotans to have ideas and to be able to be creative and influence what we're doing?

Smith: And, are you inviting these people to go to Somalia or to whatever region you're working in, as sort of a la the Habitat for Humanity, where you involve people? I mean, this is technical work. In the past, it's largely from Minnesota, if I remember correctly, the committee has sent doctors and nurses and people who have particular kinds of skills that are needed in country.

What about Steve Smith, a guy who can, I can hammer a nail and I can make a radio program. You going to bring me to Somalia, and have me work in the camps?

Wordsworth: You're probably like me. You're like lightening with a hammer, never hit the same place twice, huh?

Smith: Yeah, no kidding.

Wordsworth: Actually, that's the natural response. People look at me nervously and they say, "So you want me to go to Somalia, right?" And, that's when we get the same response that the U.N. gets when they ask for camp managers.

Smith: I'd be happy to go.

Wordsworth: You want to go? OK, good.

Smith: I'm sure I would.

Wordsworth: Good, we'll bring you across. Well, in general, Somalia's an extreme example, because that's a tough environment. But, most of the countries where we work are tough places. One element of this is to expand our volunteerism. So, yes, we are taking more volunteers in now. For example, we took down 26 doctors worked with us in Haiti. So we are using doctors more.

Part of the idea, as we've been working with the Somali community, is the notion that there are many Somalis here in the Twin Cities who want to help their country, who want to contribute and make a difference. They may be doctors, engineers, carpenters or anything, plumbers. And, they want to actually take those skills back to Somalia and make a difference.

So, yes, one part of this will be taking volunteers into places like that. In Somalia right now, it will be focused around taking Somalis to Somalia. But, we have other countries where we're talking volunteers from here in the Twin Cities.

But, I don't think that everybody wants to do that. I suppose where we're at is this notion that a person doesn't necessarily want to hammer and nail. They don't necessarily want to go and bandage people. It's just that that's the only opportunities we've ever given for people to feel like they're engaged in international relief.

Those are your only options, hammer or bandage. Those things are great, but we should let people who love hammering and who love bandaging and who are good at those things do those things.

What we're trying to do, though, is reach out to others and say, "Actually, who are you? What really interests you? What's your driving thing?" A person may be a teacher here in the Twin Cities, and they say, "Well, I'm willing to go and volunteer to be a teacher in Haiti."

Now, we're saying, "Well, actually, Haiti doesn't need teachers right now." But, what you can do is take why are you interested in this. And, they say, "Well, we believe strongly in the power of teaching. I believe strongly in the power of knowledge."

So we say, "Well, why can't you apply that same notion to kids here in Minnesota? Teach them about Haiti. Teach them about humanitarian work. Teach them about making a difference in the world. We can help guide you with materials, so that you can talk about this intelligently. But, actually apply your personal passion in an area that means something to you that makes a difference in Haiti."

Smith: Do relief work in your own community in an informational way.

Wordsworth: That's one way, informational way. We had one mother who wanted to do something for Haiti, didn't know what to do. We said, "Well, why don't you help your children experience a little bit of what children in Haiti are experiencing." So we had a thing called "Camp Out for Haiti." So she took some kids from her neighborhood. They camped out in the backyard. That night, they decided they wanted to draw pictures. So these kids drew pictures for the children in Haiti.

She brought those pictures in for us, I don't think really expecting that we would send them to Haiti, but she had to do something with them. So she brought them in to our office. "I had the camp out. It was great. Here are some pictures my kids drew."

So we took those pictures. We sent those down to Haiti. We took them into one of our camps. We have kids in camps in Haiti who are sitting down drawing pictures. When they saw these pictures, they loved them. They thought they were incredible.

So the kids in Haiti all drew pictures. They sent them back to us. We asked this lady to come in with her family. They brought the family, and we handed them the pictures from the kids in Haiti. Now, that had a big impact on her and her family. So a part of it, it's about information. But, it's also about sharing your life with another person. Understanding how another person is seeing the world. Helping you as a parent to help your children have a broader perspective than their own life, their own Wi, their own TV.

I think that person used this as a way of being a better mother. And, so this process and what we were doing in Haiti helped her to do this and have a bigger perspective. So I think that's another thing that we can do.

Smith: What was your thinking process that got you to this idea that you wanted to reform or regenerate the way relief organizations interact with the people on the home front?

Wordsworth: [36:42] I think I am proposing something new in this area, and I think people again have spoken about engagement, but we are trying to take that to a whole different level. The way we talk about it at the American Refugee Committee is that we're actually trying to raise the donor to the level of the refugee in our thinking and in the way that we work with people.

We're not reducing the role of the refugee. The refugees are central to what we do. But instead what we're trying to do is recognize that there are a huge number of people here in the Twin Cities, and in the U.S., and all over the world, who actually want to be involved, who want to do something, and who really just want to be involved in this kind of thing.

They get as upset about things like Haiti, and about floods in Pakistan, and about things like Darfur, that they get as upset about that as we get upset about it, and they want to do something about it.

Smith: OK, so that's the idea. Where did it come from?

Wordsworth: Where'd it come from. I'll walk you through just two things, briefly. And the other element that I'll add to the new idea, though, is this notion of how we even work with refugees is changing, and how we work with people is changing, and we're orienting much more strongly around the notion of meaning and purpose and a more human response to crises like the Haiti crisis.

Smith: Treating the people that you're serving more as customers rather than as recipients.

Wordsworth: Right. As customers and as being as people.

Smith: OK.

Wordsworth: Not recipients of shelter. Not recipients of water. Not recipients of food. But instead vibrant, living human beings that are full of aspirations, and hopes, and challenges, and anxiety, and fear, and who are grappling with an entirely new circumstance all around them and struggling to get through each day.

And realizing that ramifications of that stuff in their life is more than simply, "I just need a shelter." Right? Handing to a family who has lost their entire...their house, all of their possessions, their job, and maybe a family member, and walking up to that person and handing them a tent? That's just not good enough, right?

And even if you give them enough water to survive, that's not good enough, right? We have to give them more than that. Yes, do we have to give them water, food, shelter, and all these things? Yes.

Is that enough? Would that be enough for you? It's nowhere near enough for you. We haven't even reached ground zero when we do that kind of thing.

Smith: ] OK. Taking a third attempt now at trying to get you to tell me about your thought process and sort of how [overlapping discussion].

Wordsworth: So, yep, at my question. So how it goes into that was this notion...a couple of years ago I did this research with Oxford University about how children experience poverty. We wanted to actually...and what I think was groundbreaking about that piece of research was that it was the first time anyone had gone out and actually spoke in five different countries internationally to children themselves.

And we asked children, "What's it like to be poor? What does it feel like? What's it like for you?" And the research went over a couple of months, and we were in villages with children over long periods of time, and we were asking that question, "What's it actually like for a child?"

And the shocking thing for us was the way they described poverty was completely...we'd never even been close to it. We thought...what are the things, the kind of things you think children, a child would say? It's like being hungry, right? It's like not having school. It's like being sick. That's what you think that a child would say.

But what we found in all five countries is they never brought any of those things up. What instead they said was, "It's like this. It's when I go to school, the teacher says, 'You are one of the poor ones. Sit in the back of the classroom and be quiet.'

It is like when I walk home from school that I walk through the town, and all of the marketplaces and the business owners watch me very carefully, because they're afraid that I'll steal the fruit that they're selling because I'm poor.

It's that when I go home, and I look at my neighbor, and I want to play with my neighbor's child, but my neighbor won't let her child play with me, because I'm one of the poor ones in this village, and they don't want their children mixing with me."

That's the description we got in all five countries from children that they actually understood poverty completely around relational things that it was all about how they felt.

When we talked though to adults, too, some...two ladies in Bolivia said, "This is what it's like to be poor. I live in this country. I'm in this world. I live in this village. I walk these streets. I speak. And no one sees me, and no one hears me. I am a ghost. I am a ghost."

And one old man in Kenya stood up and said, "This is what it's like to be poor. When we have community meetings to discuss issues, I stand up, and I want to say something, and everybody says, 'Who are you, old man? You're one of the poor ones. You need to sit down and listen to the rest of us.' And they make me sit down, and I cannot speak. That's what it's like to be poor." So...don't worry, I'm getting to your bit.

Smith: I'm hanging on.

Wordsworth: So the shift...because this really was a big shift for me, was this understanding that the experience of poverty is profoundly personal and profoundly intimate, that it is based as much in feelings, and that it is based strongly around how people make meaning of their life.

If I'm a child, if I'm nine years old, I make meaning of my life through my friends. If friends won't play with me because I'm poor, that has a big impact on me. It has a bigger impact on me than the fact that I don't have lunch every day.

Now does that mean that they don't need to have lunch? Of course they need to have lunch, but they also need to have friends to play with. So then I walked away from there thinking actually that the key really is not just to meet survival needs, but is to do it in a way that is truly meaningful to the person, and in a way that alleviates the feeling of the experience.

So going from there I then noticed that when something like the tsunami happened, there was this giant, this was, you know, five years ago, there's this giant outpouring of goodwill around the world. Like giant. It's the largest outpouring that's really ever happened.

Smith: You mean financial outpouring, really.

Wordsworth: Well, yes, but it's...

Smith: I mean on its basest level you're talking about suddenly there was just an enormous amount of sort of philanthropic, individual philanthropic, response to that thing.

Wordsworth: There was that, but there was also concerts and people having fundraisers, and everybody was passionate and concerned about Sri Lanka, and most of those people didn't even know where Sri Lanka was before the tsunami happened. So a lot of it was money. There was billions of dollars given. And I sat there at the time, and my thought was, where is all this money come from? Where is all this concern come from for Sri Lanka? I've been working in Sri Lanka for years, and no one even knew where it was, and suddenly now it's like the center of the universe.

Where was all that concern? And what happened, if you remember at the time, all of the non profits were in panic at this stage, because everybody thought that all the philanthropic money had been given and the rest of the year we would all have nothing, and that countries in Africa would suffer, and that the Salvation Army's work in Minneapolis would suffer. The people wouldn't give, and the people would be full of donor fatigue for the rest of the year.

Smith: And did that turn out to be the case?

Wordsworth: It did not turn out to be the case. That was the amazing thing about that year. Everybody still made their budgets. The fundraising was unaffected by what happened in the tsunami.

Smith: So the study of poverty, plus the experience of the tsunami, plus...

Wordsworth: Plus then this experience then after that of walking around to everybody and saying, "Where did all that go?" You had this giant river of goodwill rose to the surface for like two months and then that just disappeared. And for the last four years, you couldn't see it. It didn't come back. And so I would walk around, "Where's all that river gone?" And I couldn't get an answer in our non profit space. I spent some time then with some...I joined an entrepreneur in Shanghai because I wanted to think about it differently.

Smith: You spent a couple years in the private sector:

Wordsworth: Yes, in Shanghai.

Smith: OK.

Wordsworth: [49:49] I felt that in our work we'd come...everybody gave very simple answers to these things. It's CNN. It's emergencies. Forget it. That money...that river's gone. Just focus on the small amounts that you can get now. And I couldn't get any decent answers, so I was trying to look for an alternative way of thinking about the problem. So at the time, this was three or four years ago, the most exciting sort of place to be from a learning point of view was Shanghai, Bangalore, Silicon Valley, Sand Hill Road.

That's where all the new...that's Facebook, and Google, and Apple. All that stuff was there. All this new venture capital stuff was happening. So I thought, "What can these guys teach a person like me?"

So I did look around. I found an entrepreneur working in Shanghai. I spent two years working, but really what I was doing was watching and observing about how they viewed the world.

What I noticed was key about those people was that what they're passionate about is two things. They're passionate about who they are as people. Like a person could sit there and say, "I just love making movies. I just love it." And then what they link with that is, "But I want to make movies that change the world."

Smith: These people also want to make money.

Wordsworth: They do, but when you talk...I spoke to a lot of entrepreneurs, and I talked about the money thing, and they said, "Money's just a scoreboard. It's just a way we keep track of things." The entrepreneur that I was with, he would stay in the cheapest of hotel rooms. He didn't own a car. He couldn't care less about shopping. But he would spend millions of dollars on ideas that he had.

And when I would ask him about this he would say, "It's just money. I want to try this out. I want to do something big. I want to make my life count."

So I walked out of that with this notion that there are people in this world who want a deep passion, who want to take that passion and translate that into something that makes a difference for the world and that is a real contribution.

And then I looked at that, and I looked at people that were who doing that, and I realized that actually most people that I spoke to and in my career when I've talked to people, most people that I talked to want to do something in a place like Africa or Asia.

They don't want to see refugees living the way they're living. Most people want their life to add up to more. They just can't find a way to do that. And the trouble is that we don't talk to their essence. We don't talk to their passion.

So what I've taken from that experience was that if we can help the people to find what is personally inspiring to them, the reason why they came to this earth, and if we can translate that out of a small world into a big world, to translate a passion for creativity into a type of creation that changes people's lives, then a person has a fuller life.

And I found that in my experience, most people are dying for that opportunity.

Smith It's what an entrepreneur might call "creating value."

Wordsworth: Yes. Just like that.

Smith: And capturing a new market segment, if you want use the...take the terminology all the way.

Wordsworth: Yes, you could do that. We're happy to capture that.

Smith: So this came to you over a long process. This was an evolutionary thinking, iterative thinking, not the light bulb went on one day on the exercise machine.

Wordsworth: Certainly not on the exercise machine.

Wordsworth: On the rare occasion I'm on that, I'm gasping and struggling. My wife when she listens to this will be sniggering at just the mere thought of me on an exercise machine.

Wordsworth: But I'll try to maintain that one, keep that one going here. Actually it's a little bit of both. The way I think about coming up with ideas is I think about it like doing a jigsaw that nobody...what's the first thing you do when you open up a jigsaw box and you want to make a jigsaw happen? You pull all the pieces out.

Smith: Invite all my children in to actually do it, but...

Wordsworth: OK, so one thing is surround yourself with some folks that want to do this. So you have a table, you get maybe four or five people around the table if you're lucky. Then you pull all the pieces out of the box, right, and you turn them all face up. That's the first thing you do. No one tries to do a jigsaw puzzle one piece by one piece out of the box.

So what's the iterative process? I like that quote from Einstein, where he said, "If you have a problem, and you have to solve it in 20 days, spend the first 19 days thinking about the question."

I think of that 19 days as the process of turning up the pieces on the jigsaw, all the jigsaw pieces, and then arranging them on the table, and then looking at them.

And then...and so that's the bit that takes time. And if you're trying to think about a deeper thing, then you need to take, I think, longer time. You need to make sure all of your pieces are on the table.

It's why I give you this convoluted answer to your question, because for me it was about like what's it like to be a refugee, and what's it like to be poor? It's more than what I thought it was. So let's put that piece on the table.

What's it like to be a person here in Minneapolis who wants to make a difference in the world? What's happening for that person? Let's put that piece on the table.

What's it like to be an organization like the American Refugee Committee that has the real ability to actually connect those two together, and what are the key things an organization like us would have to do in order to make that real? Let's put that on the table.

Smith: And to take your simile to its conclusion, at some point the pieces fall into place.

Wordsworth: And that's where I think you get that light bulb thing happens. I do think at some point some bright spark says...and what you naturally do is, you try to get the corner pieces together. So you do look for the logical, natural things, and you start doing that. But at some point somebody says, "Hold it." And they grab your piece, and they grab that piece and they slide them together, and they make a bigger thing. So what I notice happening is, you put all these pieces on the table, and you think about it, and then suddenly you do get a flash of insight where you say, "Actually that piece, and that piece, and that piece go together."

And when you bring them together, everybody says, "Wow, that's a...that was a great idea." But everybody was working on that. And then what I notice is that then other people begin chiming in and bringing their own pieces in and adding them together.

So there's an element to this which is drawn out, and then there is an element to this, I think, that is quick and, it involves insight, and depending on the nature of the problem, that can take a long time or a short time.

Smith: You're listening to Bright Ideas on Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Stephen Smith, and my guest is Daniel Wordsworth of the America Refugee Committee in Minneapolis. We'll go to the audience in a moment, but I'm going to talk to you a bit about one of the sort of ongoing critiques of the relief business, if you will, the relief industry internationally.

And this probably has more to do in conflict zones than it does in disaster zones, but the critique is that NGOs have over the last 20, 30, 40 years become caterers to various civil wars, to states that are being run by dictators or regimes, etc., that there has sort of been created a relief mechanism that makes it in some way easier for bad actors to engage in bad things. Is there fairness in that, and if so, how much?

Wordsworth: So what happens then? What I try to way up is there a danger of that occurring? Absolutely. Do sometimes fighting forces co opt aid in some manner that supports what they're trying to do? Yes, that has happened.

Smith: I mean rebel armies use relief aid to feed their soldiers sometimes.

Wordsworth: Sometimes, yeah.

Smith: I think there was...there has been some writing recently about Sierra Leone, where limbs were being amputated, and that in the reconciliation process afterwards, there was even some discussion of the people who were doing this that if we do something really graphic, we'll get more attention, therefore more aid. [53:13] It sounds a little bit...I mean it's obviously sinister, on some level it may sound preposterous, but you know these were serious journalists who were taking issue.

Wordsworth: Actually I'll use the...this is my issue is that this notion that somehow if we put people in a refugee camp that we're catering for this. It's far easier for the government to just kill all of those people. That's what they used to do. [53:34] It's much tougher to kill all those people if you've got organizations like us sitting in a refugee camp. Now then a person may say, "Well, the fact is that you're stopping unrest, or you're stopping the international community from responding because you're somehow creating a lukewarm feeling over this crisis."

Sierra Leone's the classic for this. I was involved with what happened in Sierra Leone. I've been there myself, and I've talked to children that have had the things that you've just described.

They all happened in places where relief was not being delivered, that large parts of that country were controlled by the IUF, no aid...

Smith: The IUF is the...

Wordsworth: Is the force that did these terrible things.

Smith: OK.

Wordsworth: I went into a village that had been held by these guerrillas for two years, where every woman and female child had been systematically, you know, terrible things had happened to them for two year. And, there was not a single aid worker or relief worker in there. And, if anyone tried to go in there, they would be outright just killed. The reason why they used this thing about doing this was nothing to do with aid. It had to do with the fact that the international community was beginning to fight back against these guerrilla forces, and that by doing such terrible atrocities, they froze all of the military actors in place, and they forced peace discussions to be held.

In the case of Sierra Leone, this was about stopping the Sierra Leonean Army, and the ECOWAS, which is the West African Peace Keeping Forces from actually pushing those people out of those territories. They behaved so atrociously, that everybody just said, "Stop!"

Smith: Right.

Wordsworth: That's what it was done for.

Smith: So, it was to get attention, but not necessarily the attention of the relief... [crosstalk]

Wordsworth: Yeah, and that was...

Smith: ...sort of the relief community...

Wordsworth: It's another....

Smith: ... was to get the attention of world governments.

Wordsworth: That's right. Now, there are other times. But, the key thing for an organization like ours, what we drive for is a thing called humanitarian space that we sign a code of conduct. All of credible, legitimate organizations like ours that work can sign a code of conduct about how we conduct ourselves in these environments. The key element to this code of conduct is that we will always operate in a humanitarian situation as defined by need and not driven by political agendas, on military agendas.

What we need to act is a space where we can just focus on need and deliver services in that environment. Is that a contested space? It's a very contested space. Does that allow some things to go on at other levels? Maybe it does. But, it if I'm the mother with my child, I have just had my village burned to the ground; I have been running for one month through jungles to find a camp; and when I arrive at that camp and I'm carrying one child and I have two other children in both my other hands, I don't want someone to stand there saying, "I'm sorry. We're not going to do anything for you because we're afraid we'll encourage the conflict."

Smith: And, I don't think anybody would contest intervening or helping when it's on that personal/individual, you know, one on one human scale. And, I think the critique which I'm quoting is one that is happening, you know, twenty or thirty thousand feet up. And, it's saying, you know, "Yes. That is a tragedy. There needs to be an intervention." But the problem is the intervention process itself has been co opted maybe not even knowingly. But, in the last few decades, and over the last century in conflict zones, it's the civilians who have become, overwhelmingly, 90 percent...

Wordsworth: Yes.

Smith: ... of the casualties. You know, and I'm certainly not laying that at the feet of obviously the humanitarian relief organizations worldwide. But, some people are complaining or criticizing a system that may have gotten taken over without us knowing it, and therefore becomes kind of an enabler. On that bigger level, do you see a problem there?

Wordsworth: The big level, this is where I think we have big problems. The big level is nothing but the accumulation of all the small things that ... it's all about that mother coming to that camp. And, whether it's a million mothers or ten mothers, to the mother, it's all about you, your three children. We see a million. That person just sees themselves and their three children. They don't see themselves as a mass, or a big picture, or a larger scheme of things.

Now, part of my response, do we have to as a humanitarian be careful to not be co opted? Yes. Do we have to be thorough and careful in the way that we register populations and families to ensure that the right people are getting aid? Yes. Do we need to go out of our way to remain neutral and to keep focused on this humanitarian issue? Yes. Do we need to be engaged at policy level with countries grappling with these issues? Yes. I'm not down playing those things.

What I would say is this is a big issue for the humanitarian community. It's not like when people make these criticisms that we all look at one another saying, "We've just never thought of that. Thank goodness you brought that up."

Smith: If only, Yeah. Thank God for the journalist for bringing it up.

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