28 March 2011

NYT Mag Does Penn in Haiti

The New York Times Magazine features an article on Sean Penn the "Accidental Activist." Here are some of the more interesting parts:
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├ęd 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.”

...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.

...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.

...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.”
A few quick thoughts from the article:
  • It is good to hear Penn admit that he had no idea what he was doing for the first six months.  However, that means that he could have been making things worse (emphasis on could).  I would have loved for this point to have been teased out a bit more.  There is an opportunity for Penn to say that he got lucky, messed up a lot, and now has learned that just showing up is not effective.
  • Penn falls squarely into the DIY category.  He was never going to work as a part of a traditional NGO and the article makes it seem that he would not have been effective if he had done so.
  • The article gives mention to my biggest pet peeve - overheads.  Good thing it is said in passing, but just because J/P HRO takes 3.2 percent in overheads does not make them efficient or effective.  Just guessing, but having a millionaire at the helm means that costs are probably a tad lower when he does not need to take salary.
  • Word is that Penn is doing a reasonable job and some aid workers are softening to his presence, but one Dr. from PIH who likes him because it seems like "he really cares" does not hold much value in my mind.  If caring was enough, we would have eliminated poverty long ago.
  • What is the fixation on Penn in Haiti (self-reflexive a bit)?  Is that the best way to get people to read about Haiti?  Are people still a bit shocked by the fact that he is still down there?  Do people care about an in depth article which features what Haitians are doing for their country a year after the earthquake?
  • This last point is really just throwing this out to the wind - Does anyone else get the feeling from this article that Penn is only slightly more together than Charlie Sheen?  I can't tell if it would be a blast to work for him or horrific.  Maybe I am reading too much into the way that Penn is portrayed in the article, but things seem just a bit off kilter here with the way in which he is presented.

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