Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Thing about Haiti . . .

It's easy to write about Haiti, or Ethiopia, or any country beaten down by poverty, massive debt and civil unrest. All a writer has to do is transcribe the words of the people who live there. There's no need for any special writing tricks or tools. The stories stand on their own.

What is difficult about reporting such stories is to limit yourself to "just the facts, ma'am," without editorializing. It's immoral for writers to feather their portfolios with the misery of others. Then, the writer becomes the focus. The worst offenders, usually via television commercials or 'special reports', show images of desperate people, usually children, to raise funds. My friend who does aid work calls that Hunger Porn, and it's as despicable as the other kind.

Maybe the case could be made for using such images if all funds actually went to the implied beneficiaries. But before you open your wallet, check the charities' budget for admin, training and program costs. Chances are, you'll be surprised at how small a percentage is allocated to those who are supposed to be receiving them.

I was reminded of this the other night, when I was reading my copy of The Best American Travel Writing 2001, which includes a story called Desperate Passage, by Michael Finkel. Finkel joined a boatload of Haitians heading from Haiti to the Bahamas, with a view to going on to the U.S. This story was first published by The New York Times Magazine, June 18, 2000. It's a chilling account, all the more powerful, I think, for Finkel's simple, eloquent reporting. Google "desperate passage' -- you may still find an online version.