The Accidental Activist (You have to read this if you have any interest in the provision of world aid!)

Begin forwarded message:

From: Jacqualine Labrom <voyageslumierehaiti>
Date: March 26, 2011 9:24:18 AM MDT

This is an interesting and funny article on Sean Penn!!! Several of his people come either to the Library or come on my tours, and they’re a nice bunch.

Still waiting for the results – a lot of people are worried that Sweet Mickey aka Michel Martelly has won, and of course both sides are claiming THEY have won.

Jean Claude has been hospitalised – some say with heart problems, but who knows.
He’s now under house arrest officially – I thought he had already been, but I don’t think anyone was saying but it now looks definite.

Am taking a group of Docs out to Jacmel tomorrow so that will be nice. As long as they don’t wear out my voice asking zillions of questions!!

Am waiting to see if I can get some sponsorship for the CD which was recorded as HAITIAN CLASSICS IN THE GARDEN – in February, in the garden of one of the nice restaurants here. If you remember it was the Strings Sextet playing ALL Haitian composed classical music and it has turned out very well. We now need sponsorship to produce the CD. to sell to raise more funds for the St. Trinity School of Music, which collapsed in the quake. I’ll let you know when the CD is out, and where you can buy it from, cos many of you have already said you want to get a copy. Keep your fingers crossed that people will give us the sponsorship we need.

Take care.


The Accidental Activist
The New York Times Magazine – By ZOE HELLER – March 25, 2011

On a hot morning in January, at the P?tionville Internally Displaced Person
camp in suburban Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a four-wheel dirt bike pulled up
outside the tent hospital, bearing an elderly woman with a deep gash in her
cheek. While a group of medics assisted the patient inside, Sean Penn ambled
over from under a tree where he had been having a meeting with one of his
camp workers. He walked with a slightly bowlegged cowboy gait, a
walkie-talkie crackling at his waistband, a cigarette dangling from his
mouth. Having glanced into the tent and ascertained that the situation was
in hand, he turned his rather dour gaze on a newly arrived reporter.

Penn has never had conventional movie-star looks, but he does have the
arguably superior gift of a magnificently interesting face. When he is in
grooming mode, he tends to shellac his hair into a high, rather splendid,
Little Richard-style pompadour, but today, as on most days in Haiti, the
hair had been allowed to collapse into a dusty quiff. With his big,
arrow-shaped nose and his heavy eyelids hanging at half-mast, he emanated
the slightly sinister allure of a fairground carny. ?You ready to see the
camp?? he muttered.

The P?tionville camp, which Penn?s aid group, J/P Haitian Relief
Organization (J/P HRO), has been running since last March, sits on the golf
course of a former country club. (Some of the old staff can still be found
lurking in the clubhouse, gazing out at the devastation like Alpatych, the
loyal retainer in ?War and Peace,? after the army has laid waste to his
master?s estate.)

Since the first homeless Haitians started arriving here in the days
following the quake, the camp has grown into a vast tent city of 50,000. It
now has a school, a market, two hospitals, a movie theater, countless salons
de beaute and its own red-light district. As Penn led the way along the
former golf-cart trails, past women lathering themselves up over basins of
water and men playing dominos, he delivered a lecture on the issues facing
post-earthquake Haiti. It was a rapid-fire, digressive monologue, studded
with the acronyms of the aid world ? P.A.H.O., W.H.O., C.R.S., O.C.H.A. ?
and ranging over a broad number of topics: the merits of the controversial
cholera vaccine, the report from the Organization of American States on the
November elections, the damaging effects of UV rays on tent tarps, the
complex but fundamentally noble character of President R?ne Pr?val, the
relative merits of guns over fire extinguishers as defensive weapons. (Penn
sometimes carries a Glock, but the fire extinguisher, he claims, is a far
more efficient tool for crowd control.)

After about 45 minutes, we reached the western edge of the camp and began
climbing a series of steep slopes. Penn broke off from what he was saying
and turned to point out the view. Before us lay the patchwork sprawl of the
camp, the battered cityscape of Port-au-Prince and, in the smoggy distance,
mountains and ocean. ?Look at that!? he said. ?It?s beautiful, right? Right?
That?s the thing! You get the air cleaned up in this city, and it?d be
extraordinary. And the whole country?s like this ? more so, even. That?s why
I never have a doubt ? nee-e-ver have a doubt ? that this country can be
successful. It?s too tangible, too containable to not do it. And the change
is going to come of this earthquake.?

WHEN Penn first showed up in Port-au-Prince in January of last year, with a
DC-4 full of medics and emergency supplies, and a $1 million pledge of
support from the Bosnian-born philanthropist and entrepreneur Diana Jenkins,
the reaction was decidedly skeptical. With his long history of prickliness
and pugnacity, Penn has never been a beloved celebrity. His growing interest
in political activism and ?citizen journalism? over the last decade ? his
sympathetic interviews with Hugo Ch?vez and Ra?l Castro, his passionate
protests against the Iraq war ? have tended to depress his Q ratings still
further, fixing him in the minds of many Americans as a tiresome pinko

?Everyone was telling me, ?He?s just in it for the photo op,? ? recalls
David Perez, an American philanthropist who was involved in the earliest
Haitian relief efforts, and who later went to work as chief operating
officer for J/P HRO. ?The people on the board of my charity didn?t like the
things Sean had said about Iraq and whatever, so they were telling me to
stay away from him. Sophia Martelly [the wife of Haiti?s current
presidential candidate Michel Martelly] told me that he had turned up at the
airport with a film crew.? Tellingly, the same unfounded claim ? that Penn
had brought cameramen with him to document his derring-do ? had been made in
the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (To this day, there are people who swear
Penn had his own D.P. with him in his rowboat.)

You did not, however, have to object to Penn?s politics, or question his
motives, to have some doubts about how useful he could be in Haiti. He had
come with no medical expertise and no experience with N.G.O.?s. He did not
speak Creole or French. He had two legal cases pending against him (a
federal case relating to his embargo-breaking trips to Cuba and a criminal
case relating to a violent run-in with a paparazzo), and he was going
through a divorce from his wife of 14 years, Robin Wright. To make matters
more complicated, his philanthropic partnership with Jenkins began to
disintegrate almost as soon as he landed. ?Let?s say that I didn?t come here
with an agreement to share decisions,? he says now. ?I came here to make the
impact as I saw fit to do it. That deal changed within the first week. We
went through a little shy of half of her commitment, and then we decided to
part ways.?

Over a year later, Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of
medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235
Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to
coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the P?tionville
camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women?s health center, a
cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a
rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.?s, and it
has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the
country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters
to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.

The story of the last 14 months in Haiti has been, by and large, a
disheartening one. Less than half of the $5.8 billion pledged for recovery
has been dispersed (and much of that has gone toward debt relief). Rubble
still fills the streets of Port-au-Prince. Of the 1.5 million Haitians left
homeless by the quake, half still live in camps. But in an international
relief effort characterized largely by paralysis and dysfunction, J/P HRO
stands out as one of the rare success stories. By begging and borrowing,
schmoozing and shouting, Penn has managed to build one of the most efficient
aid outfits working in Haiti today.

In doing so, he has gained some unlikely fans. The commanders of the United
States Army?s 82nd Airborne Division who were using the P?tionville Country
Club as their operational base when Penn first turned up there had their
initial doubts about fraternizing with a bolshie movie star, but they have
since become ardent J/P HRO boosters. ?What surprised me the most about
Sean,? says Lt. Gen. P. K. ?Ken? Keen, military deputy commander of the U.S.
Southern Command, ?was how he went about learning the humanitarian
assistance business. There was no ?how-to? book for that. You want to get
stuff through the transportation networks? You want to get stuff out of the
warehouses? You want to collaborate with the U.N.? How do you do all that?
He was always willing to listen, learn and work with everyone.?

Brad Horwitz, the founder and C.E.O. of the communications company Comcel,
Haiti?s largest U.S. investor, has provided J/P HRO with logistical support
and all manner of resources over the last year. ?Sean?s politics and mine
are completely opposed,? he says. ?His go left. Mine go right. But politics
are kind of irrelevant in this. Comcel can only pick so many horses to back,
and J/P HRO have shown real staying power. He?s been very good at figuring
out and managing relationships. He?s also been extraordinarily efficient in
using the resources he gets. I know if I provide J/P HRO with stuff, it
won?t get wasted.?

Perhaps most telling of all is the respect that Penn has earned from
seasoned aid workers. Dr. Louise Ivers, who is chief of mission for Partners
in Health, Haiti, says of Penn: ?His newness to this work has actually
helped him in some ways. He doesn?t have misconceptions about what works and
what doesn?t. He sees a problem, he talks to people, and he figures out
solutions. As clich?d as it sounds, I think he really gives a damn about the
Haitian people.?

?I?ve known Sean for more than 25 years, and I?m stunned,? says the musician
David Baerwald. ?He?s always had a tremendous desire to help people. But who
knew he had this bizarre skill set? I mean, he may actually be better at
this than acting.?

When Penn entered the shabby villa that serves as J/P HRO?s operations
center and staff residence, a line of people were waiting to talk to him. A
man sitting at a bank of computers in the living room had a jubilant
announcement to make about a new cholera grant. A mechanic needed him to
know that the walkie-talkies were running out of juice. A woman emerged from
the kitchen with news that ?Anderson Cooper 360? couldn?t do a taped
interview that day and would need to do it live. And so on.

For much of 2010, Penn and his staff slept in and worked out of tents. They
moved to these new headquarters after their encampment was destroyed in a
storm last September, but their living conditions are still far from lavish.
Most of the staff camp in the garden, and Penn?s bedroom, while it does
boast a ceiling, has the dimensions ? and ambience ? of a walk-in closet.
Penn prides himself on running a lean operation. J/P HRO?s overhead is a
modest 3.2 percent of donor funds. Permanent international staff routinely
work 18-hour days.

When accepting a humanitarian award in Los Angeles last October, Penn summed
up his managerial style as ?vitriol? and ?bossiness.? His staff does not
rush to disagree with the characterization. Lauren Raczak, J/P HRO?s
political affairs officer, laughed merrily when I asked her if Penn was a
demanding boss. ?He?s like our big dysfunctional grandpa. The other day I
said how pleased I was that there?d been no violence in the camp during the
elections, and he started shouting, ?That?s not good enough!? He meant I was
setting my standards too low. That kind of sucked. I really didn?t like him
at that moment. But I respect him, I see how much he cares about this thing,
so I put up with the temper tantrums.?

Penn claims to be calmer now than he was. ?For the first six months, I was
country director of this thing, and I was basically pretending I knew what
the hell I was doing ? yelling a lot and getting things done with blackmail.
Now I?ve got a lot of really experienced, great people around me, and they
can do the same things, cutting through stuff just as fast, but in slightly
more, uh, legitimate ways.?

It?s fair to say, however, that his standard M.O. remains pretty ferocious.
Much of the way he conducts himself as a leader has been defined by his
intense opposition to ?the gigantic boys? network? of the other N.G.O.?s and
his impatience with their bureaucratic procedures.

In moments of great displeasure, Penn?s lip actually curls and his eyelids
droop so low that he begins to look stoned on his own contempt. One
afternoon, on a trip out to Delmas 32, the neighborhood in which J/P HRO
initiated its rubble removal program, he fulminated against the complacent,
lazy and otherwise obstructive practices of the N.G.O. world: at the
preciousness of groups like M?decins Sans Fronti?res, which refuse on
principle to work with the military, ?even though the military is the single
most effective organization that?s been here to date!?; at the pompous
blustering in aid-group cluster meetings, ?where everyone?s trying to show
how much they know, but no one?s just reporting their actions, their
problems and, you know, figuring out who can help?; at the feebleness of
charities that drop out of tough camp management work on the grounds that
camps are not ?sustainable? projects. ?Sustainability! It?s the ultimate
clich? ? and the ultimate excuse for N.G.O.?s that just want to move on to
the next trendy, fundable job.?

When we reached Delmas 32, he proudly pointed out the streets that had,
until recently, been 12 feet high with debris. ?This was a devastated area
with some gang problems, it was an area that needed to be kissed, but U.N.
ops had refused even to inspect it, for ?security reasons.? We just came in,
talked to the people, and after that, it was butter. By the time the U.N.
got around to saying they had a plan for this area, we had already done it.?
He grimaced and wiped his dusty hands on his pants. ?I once said to Charles
Bukowski, ?You?re so irreverent toward your public, why do you even value
sharing stuff? Why do you even write? Is it just that you get off at being
so great at it?? He said, ?No, it was not that I was so great. It was that
the rest was so bad. Somebody had to do it decently.? And I thought, That?s
me! That?s me with acting, with film. And that?s me with this thing now.
Some people have said, ?The danger of Sean Penn is that he makes it look as
if anyone can do this.? And my answer to them is, ?No, I just make it look
like you can?t.? ?

At moments like these, it has to be said, Penn sounds perilously like the
dotty narcissist that is his caricature. They don?t occur often, his little
bursts of bloviation. Nine-tenths of the time, he is sane and charming and
capable of conversing on any number of subjects in an eminently reasonable
manner. But every now and then, it seems, the bombastic devil in him cuts
loose. He will express the hope on CBS?s ?Sunday Morning? that all his
critics ?die screaming of rectal cancer.? He will demand that one of his
particular enemies at U.N.-Habitat ?be impeached and gotten the hell out of
Haiti.? He will take it upon himself to denounce Wyclef Jean?s presidential
candidacy on CNN, prompting Jean to publicly accuse him of drug use. He will
predict in self-dramatizing fashion that he will ?end up shot in the back of
the head, but it won?t be by a Haitian, it will be by another N.G.O.?

Penn rarely admits to any regret about his more excessive statements. He
hasn?t burned bridges with anyone who really matters to him or to the
organization, he says. In any case, diplomacy is overrated.

?Well, but the line about rectal cancer, Sean. That was a bit ? ?

?Yeah, yeah, that was maybe not the wisest choice of words at the time. I
mean, if you actually watch it and don?t read it, I was joking. It was clear
that I was making a joke.?

In many ways, Penn seems to relish the animosity that his intemperate style
inspires. He is deeply invested, to be sure, in the notion of being a good
man. All the poetry and prose that he is fondest of quoting tends to
celebrate the same romantic ideal of swashbuckling benevolence. (?You can
have a barter system,? he told me at one point, ?you can have advanced
capitalism, you can read Ayn Rand or Joseph Stiglitz. I don?t care, because
I don?t understand it anyway. What I do understand is that if your neighbor
is screwed, you?ve got to help him.?) Yet, for all his sentimental
attachment to the idea of being a heroic altruist, he is, it seems, equally
attached to the idea of being a hostile outsider ? to hating the world and
having it hate him back. He is not, he will sternly insist, a good person.
?I?m not. I mean? ? he lowers his voice, as if to impart a secret ? ?I?m
really not. I have great moments when I feel very connected and loving
toward humankind, but I never have a good moment toward human beings. Unless
someone shares my angst, I don?t even know who they are and then we?re just
angst sharers. That?s the way it is. I love humankind; I don?t like humans.
I don?t get along with people very well. I never did.?

Penn?s combination of hostility and principled fraternal feeling makes for a
very odd, angry sort of philanthropy. It is probably not a sort that is
massively appealing to the American public. As a rule, we prefer it when our
celebrity philanthropists make us feel warm and sweet about giving, and
being warm and sweet is not Penn?s forte. Still, it would be a pity if the
spikiness of Penn?s manners were allowed to obscure the worth of his deeds.
He is never going to have the creamy charm of a George Clooney or the
unflappable good spirits of a Brad Pitt. But it is quite possible that he
will end up doing more palpable good in the world than either of those
admirable men.

?If I wasn?t here, I know what I would be doing, and it?s probably got to do
with designs on women,? he told me shortly before I left Haiti. ?Probably it
would be reduced to that. Or surfing. Or seeing my kids smile. That?s about
it. I don?t really care about anything else. But you sit here in a situation
like this, and you feel part of the history of the world. The world is out
of its mind with stupidity and the worship of stupidity. You?re either
willing to be part of all time, or you?re going to limit yourself to being
part of the current time. And then you end up flying from L.A. to Chicago to
celebrate yourself being the sexiest man of the year on People magazine?s
cover. And, you know, O.K. ? we should have relief work for that person.?

In February, I met Penn one more time, as he was passing through New York on
his way to a fundraising tour in Europe. He was looking rough. He had
attended a Haiti benefit the previous evening, and it had ended up being
what he called ?kind of a rugged night.? His hotel room was a smoky mess,
and he was in a dark, hungover mood. His hair was standing up, like the
splayed pages of a book. He was sporting a little Mephistophelean beard that
made him look like Matthew Poncelet in ?Dead Man Walking.?

He talked about running into Wyclef Jean, how President Pr?val had brokered
a peace agreement between them. ?Haiti is a foxhole, and we?re all in it,?
he shrugged. ?I find the things that he said loathsome, and were we
operating in a different area, I might hold a grudge. But under
circumstances like these, it seems so meaningless.? He paused, gave a
crooked smile. ?Besides, he didn?t get his presidential run, and that was my
only investment.?

He ordered a cheeseburger and lit a cigarette. ?When dealing with something
like this, an organization in which you?re playing a leadership role, you
get pulled in a lot of directions. People?s natures define themselves and
become spiritually burdensome, so you can have an awful lot of hostility
toward people. I like to squint my eyes and see them as a big group. When I
see their faces in the crowd, I?m not good with it.?

But surely not all the faces in the crowd were spiritually burdensome to
him? Surely there were some people it gladdened his heart to see?

He thought for a moment. ?Yes,? he said. ?There are. They?re usually under 5
years old.?


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