As a minister's daughter, I grew up in a household that believed in giving to others. I remember constantly seeing pamphlets from charities like Christian Aid and Oxfam sharing stories of kids in troubled areas around the world and asking for donations. "Help Rimsha and her family get fresh water" or "Give Kimi's father the tools to grow his own crops." The church always had some charity drive going on and one of my earliest childhood memories was a "sponsored suck"; an innocent phrase at the time, that involved seeing how long you could keep one fruit gum (a hard English gummy candy) in your mouth without chewing it until it completely dissolved. I was so proud of the length of time I went and the number of people who sponsored me. Then in my teens I was swept up by the horror of the famine in Ethiopia, so in the shadows of Live Aid, I organized a sponsored 24-hour fast in my school to help the kid with the bulging tummy, standing on a desolate piece of land covered in flies. The images were arresting and some would say poverty pornography, but they did their job in getting people to give.
Growing up and into adulthood I looked at charity organizations in awe and regarded their altruism as a true antidote to so much greed in the world, but in the last few years something has shifted in my head. It is a combination of delving more into aid activity, reading articles and books and having an experience of my own in making a documentary film that has changed my outlook radically.
In 2008, I bumped into two clowns on a rooftop in India and was both surprised and intrigued when they announced they were from an organization called Clowns without Borders. They said they were volunteers going to countries in crisis and putting on shows for children. Unlike many Americans who have been scarred by the likes of Stephen King, I loved clowns as a kid. Circus clowns, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, their slapstick humor made me laugh and I harbored a desire to be one for a good seven years of my life. But while I was excited to meet clowns, I was less convinced by their brand of charity. As far as I understood, the purpose of aid was to provide basic necessities like food, medicine and shelter to people who were in desperate need. Clown Aid seemed as absurd as their pratfalls and pretty hard to justify with so many life and death demands in the world.
So in 2009 I found myself with a camera on a plane with three American clowns headed to Haiti, a country I knew very little about. It had the unfortunate description of being dubbed "the poorest country in the western hemisphere" and had very little media attention, something that would completely change just six months after my first visit. Over the course of three weeks, I followed the clowns and documented their performances in orphanages, schools and hospitals. I got to know each of them pretty well and through interviews discovered their views on aid and the role they felt they played in the world of giving to others. At the same time, I got to see a country that as far as I could tell was a disaster. There was barely any infrastructure, 90 percent poverty and an underlying sense of desperation created by years of corrupt and despotic leaders that had done little to change the status quo.
Haiti was awash with aid organizations many who boasted having been there for 30 years. It was clear to me that aid was really what kept the country going and the Haitians had come to rely heavily on it for jobs and all their basic needs but when I left I was disturbed by why aid had simply propped up a country for 30 years and not provided it with the tools to stand on its own. In the pamphlets I read as a kid, the charities were always quoting the phrase "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime", so what happened in Haiti? Why with all that help was the country still on its knees? Aid was meant to be temporary; to go in to a country, provide sustainable help in a crisis and get out once the people were back on their feet. In fact, while the effectiveness of what the clowns were doing was be up for debate, at least their Modus Operandi harkened back to an earlier definition of charity that kept costs low, the percentage of donation to aid high and a temporary stay with an exit strategy a must.
At the end of 2009, my documentary was at a strange cross roads. On the one hand it was examining the question of what the point was of sending clowns to a country in so much need and on the other hand it begged more questions about what tried and true aid organizations were actually achieving in the country and why they were still there.
My subsequent research led to many lengthy explanations that pointed to bad governance and heavy political influence from the West, ultimately amounting to a sickening amount of puppet masters and very few moments where the people had a voice. But, having set out to discover how Clowns without Borders might measure up against all of the other aid efforts in Haiti, I was most surprised to discover that there was a problem with the aid industry itself. Linda Polman in her book "The crisis caravan" referred to "aid organizations as businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa." And this was maybe the moment where the pedestal I had placed aid organizations on collapsed. If they were acting more like businesses then there was a chance that the goal of helping others might not always be the priority or it may come with caveats. There seemed to be plenty of examples where far from helping, aid was potentially hindering the country's growth or at its most innocuous simply maintaining a stasis.
On January 12th 2010, Haiti's capital city was hit by a massive earthquake, which left thousands dead, (the figure has always been inflated by the government and aid agencies) and tens of thousands of people homeless. The media poured in, countries pledged money and people around the world gave to a whole host of aid agencies operating in the country.
In the aftermath of the earthquake the clowns decided to change their mission in Haiti and instead of putting on shows, wanted to do something that might have a more sustainable impact. So in August 2010, I returned with four clowns who had come to lead adult workshops for young Haitians to teach both performance skills and imagination games that could be passed onto kids in the community and perhaps help to alleviate post traumatic stress.
Tent camps were everywhere even down the middle strip of two-way roads. Very little rubble had been removed and people were just as desperate as before, if not more so given the lack of real shelter. Aid branding was on every tent and tarpaulin, at the front entrances of camps and at water stations along the roadside. It was a hodge podge of "band-aid" with each organization doing their own thing with seemingly little coordination from others. It ranged from large, well-known aid organizations to a minivan of Baptists from down South bringing whatever their congregation had amassed to help the Haitian people.
My documentary was floundering. How was I to interpret what I was filming and what did it all mean? But instead of changing my direction and doing an expose of aid organizations gone wrong I went back to the clowns. What were they doing? How were the Haitian people responding to it, and how did they differ from the 3,000 or more aid organizations around them?
In the end the true test for the film came when I went back a year later in 2011 to find the Haitians who had been in the clown workshops. I wanted to know if the experience had given them anything, improved their life or helped them and their families. It was this final footage that answered some of my questions and gave my film an end. It has been four years in the making but I am finally beginning to put the film together. As many documentaries are, this has been a labor of love and perhaps a strange way to approach the issue of charity; suffice it to say, that while sending clowns may sound like a crazy notion, it no longer seems to be where the absurdity of aid lies.