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Sean Penn's Hardest Role Yet: Haiti Camp Manager

May 18, 2010 – 3:29 PM
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Emily Troutman

Emily Troutman Contributor

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (May 18) -- At 9 a.m., Sean Penn has already conducted a staff meeting, sent off a memo to the International Organization of Migration and led discussions with nearly a dozen people on the problems of rainwater ditches, stab wounds, cash-for-work, security and vaccinations.

By the looks of it, he is an old pro, throwing around the unique vocabulary of humanitarian response with ease: "T-shelter," "mitigation," "clusters," "acquisition."

Now if he could just find a cigarette.
Camp Manager Sean Penn, center, holds a meeting in his
Emily Troutman
Sean Penn, center, seated with Cassidy Bail, right, and Oscar Gubernati, holds a meeting in his office.

For Penn and everyone else working on the disaster recovery efforts that have followed the Haiti earthquake, 9 a.m. is the new noon. He is working at breakneck speeds. Two months ago, he made the unlikely decision to become the International Organization of Migration-designated camp manager at Petionville Golf Club, one of the most complex temporary camps in Haiti. The IOM is the United Nations agency responsible for camp management and coordination.

Outside Penn's makeshift "office," more than 50,000 people are living on the muddy hillsides that used to be the greens. They are packed in like sardines and vulnerable to landslides, fire and flooding.
The Petionville Golf Club
Emily Troutman
Tents cram the hillsides of the Petionville Golf Club.

I decide to cut to the chase: "You know if you'd applied for this job you wouldn't have gotten it."

He knows.

"Honestly," he says, "when I got here, I didn't even know what IOM stood for."

But whatever his previous qualifications, the fact is that Penn, with his nonprofit Haitian Relief Organization co-funded by philanthropist Diana Jenkins, has stepped up to take a job that no one in Haiti wants. Since January, the international response effort has been crippled by a lack of organization and leadership at the camp level.
John Cindric and Davies Okoko walk through the Ancien Aeroport Militaire camp
Emily Troutman
John Cindric and Davies Okoko walk through the Ancien Aeroport Militaire camp, discussing the challenges that Cindric, who has just taken on the job as camp manager there, will face.

Camp managers, as individuals, are responsible for a dizzying array of issues and act as the primary liaisons and coordinators of humanitarian response at a geographic level. The geographic role is important, as most charities operating in Haiti give aid wherever and whenever they want. This has led to some camps having lots of aid and others having none at all.

Part of Penn's job is to assess the actual needs of the people living there. He can't legally prevent anyone from getting involved, but he can "discourage" them. More important, he can summon help to address new and evolving needs. Many organizations resist this role because it carries tremendous responsibility.

The need for camp management was identified as "urgent" as early as Jan. 29. By Feb. 10, only 10 out of more than 1,000 sites had a formal camp management structure, according to reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Four months after the earthquake, the U.N. has identified 50 camps with more than 5,000 people each, and only 30 have camp managers.
Sean Penn stops to hug a young girl.
Emily Troutman
Penn stops for small conversation, and hug, with Delica, 5. Penn says people do not recognize him from his "day job," but sometimes people are told he is an actor and call him "Actor."

In many countries, this responsibility is taken on by local authorities or elected volunteers. The government of Haiti has attempted to assign an oversight role to the Department of Civil Protection, but with mixed results.

Davies Okoko, a camp manager with the U.N., spent time working on camp management in numerous countries, including Sudan. He says camp leadership appeared more easily there because people had been displaced for the past 25 years.

Few charitable organizations have funding directed to this need. Okoko says the role of camp manager is sometimes identified as a "human resources" expense, which most charities are pressured by their donors to keep low. Camp management is an area of humanitarian response that donors are often unfamiliar with. It also doesn't photograph as well as food or water distributions.

The U.N., through the IOM, continues to offer grants to support organizations to hire qualified camp managers. For example, John Cindric was recently hired by the American Rescue Committee to be camp manager for the Ancien Aeroport Militaire camp, a dense camp of 50,000 known to be battling security problems. In contrast to the well-equipped headquarters that Penn has at the golf club, Cindric is still trying to create a basic office.
Camp manager John Cindric
Emily Troutman
At Ancien Aeroport Militaire, Cindric discusses camp business with others involved with providing aid.

Right now, his support staff is limited to a translator and an assistant. He hasn't had time yet to test the Internet connection. I ask if he feels he has the resources to get the job done. "I have the will to get it done," he says firmly.

The IOM has made further efforts to address the problem, with a new program that dispatches teams of roving camp managers to assess the situation at each camp and try to convince organizations to take on the job. Okoko is collaborating with the National Association of Scouts in Haiti to encourage Scouts to take the role.

Alex Georges, the president of Haiti Scouts' Ouest division, says, "Obviously, not every Scout would be able to be a camp manager, but within the Scouting movement, you already have people with this mind-set, of being at the service of their country."

"Boy Scout" is not a phrase often used to describe Sean Penn. But his camp is one of the best run in Haiti, and, privately, other organizations admit they are eager to learn from his model. That is, when they're not criticizing him for doing too good a job.
Sean Penn walks through the camp at Petionville Golf Club
Emily Troutman
Penn walks though the camp at Petionville Golf Club. He says his drive to manage the camp is "fueled a lot by rage right now."

Part of the debate over camp management is that the organized provision of humanitarian aid discourages people from going home. Why leave a camp when there is medical attention, doctors and clean water? The government of Haiti, in particular, is eager to diminish the incentives for people to stay in camps.

"I would stand ready to debate on that topic anytime, anyplace, with anyone," says Penn, who will testify Wednesday at a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on rebuilding Haiti. "People who say [his camp is too well managed] either have not been here, or have not talked with engineers about mitigation, or are themselves managing a substandard camp. Or they just don't care about babies dying."

Some of the criticism seems to stem from Penn's presumed power as a celebrity aid worker, as well as his status as an outsider. Unlike Cindric and Okoko, Penn doesn't have decades of credentials to fall back on.

"There is pressure, and there is added pressure," he says about his high-profile role.

People familiar with his work agree he is up to the task. But as a community, insiders often dominate the humanitarian response, and whispers have been circulating about why "someone like him" would take on this job.

"I'll admit," he says, "I'm probably fueled a lot by rage right now."

He has been shocked, humbled and motivated by the urgency of the humanitarian problem here and the lack of people able and willing to address it in a productive way. He is fighting exhaustion, bureaucracies and the constant pressure of ordinary people in need.

In this sense, he is no different from his colleagues. At the Ancien Aeroport Militaire, I ask Cindric how long he thought he could do his job before he burns out.

"About 10 days," he says with a grin.

"So you hit that about four days ago?"


As we look out over his workplace, another teeming town of shanties, he is approached by one of his new constituents, a desperate, elderly woman begging for money and food. He turns her away with sad apologies.

"There's 50,000 people here like this little lady. They see you, and they see hope," he says. "They just throw their hope at you."
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