In his career, Michael Maren has been a relief worker, war correspondent, and film director. Michael’s book, The Road to Hell, took a hard look at NGOs operating in a development context, and how good intentions aren’t enough to affect positive change.
On this episode of All About Change, Michael joins host Jay Ruderman to discuss his time working in development in countries in east Africa, and how it informed his stance on international aid. The two get into the problems with humanitarian aid and food relief programs, highlighting how they often support the status quo and fail to address the root causes of poverty.
Listen to the latest episode of All About Change as Michael joins Jay to discuss his time working in development in countries in east Africa, and how it informed his stance on international aid.
People generally make logical decisions, and if you think they’re acting illogically and trying to change them, it’s because you don’t understand the system that they’re working in.
Hi, I am Jay Ruderman, and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
This is all wrong.
I say put mental health first because if you don’t-
This generation of America has already had enough.
I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.
Food relief, humanitarian aid, development work, these are phrases we’re all familiar with. At face value, these are things that seem to be fundamentally good. But if you look below the surface, they can sometimes be anything but.
Development is not an evolution. It’s not a revolution. It’s something that needs to evolve over time. You can’t just plunk something down. Whether it’s a well or electricity or anything unexpected, it’s instantly going to change the lives of people.
That’s Michael Marin. He spent years in the Peace Corps and as an aid worker in countries in East Africa distributing US surplus food. But after seeing the system operate up close, its flaws became more clear.
In a famine situation, nobody with money ever goes hungry. I’ve seen horrible famines and gone and had a meal at the local parish house or the local government officials house or something like that. They’re not hurting for food. It’s often a money situation.
Michael left aid work, but continued to observe development as a journalist covering conflict and famine in the region. He chronicled his observations in his book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity.
When there’s food shortages brought about by conflict, which is what we’re dealing with more often than not, the guys with the guns always eat first.
While Michael’s career took him beyond aid work in journalism, his ability to step back and see the bigger picture has helped raise important and sobering questions about the effectiveness and ethics of international aid.
So Michael, it is nice to meet you, and thank you for being my guest on All About Change. You’ve had a very exciting life, and looking forward to this discussion very much.
Yeah. Sometimes I don’t know how I got here, but maybe you’ll help ferret it out for me.
Well, like most of us, I think we take twists and turns in our lives and our careers. Let’s start with your early life. What do you think shaped you in terms of your passion for helping others and your sense of adventure, because I think that that’s a current running through your life?
I mean, I go back to my childhood, really. I grew up as one of the very few Jewish kids in a very waspy town, and I grew up feeling very, very much as an outsider. And I really remember not feeling bad for myself ever, but feeling empathy and identification. I think I was never a cool kid growing up, and I kind of identified with, I think a lot of the other kids in school who were not the cool kids. I think it helps create a kind of empathy in that way, a sense of like, yeah, I know what you’re going through. Also, I think there was a little bit in my life where I always wanted to get away. I was always curious about what was outside. I remember as a child, studying maps on a coffee table in our living room. There was an atlas that was always there when I was a kid, and I would spend hours thumbing through the Atlas, looking at places and picking up some little island in far northern Canada and thinking, wow, I wonder what things are like there.
So I think that all came together with a desire to go out in the world and see what I could do. I grew up in the 1960s. I remember JFK starting the Peace Corps. I was a child. I was in third grade when he was assassinated, but that was always kind of in my consciousness as a thing to do. I was in school, in college in the 1970s. And I don’t know that young people today understand how different things were in those days. IBM would come to campus to recruit and nobody would show up. In the mid 1970s when I graduated from college, nobody was interested in taking a corporate job or doing anything like that. But to dial it back a little bit, I was lucky enough to spend the fall of my junior year of college in India. It was a semester abroad program that my college had. And I was a political science major, and I wanted to come up with a subject to study. And the subject I came up with was US Foreign Aid to India.
So I started traveling around and looking at famine relief projects. When I was a kid, the catchphrase for parents was, “Finish your dinner, people, kids are starving in India,” which is not something people say or think anymore. But at the time, I was extremely interested in that, and I started to become fairly skeptical. At the time, it was a very unformed opinion of a 19-year-old, but I think I started to see foreign aid as being an instrument of imperialism, to put it into that terminology, and started digging and going around and asking people and going to aid projects. So it got me interested in all of that, in the idea that we can be trying to help people overseas, but maybe we’re not really helping. And so that paradox interested me, and it’s something that I pursued into the Peace Corps. So I went into the Peace Corps largely as an experience of looking at it as kind of going to grad school, which it was for me.
Interestingly, I was originally supposed to go to Malaysia, and I believe it was in the summer of 1977 before I was about to leave, there was a military coup there, and we pulled the Peace Corps out. And I very distinctly remember calling the Peace Corps office in Washington and saying to them, “Look, I sold my car. I canceled my lease. I’m not moving back in with my parents.” So where do you have a program? I will go absolutely anywhere. And they called me up later and said, “We have a program in Kenya.” I arrived in Kenya, I was 21 years old. I’m teaching English in a rural secondary school, and got a very, very close look at US foreign policy as it played out and in a village and foreign aid programs. I’ll just give you one example of part of my education, which was being in this village, I’m thinking, how arrogant is it for the US to send a 21-year-old kid who studied political science and English literature to this village in rural Kenya and expect that I have anything to offer anybody?
And I think what happened over the two years there was I developed a tremendous amount of respect for the idea that things were screwed up here to a large extent, but people have reasons for doing things, and a lot of our aid programs only support the status quo. My point being, people generally make logical decisions. And if you think they’re acting illogically and trying to change them, it’s because you don’t understand the system that they’re working in. So my respect for the way people were doing things and the way they were living their lives and the decisions that they were making for their own lives, something that grew over two years there as I became very integrated in this little village for two years, and then learned to speak the language and made friends, people I’m still friends with.
But you talk about seeing yourself as a political pawn arriving in rural Kenya, a white person teaching in a school, supplies showing up at the school, and then immediately being absconded by the headmaster to build a shop in town. So was that your impression throughout the Peace Corps, that you were sort of being used?
What I understood was that I was a gift from the Ministry of Education to the village chief and headmaster of this school. There was a certain status that having a white teacher gave to these schools. And one of the things you need to understand is these were not public schools. The kids who go to these schools pay school fees, pay them very heavily, their parents do. I learned very quickly also that it wasn’t money that these parents ever saw. The school fees were paid by the coffee co-op. They were coffee growers. They had one place to sell their coffee. They had to sell it to the local co-op at whatever price the local co-op was paying. It’s not like it was an open market for the coffee, which is why I’m an advocate of the Fair Trade Coffee Movement right now. And the money went in there, and before they ever saw money, the Coffee co-op would pay the school fees of their kids.
So I was already kind of involved in a political system in the village on the local scene, and as well as something that reached into the Ministry of Education, which decided which schools could get Peace Corps volunteers. I probably wasn’t even the best teacher they could have gotten at the time. I didn’t know that much about teaching, and it certainly took me a while to learn how to talk to these kids and reached them. So I was teaching The Merchant of Venice my first year there to a bunch of kids who didn’t even have shoes. We staged the play under a tree in front of the school. But I became part of this machinery that was very much giving most of these kids unrealistic expectations for their lives, not teaching them what it was they really needed to know and putting them into a world that did not have the infrastructure to absorb them.
And so, yeah, I did feel like a pawn to that extent, and I did what I thought was the best thing I could possibly do for two years in that village, was just integrate myself into that community to make friends, to come to an understanding. That understanding resulted, many, many years later, in the book, The Road to Hell, that I wrote. But I think being there and having tremendous respect for the decisions people were making really helped shape my worldview at this time.
So you are there as a young person in the Peace Corps, you go through this experience of really internalizing the fact that the people that you are there to help pretty much know how to help themselves. At that point, why do you decide to go from the Peace Corps into-
Decide to go from the Peace Corps into humanitarian aid, and food relief in Africa?
Part of it is, I wasn’t ready to leave Africa. I did want to stay. I didn’t have anything back in the US to go home to at that time.
And so this job possibility came up, and I got it through the Peace Corps director at Catholic Relief Services. And it was administering a Food for Work program, which is the worst thing you can do with food, to my mind. But I also saw that as an opportunity to continue to learn, and to learn it at a higher level.
Because at that time, I found myself directly interacting with USAID and the State Department. I think most people today may or may not know, it’s called Food for Peace. It was a US government program that started in the 1950s, that brought us surplus food to Africa, to India, to other poor countries.
Dwight D. Eisenhower:
Early this year, I set in motion a new program. It is, quoting, “To explore anew with other surplus producing nations, all practical means of utilizing the various agricultural surpluses of each, in the interest of reinforcing peace and wellbeing of free peoples throughout the world. In short, using food for peace.”
What people don’t tend to know is that the Food for Peace program originally started out as something called, and I’m not going to get it exactly right, but it was the US Agricultural Assistance Act of 1948, or something like that. In other words, the entire program of sending food overseas was built to dump surplus food, to keep prices here high for farmers.
And it was very clear to me that, as tons of food were going into villages, that it was reducing the price of what farmers in those villages could sell their own food for. So it was undermining agriculture. And this is where it gets particularly sinister, in my view.
From Kenya, we buy coffee and tea. And from West Africa, it’s coffee, and cocoa, and palm oil and stuff like that. So what you’re doing by undermining subsistence agriculture, and agriculture for food, and driving prices down there, is having more and more farmers who can turn their land over to cocoa, and coffee, and, tea. And things that we import from them.
So not only does the food program keep food prices high for farmers here, and reduce it for farmers in Africa, it also increases the supply of coffee and tea. Which keeps the prices of coffee and tea much more reasonable for consumers here, meaning us.
So do you think that this whole system was designed to, one, benefit big ag in the United States, and number two, to hold down agriculture in the countries where our food from America is going into?
It’s probably a little conspiratorial to say, “Yes, we want to suppress food prices there so we can get cheaper coffee.” But it is the inevitable result of it.
And we can see it happening today, if you look at all of the wrangling over trying to get an immigration bill on this country. That everybody’s thinking, well, what’s in it for me? How can I use this either financially or politically, or something like that? Everybody wants to get their peace.
So the Food for Peace Act, or the Agricultural Assistance Act, had tremendous support along party lines. From, a Democrat in Minnesota here at Humphrey was actually the person who was behind it. And Republicans in Kansas and all that, they could all agree on it. Those Heartland agricultural states could absolutely agree on it.
The maritime states could also agree on it, because the rule said you had to ship it on US carriers. So all that food got shipped on US carriers who were considerably more expensive than international market rate shipping. And yes, behind it was private agriculture, Archer-Daniels-Midland-Cargill, and companies like that who wanted that food all shipped out so we didn’t drown in our surplus food here.
And we still create a huge surplus in food here, and it’s still largely subsidized by the government.
I’m Wondering if you could take us back to the time that you’re working for Catholic Relief. And describe a day of what your job was like.
What would happen was, these parish priests would send a proposal in to Catholic Relief Services saying, “We want to build a road from this village to that village.” And they would do it by hand. “And we want food for a hundred workers for five weeks.” And you would do the math.
And so I would get in my truck, and I would drive up and I would talk to the parish priest, or the school headmaster, or whoever was applying for the food. And ask them questions, actually ask them … Trying to do my best in terms of not doing any damage with the food, I would ask them questions about the projects.
And, how do you think this can be done, and what are your other plans? You can’t do it all with food, do you have financial backing to something else that would need to be done to make this school work? So you can pay workers to build a school building, but you also need the money to buy the roofing material, and the lumber, and all of that. So I tried to find projects that I thought would be helpful.
I did get in trouble a couple of times for not approving projects that my bosses wanted approved. And part of that reason was, they needed to keep moving the food along. If you’re an [inaudible 00:16:48] organization and you’re getting grant money or food as money, rule number one of anybody who gets a grant is spend it. Be sure you spend all of it, don’t have anything left over. Because if you don’t spend it, the next time you want money, they’re going to say, “Well, you asked for too much last time.”
So I was under tremendous amount of pressure to keep the food moving out of there. I mean, I understood at the time what was going on, but I did my best to make sure that I did as good a job as I could with it all, in terms of not doing any damage to people.
But ultimately, that’s what my book was about. And I think it changed. It changed a few things. Later on down the line, I think people started to understand that there is less food aid being used now than there was then, although I still think it’s abused.
The flip side of that is relief food. When I went on the road, I did a lot of lectures about this, and I did it at universities and whatnot. And people would say, “Well, what are we supposed to do? Let people starve?”
And I said, “You have to make a differentiation between food that is put into a famine situation and food that is just simply being dumped into places with all of these other programs.” Eight organizations were cooking up programs to use food, that’s where Food for Work came from.
Relief is different and it’s sticky in its own way. And whether you’re talking about what’s going on in Somalia and Sudan right now, or Gaza, or any place like that, I don’t think we do a lot of deep thinking when it comes to any of those situations.
But I’ve got two principles when I’m talking about this that I always bring up. One is, in a famine situation, nobody with money ever goes hungry. I’ve seen horrible famines, and gone and had a meal at the local parish house, or the local government official’s house, or something like that. They’re not hurting for food. So it’s not always a food shortage situation, it’s often a money situation.
And the second part of it is, when there’s food shortages brought about by conflict, which is what we’re dealing with more often than not, the guys with the guns always eat first. And I saw this in Goma during the Randan genocide and all of that. That feeding the hungry, feeding the refugee, is also always, and every time I’ve ever seen it, feeding the problem by supplying food and resources that get used, first and foremost, by the militant groups that are usually behind the famine to begin with.
So I want to talk about relief organizations; Catholic Relief Care, Save the Children, any of these organizations. And you make the point that they’re not really charities. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that?
Let me make one thing clear first, and that is I haven’t been face-to-face with this in a very long time. And there have been changes since then. But my overall point at the time, and it still stands today, is that these groups are largely US government contractors or UN contractors.
That is, the money that you donate, or that kids donate from dropping coins into boxes or whatever that goes to any of these organizations, only accounts for a fraction of their budgets. And where their budgets come from, for the most part, is aid and development contracts.
So as subcontractors doing a project for the US government, you are essentially doing something that’s in furtherance of US government foreign policy. The US is not going to support a project that undermines an oppressive government that we’re backing. And it’s not just the US, it’s the EU and other groups as well.
And the point I tried to make is that most of the problems in these poor countries come from bad leadership, from corrupt leadership, from self-serving political interests in other countries whose main goal is, they may have altruistic motives, but job number one for them is take care of themselves and keep themselves in power.
And so you are always feeding the status quo. Aid work that comes through US governments is not feeding a revolution, it’s not feeding any kind of subversive activity that might really be what is needed in a certain country. And in my experience in Africa, that has always been that the poverty and the corruption comes from the top down.
And so the government in any one of these countries is not going to allow you to operate there as a charity, if you’re doing things like really educating kids about the reasons for poverty. Really educating kids in anything that the government finds is undermining their basic stability.
So you’re supporting the status quo. There’s no way that aid organizations can get around that.
How is famine used, and you’ve seen famine in your time in Africa as a journalist and as an aid worker. How is that used for political purposes? And what I’m trying to wrap my head around is, you see pictures. And obviously some of these organizations…
… around is you see pictures, and obviously some of these organizations will show pictures of the starving babies who are starving. But then you say, look at the wider view of the camera and not everyone in that area is starving. Can you just walk me through that and help me understand what that looks like and how it’s used?
Famine causes movements of people. It causes refugee movements. It causes people to pick up their belongings and head to a place where there’s food. That mass movement of people becomes political and it’s used in different ways. Those of us who are old enough, remember we are the world in sending all of that money to Ethiopia and all the money that was raised by Bob Geldof and everybody, Michael Jackson, everybody singing that song.
What the government of Ethiopia was doing at that time was relocating massive numbers of people and they were relocating massive numbers of people for their own political benefit. They wanted to move people out of certain areas and have them in other areas because their ethnic groups that were backing the government versus ethnic groups that were opposing to government.
In Somalia, which I know more intimately because I was there longer, USAID was used to move people from an area that was dominated by the Siad Barre, the dictator’s clan, into an area that was dominated by another clan in order to increase his political power in that area. That is ultimately what led to the Civil War in Somalia. You had one ethnic group in an area north of the capital Mogadishu. He started what Civil War in Ethiopia that brought all of these refugees over. Food aid was set up and refugee camps were started for the refugees who were part of the dictator’s clan.
Those refugee camps became towns and small cities. So I remember I wrote that when I looked over the amount of relief supplies and goodies that the refugees were receiving, the local people who worked there could not earn that much money working a full-time job so that the refugees were getting the food in their refugee camps and then selling it in the markets and making more money than the local people were. So it established one ethnic group in an area held by another ethnic group.
Same thing had happened in Ethiopia, and that’s how it’s used. That’s one political usage of famine. I mean, Sudan today, the fighting that’s going on there, I mean, one of the fastest ways to break down your enemy is to block food supplies going in. The world tries to respond by sending food, but to go back to the other principle of food in a situation is that the guys with the guns always eat first, right?
So you can have a situation where you have babies who are starving and right next to them, people who are doing okay.
Yes, because if you have some money, if you have resources, if you have something to sell, if you’re a foreigner walking in there with money in your pocket, you can buy food. These two things. One, I think with climate change today, we’re running more and more into actual climate famines, but if we gave people money instead of food during a famine time, people who had food would be find a way to get it into them, to sell it to them. I’m not a raging capitalist in that way, but it’s a situation where I think capitalism and trust that people make logical decisions about what to do with their resources, I think that comes into play in that situation.
Your book, The Road to Hell is a seminal volume that really looks at the damage that NGOs do in Africa. And one story that you wrote about, it struck me about laying down pipes, building pipes, and with the intention of bringing clean water and helping the area where the pipes are being laid and how 10 years later, it has the exact opposite effect and people are back drinking dirty water out of the river. Can you talk a little bit about that example and how good intentions are used in a way that ultimately don’t help people?
Doing things for people as opposed to supplying them the resources to come around to doing them for themselves is the difference of what I’m talking about here. That’s kind of a case study that’s been done over and over in terms of the water in the wells. And one is if you start putting in pumps and wells, if you don’t train people to repair them and have the resources to continue to repair them, then suddenly after 10 years, you have a bunch of people who aren’t used to walking to the river. There’s broken windmills all over the place that people put in windmills from pumping water, and then those people go away and the local people in the village, the windmill came from some company in Oklahoma or something, then it breaks and they have no access to the resources to fix it.
I think one of the examples I gave in my book though was a situation where actually giving somebody water can destroy their lives. And the story I told, and it’s a real story and I saw it happen, is that there was a group that started putting wells into the desert so people could get clean water. And what happened was, yes, people did that, but they also brought their cattle to the wells to feed their cattle. And what I get into is cows need to drink every day and goats can drink every three days, and a camel can drink every eight days or something like that. But as the circumference around the well increased, cattle started to die because when they had access to the water, it gave them more the ability to have more cattle because more of them lived.
So that resources and development, I really believe need to come incrementally. I’ll give you one other quick example. Northwestern Kenya, there’s a big lake called Lake Turkana that was when I was there, it was full of fish and there were local fishermen around there and someone decided they were going to make it easier for the local fishermen to sell their fish and maybe make some money and build up an economy.
So they started creating roads that went down to the south. And what happened was not that the fishermen around the lake were able to then take all their fish south to market; it’s that the people in the southern part who had cars and refrigeration cars and were much more sophisticated, used those roads to go north and get the fish from them there and they fished out the lake. Development is not an evolution, it’s not a revolution. It’s something that needs to evolve over time. You can’t just plunk something down there, whether it’s a well or electricity or anything, and expect that it’s instantly going to change the lives of people. I think people need to come around to certain things. Pushing roads through things has been one of the most destructive things that have happened in Africa, not because it hasn’t helped the poor people in certain areas. It’s allowed the people from wealthier areas to come and exploit them.
So 25 years after The Road to Hell was released, what do you think is the lasting impact of the book?
Well, a couple of things have happened from it. One is CARE announced some years ago, and they were one of the biggest, if not the biggest private distributor of US Food Aid, that they would stop doing that. That they would stop subsidizing their work with food. And I think that has been a huge step forward.
The other thing I criticize in my book that also no longer exists is child sponsorship through Save the Children and stuff like that, where you would pay $20 a month and you would have your child and your child would write you letters and all of that. And I talked about the cost of actually administering a program like that and the fact that it actually was a money-loser for these organizations. And I think the way I described it was a good way to do public relations and raise money. It was not a good way to do development. Save the Children does not do that anymore. And I don’t know if I can take credit for that in any way, but I came down pretty hard on them based both on their practices, their money-raising practices, and what I saw them doing on the ground in Somalia, in Coma for the Rwandan refugees. I mean, they literally would send groups of young Americans in there who would start taking control over people’s lives. And I just found that just utterly abhorrent.
What I take away from what you’re saying is that providing food doesn’t work. People are smarter than we give them credit for In developing countries, what would really help them is to provide them the resources, financial resources, to let them improve their lives in the best way that they know how to do it.
Yes. And that almost all of these countries have a serious government corruption problem. And I think that it’s leftover from colonialism, it’s leftover from … There’s a lot of factors I could get into about why that is the case, but any young African or in some, not just African other places understands is that one of the fastest ways to get wealth is to go into politics, to get into the government, to get into a position where people are then going to pay you for stuff. By dumping resources into a country, you’re simply supporting that. I think what needs to happen. Yes, if a famine situation starts to break out, I think people need to be given money. People with the money never starve to death. There are situations where I believe that we’re seeing incredible environmental, we haven’t gotten into the environmental stuff. I first got to Africa in 1977, so long time ago, and the environmental decay that I saw over the years that I was going there, which was ’77, it’s almost 20 through ’97, pretty much was absolutely palpable.
And I think the world, we wanted to do something for Africa too. I mean, it would be to fight climate change because not in a position to do it. And I think climate change is behind a lot of the destruction we’re seeing in poor countries today that’s going to make it harder and harder for them to kind of catch up. And what you see economically in most of these places is a tremendous concentration of wealth at the top. It’s what’s happening here, it’s what’s happening in the US. I mean, there’s more billionaires now than there were five years ago, I think in Africa as well, and developing countries as well, there are extremely wealthy people there, and most of them are in some way are taking advantage of aid programs and foreign investment and stuff like that for their own enrichment.
So talk about your transition from an aid worker to a foreign correspondent, and what caused you to move into journalism.
I always consider myself a writer. I always wanted to write. I took mostly English literature and creative writing classes in college, kept journals, published a few things when I was still in college. One of the reasons I went into the Peace Corps was I just wanted to live, I wanted to learn things. I wanted to have experiences …
I wanted to live, I wanted to learn things. I wanted to have experiences that I could write about. So I think pretty early on I had some notion of moving from what I was doing there into journalism. It wasn’t a plan. I never had a plan to do anything. And so when I finished working with USAID in Somalia, which was at the end of 1981, I came back and applied to graduate schools. I spent a couple of years at Columbia. I have a Masters of International Affairs from the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia. And I had job offers when I was done there. That would’ve brought me back to Africa. And instead I took a job at a little tiny magazine called Africa Report, and that’s how I started to cut my teeth in journalism. I should also say that when I was still in Somalia, still working for USAID and planning, deciding that this was not really the way to live.
A journalist showed up in Somalia, a guy named Richard Ben Cramer. Richard died some years ago, but Richard was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. And he was starting to do the Starving Baby Story. And I said, “Ah, screw it. I’ll show you the real story.” And I took him all over the place and he wrote a big multipart piece about Somalia for The Philadelphia Inquirer. And there was an article about me in there, and Richard sort of became my mentor in journalism in terms of helping me get started. And I started writing. I sold pieces to the Nation and Harper’s magazine and a few other things, usually about that subject matter. I read a bunch of op-eds for the New York Times and I loved it. I love being a journalist.
So I want to ask you about being a journalist in a foreign country where there is war in human suffering, and how do you cover that in terms of objectively telling people what’s going on, but also shaping whatever activism you may have about what you think of the conflict.
If you believe something strongly enough, I think you’ll find that… And this works on both sides, whatever you believe, and I think it’s very human. I think you’ll find that the facts will adhere to your own preconceptions about what’s going on. There were times certainly when I had my mind changed by things I saw, and I think I’ve written about some of that. I mean, I did learn a lot in Somalia during those years I was there. I was there on and off between ’89 and ’96 when the Civil War started. And I came to certain understandings, but I don’t think I saw anything that ever undermined what I really felt. And the stories I found and the people I talked to, I always felt I could be very objective as a journalist in terms of what I saw. I mean, I’ve always been able to keep my eyes open. And listen my own views politically, I got a somewhat horrifying moment.
I don’t remember when this happened. I think it was the late ’90s. I was asked to testify in front of Senate Foreign Relations Committee about our aid work in Africa and stuff like that. And I started talking and there was a guy named Jesse Helms who older people will remember, who was a major right-wing kind of dude up there. And he was on the committee. And I found myself agreeing with Jesse, not for the same reasons. He was from the America shouldn’t be helping these countries that don’t get behind us politically and all that, which I always thought was ridiculous. I thought we shouldn’t be helping them for other reasons. And so I think I’ve always kind of been able to just be very open-minded and I’ve tried to do this. I don’t know that you always succeed as a journalist, but to try to let the facts inform your sense of activism and ideology as opposed to starting off with that and then finding the facts that fit it.
We live in the age of MAGA here in this country where there’s a huge number of people who are utterly impervious to facts. And that’s not only on the right, by the way, I think there are certainly people on the left or who consider themselves to be on the left, whose views are impervious to any kind of factual disruption. But I think it’s a battle as a journalist that you try very hard to think about it. And the one piece of advice I got from Richard Ben Cramer when I was just starting out as a journalist, he said, “Every five minutes, stop and ask yourself what’s the story? Just keep an eye on where the story is and allow the story to change.”
So let’s talk about journalism a little bit because journalism has changed drastically since the time you were a foreign correspondent. How do you see journalism today? I mean, people are getting their facts all over the place. Everyone has their own set of facts, let’s say. What is the role of journalism today and how does journalism adapt to the world that we live in?
I hardly know how to define journalism today when you have no consensus on the facts out there, and journalists or people who call themselves journalists seem extremely willing to utterly lie and to create the facts or the idea of alternative facts, to me is absolutely horrifying. And honestly, I’m very glad that I’m not working as a journalist right now. And one of the things about foreign journalism that has changed a lot, when I was based in East Africa, there was a building, and you could walk down the corridor and there was a Los Angeles Times in the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and CNN and Agence France-Presse and The Guardian and The Times of London and in various offices, all these people were there, Time and Newsweek had their own correspondents in these places. And so you got all of this information. Right now, people are generally relying on local people at the scene.
Things that come across to them on Twitter, press releases from parties in the wars because they don’t have enough people on the ground actually observing and writing what’s going on. And I think that’s a shame. Nationals in these countries aren’t bad journalists, but one of the reasons you want an American or British or French correspondent in some other place is that if I’m a local correspondent with my family and my kids over there, you’ve got to be very careful about what you say. You can’t afford to tell the truth all the time, and some of the people I know who did that or no longer live in the countries where they’re from. So there really was a role for foreign correspondents for a long time, and you don’t see it as much anymore. And it’s budgets on these newspapers and the datelines are from 500 miles away from where the action is very often.
Michael, I do want to thank you, not only for being my guest on All About Change, but also for documenting so many stories throughout your career. They’re important and have changed the world, so thank you so much for your time and I’m looking forward to seeing where you go from here.
Thanks, Jay. I think there’s a couple of more steps I have left in life. We’ll see.
I’m sure. Thank you so much.
Appreciate it. Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.
Michael’s career is one that’s taken plenty of twists and turns, but his journey reminds me of the power of storytelling. We can affect change through books and journalism by drawing attention to injustices and hypocrisy, and we can use storytelling to help us understand the bigger picture and choose what role we’d actually like to play. That’s it for today’s episode. Join us two weeks from today for another fascinating conversation with an activist. Today’s episode was produced by Rebecca Chason with story editing by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu. To check out more episodes or to learn more about the show, you can visit our website allaboutchangepodcast.com. If you like our show, spread the word, tell a friend or family member, or leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app. We’d really appreciate it. All About Change is produced by the Ruderman Family Foundation in partnership with Pod People. That’s all for now. I’m Jay Ruderman, and we’ll see you next time on All About Change.
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