The Last Mile

Conversations about The Last Mile

The late comedian Sam Kinison tackled topics that most of us don’t usually find funny, such as world hunger.  In one bit, he pointed out that commercials that show starving children are filmed by someone—often a crew—who are standing right there and could, “give the kid a sandwich.”  The sketch gets laughs–perhaps because it rings true.  With thousands of organizations accepting billions of dollars in donations, why are people still starving to death and dying of exposure? Some experts and aid-workers believe the problem is we don’t go the last mile.

According to researchers Balcik, Beamon and Smilowitz (2009), “The most significant logistical problems in the last mile generally stem from the limitations related to transportation resources and emergency supplies, difficulties due to damaged transportation infrastructure, and lack of coordination among relief actors,” (p. 51).  This lack of coordination reminds me what a colleague told me almost twenty years ago.  He was trying to figure out how to reduce the violence where we worked—a public school in Washington DC.  He discovered there were more than fifteen violence-prevention programs in the school, yet most of us didn’t know of even one, so we couldn’t refer students to them. 

Likewise, as I was listening to an NPR report on veteran homelessness this past week, I was reminded that there are hundreds of organizations serving homeless veterans.  There are thousands serving homeless people in this country.  Tens of thousands of organizations, from the local to the international, boast a mission to serve the world’s hungry and homeless.  So, why are there still hungry, homeless people?

I worked in one such organization for a few years: a state-run home for abused and abandoned children in Panama.  A number of providers supported this organization—the government, local foundations and individual volunteers.  Yet, despite all these concerned parties, on a number of occasions I’d arrive on a weekend day to hear child-care workers frantically calling out, “No tenemos agua!” Take a moment: think about fifty children from infants to twelve-year-olds, in one, locked-down institution with no water.  No water to wash babies.  No water to flush toilets.  No water to wash hands.  No water to drink.  The situation quickly escalates into a critical health hazard (in addition to being a crime against the rights of children, as per the UN resolution).  So, I did what most in the field do: ignored my designated responsibilities under the grant—sports/arts program, literacy program—and went to fill buckets with water and buy 5-gallon jugs of water and harassed whoever I could to help get the water-service functioning.  Someone had to get the water the last mile to the children and their care-givers who needed it.  

I love Esther Duflo’s Ted Talk, “Social experiments to fight poverty.”  It’s brief, brilliant and offers solutions.  She also speaks of the last-mile problem.  However, Ms. Duflo focuses on discovering and providing evidence of “what works,” specifically, what is cost-effective.  In the previous paragraph, I did not concern myself with considerations of the most cost-effective solution to the water problem—my primary concern was getting the water there ASAP. 

Ms. Duflo, also suggests that we can’t know if relief aid “works,” rather we have to break that broad question down into quantifiably, measurable questions.  From one perspective, I totally agree.  But, for those of us, like me, who have never experienced true, severe, hunger with no end in sight—as opposed to self-inflicted diets, fasts, etc.—let me pose a different hypothetical: your son/daughter/mother/father/most-loved one lies bleeding in a park, while you’re getting coffee across the street.  Do you want bystanders to stop and think which material will more cost- effectively stop the bleeding? If someone stops the bleeding, so that an ambulance can arrive, thus saving your loved-one’s life, didn’t that “work”?  Let me ask another question: if the local mayor, or some of the wealthy donors, lived in the institution with the orphans, would water-service have been a problem? This is one reason why directors of facilities of A Place to Stand will live on site with residents.    

Ms. Duflo starts her talk with an image of Haiti, and insightfully comments on the billions of dollars we donated to relief efforts there.  Shortly after the earthquake struck Haiti, I was talking to a friend of mine who, along with her husband, has done relief work in Africa.  We were frustrated by the apparent lack of results that billions of dollars in donations had generated.  In a country like Somalia or Panama, where a coffee in a restaurant costs 25 cents and a beer 40 cents, a thousand dollars can accomplish a lot—at least it will buy a lot of coffee and beer.  A billion dollars? Better to put a million in the hands of the needy (preferably in the form of semi-permanent, sustainable goods, e.g. goats, shelter, etc.). A billion dollars sitting in agency accounts doesn’t help.     

Yesterday I was talking to my father, who asked me what I thought of Malcolm Gladwell’s idea for fixing education by having schools hire more teachers than necessary and keeping the effective ones.  Sure it’s a great idea, but in most schools and districts in the U.S. it is not possible: since before the inception of universal schooling almost 200 years ago, we have never been able to meet demand for teachers.       

To be sure, we do have to keep recruiting and training relief workers.  But this alone has not worked.  Helping the hungry and homeless help themselves goes a long way to solving the last mile problem: they live there, at the last mile.  A Place to Stand hopes to quickly make outside economic and human resources unnecessary.  I look forward to the day when I can fire myself.  We are waiting for the day when relief work is obsolete, and there is only work. 

                                           References 

Balcik, B., Beamon, B. & Smilowitz, K. (2008). Last mile distribution in humanitarian relief.  Journal of Intelligent Transportation Systems: Technology, Planning, and Operations, 12:2, 51-63.

Duflo, E. (2010). Social experiments to fight poverty. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ted.com/talks/esther_duflo_social_experiments_to_fight_poverty.html