This morning I learned that Guido Galli was killed in Haiti last week.
Guido was not a close friend. We met once, over brunch not far from Central Park, though I had been hearing about him through a mutual friend for a while. At the time he was working at the UN headquarters in New York. And I recall him talking about his desire to go back into the field.
He was talking to a group of us, all who are or were international aid workers; all who understood his desire to be out in the field.
There’s been a lot of scrutiny lately about the massive devastation in Haiti and the international community’s failure to prevent it. Some, as NYT columnist David Brooks, have said that the Haiti earthquake “isn’t a natural disaster story” but a “poverty story.” It is a poverty story, many like Brooks argue, because the international community “doesn’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty,” or to lift developing nations like Haiti out of its misery.
Guido Galli did know what was required to improve the lives of what many economists and pundits have dubbed the poorest in the world, “the bottom billion.” An Italian by birth, he studied post-war recovery studies in the United Kingdom. Yes, post-war recovery.
He did so because he wasn’t just a transient international explorer working at the UN for the thrill of travel. He was someone who saw how complicated our world is and believed that it was possible to make it better.
While Guido did study post-war recovery he didn’t get caught up in theories and charts. He believed in people. From what I remember from that brunch and through the stories that our mutual friend Francesca would share with me, Guido was someone who got it. He got that the international community was a mess. He got that the UN and dozens of other aid organizations were the puppets of self-indulgent politicians thinking only of their next election.
Guido got that it didn’t require billions of wasted aid dollars to improve lives. That it didn’t require McKinsey consultants. That it didn’t require a 30-page, 15-signature clearance and approval process.
Guido got that improving lives required going out into the field, talking to ordinary people and trying to do whatever it is we can to make their lives – better. Doing whatever it is, even within the straightjacket of an international bureaucracy like the United Nations.
Improving lives is what Guido was doing in Haiti when he died in the UN building in Port-au-Prince last week. I don’t know if there is comfort in saying that he died doing what he desired. But he was doing, as his friends will tell you, it with passion and compassion. That’s something we should all strive for.