Thursday, February 28, 2013

When aid is a crutch and not a solution

I spent an unsettling afternoon yesterday listening as people from a very poor village in this region inadvertently revealed to me one of the major problems with international aid.
The village is home to about 100 families, virtually all of them scratching out the most meagre of existences from land that's too steep and too full of clay to be good for farming.
Their five-year-old school is looking the worse for wear, but there's no money to fix the screens or stop the water that's making its way into one of the two classrooms. The roof is in danger of collapsing on the local church. There are no jobs or school past Grade 6 for the young people, only four vehicles in the whole town, and no housing options for expanding families other than to squeeze another three or four people into Mom and Dad's teeny adobe home.
So as you can imagine, they were happy to see us. My organization was there to help them identify and priorize community projects, and the villagers were very eager to talk about what they needed
A new soccer field, for one. A kitchen for the school. Equipment for the people in town who have some marketable skills but can't use them because they didn't have tools. Help starting up a new bread-baking business. A new roof for that church. Better roads. Retaining walls that could be backfilled to create tiny lots for more houses. Latrines for the houses that don't have any. A better way to handle garbage other than just chucking the stuff into the street, which is what happens now.
Good ideas all. The plan now is to pitch some of those projects to international funders to see if somebody wants to put up some money.
But the truth is that you could fund every one of those projects and the community would still be a dirt-poor place with little hope for a diet that goes beyond corn and beans, sustainable infrastructure, or a future for its young people that isn't just more of the same.
Please don't interpret this as me saying we should stop international aid. Countries like Honduras have seen major improvements over time in the health and well-being of their citizens because caring donors and governments in distant lands ponied up for carefully considered interventions.
 International aid also has the potential to shape government policy, and this country could certainly use some of that. My own little organization has done some great work to help individual families lift themselves out of the grind of daily poverty.
But projects alone can't change the future of a community, or of a country. Whatever projects are ultimately realized in that little town we visited yesterday will not change the fact that its residents are poorly equipped for the modern world, unable to sustain their own community, and destined to live ever more marginally while waiting for the next group of well-intended visitors to show up with more project funding.
 Hats off to whatever group got that school built in the village, but where was the money supposed to come from to maintain it in a town where everybody lives virtually without income? And while many would argue that a Grade 6 education is better than none at all, is it anywhere near enough schooling to prepare young people for an increasingly complex and global economy?
If the unemployed seamstresses, mechanics and plumbers in town had the tools they needed to work, where would they find the people to pay them for that work - or the transport to access larger commercial centres? If the local bread-makers were helped to start a business, where would they sell their goods?
And would their business make enough money to cover costs? Or would they end up like the villagers in other towns around here who started raising tilapia through an injection of international funds only to discover they couldn't make enough selling the fish to pay for the cost of feeding them?
Projects are great ways to kick-start a new day. It's smart to use international funds to build schools in countries committed to reforming their education system but too poor to get started. It's caring to put foreign dollars and expertise to work to strengthen health care in a region digging itself out of a crisis. It's an excellent investment to provide seed money for private enterprise in a town where all the ingredients are there to make a new business work.
But stringing a bunch of projects together without ever getting to the root of a problem - well, that's just busy work. Honduras has plenty of that, but will spin its wheels as a country until there's long-term, strategic support for transformation that goes all the way to the top.
Until then, we're really just putting a pretty face on the status quo. I feel for all the Hondurans who know it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Going buggy

I often have the feeling these days that small ants are crawling on my face. Unfortunately, that’s because they are. 
You have to forge a whole new relationship with insects if you live in a tropical country. There are just so many of them, and so many loosely fit doors and windows for little creatures to squeeze past. 
The ants that get on your face - and in your computer keyboard, your e-reader, the cracks in your kitchen table, the cereal that you forgot to put in an air-tight plastic container - are teeny little guys drawn to food crumbs and electronic things (Warm for sleeping? Comforting hum? I don’t know).
At times they pass through your kitchen in a long, thin highway of organized ants on a mission, and you recognize you must have dropped something really tasty somewhere. Other times, they wander across your hands and arms as you type at your keyboard, as if your keyboard strikes are shaking them awake. 
Lately, a few of the bigger leafcutter ants have made their way under the door as well. That’s a whole other story - one that will culminate in a few months with a stream of leafcutter ants making their way past our front door, each carrying bits from whatever nearby plant they have decimated to make the special fungus that they eat. They can take a garden plant back to sticks in a night.
We’ve decided that the leafcutter ants who come in our house are from the forager class, sent to check out whether there’s something worthwhile beyond our door. They’re at least 50 times bigger than the bitsy ants that live in our computer keyboards, and quite ferocious-looking with their formidable pincer-legs up front. But they don’t care to walk on your face, for which I am grateful.
Then there are the cockroaches. They come in various sizes, but they’re all kind of creepy with their scuttling movement, dark-of-night habits and ability to survive much abuse, including being launched like a well-played hockey puck toward the brick wall out back when somebody like me inevitably draws the line and sweeps one ferociously hard out the door. 
I don’t like them much. If I thought I could kill every one of them if I just tried harder, I’d probably do it. 
But there’s only so many times you can spray Raid, or try to do something elaborate with your tube of toothpaste so you never again have to flick on your bathroom light to the sight of a giant cockroach enjoying a minty snack.
You can sweep them put the door, stamp them dead, lay towels across every window gap, observe immaculate kitchen habits.  The damn things will just keep coming. Sooner or later, you have to find a kind of peace with them. 
The biting bugs - well, I dislike those guys most of all. We’ve got mosquitoes and nasty biting midges in Canada, too, but down here the sheer variety is impressive.
There are, for instance, the ones that bite your lower legs in the cool season. Those bites swell up, itch like crazy, and take days to go away. 
There’s another kind of biting bug that comes in the rainy season that chomps you maybe 15 times all in one area - the back of your arm, say. You itch like crazy, but then the bites are gone within a couple of hours.
We’ve got very fine screen on our windows and good door-closing habits, but those teeny biters thwart us just the same. Happily, anti-itch creams like Alergil are cheap and readily available here, so I just make sure there’s always a tube nearby.
Spiders tend to be the nightmare of bug-a-phobics. But I made my peace with spiders a few years back, I think after seeing Microcosmos and ending up impressed by their talents despite my misgivings. 
They’ve got a number of fancy spiders in Honduras: some that weave golden webs; some that wear a funny crab’s-shell kind of getup; some that glitter like they’ve been bedazzled. If you can get past the fear factor, the spiders here are actually pretty amazing. 
Then there are the pre-Semana Santa beetles that crunch underfoot in March and April. The cicadas that sing their strange songs from the trees, changing their tune as the seasons pass. The flies with dangly hind legs that insist on hovering near your face, and that can still get me screaming and flailing around despite my best efforts to appear untroubled. 
But of course, there are also the butterflies, fluttering past like delicate flower petals in the breeze. Blue, yellow, orange, transparent - you can't believe the variety in the tropics. They’re the payback for the dangly-legged flies, the bug-infested cereal, the mosquito welts on your feet. And how could I forget the glow bugs, glimmering a luminescent green over the farm fields at night? I shared one magical night with my family on Dec. 21 when we sat in the dark amid the Mayan ruins, counting flickering neon specks in the grass. 
That’s the thing with nature - it comes as a package. When I feel that familiar tickle of a tiny ant making its way up my neck, I try to remember that. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Coffee in crisis

This fungus-stricken plant has at least
some ripe cherries.

A Honduras coffee finca is usually a beautiful sight at this time of year. 
The leaves are a rich and shiny dark green year-round, so a hillside finca is always attractive. But this is the season when the harvest is finishing up and the plants are even prettier, covered in new growth and small white flowers that herald the coming year’s crop.
Sadly, that’s not how it is out there right now. A recent tour I did of several small fincas around Sesesmil, Copan demonstrated just how hard the fungus known as la roya has hit the Honduras coffee industry.
The official sources in the country are still playing down the impact of the la roya attack, suggesting losses of 25 per cent for the 2012-13 harvest. 
But producers know the true impact is much worse than that - closer to 60 per cent losses this year for many growers. That will be followed by a massive drop in production for the next two years, while the infected plants recover from being severely cut back to help them survive the fungus.
It’s a terrifying prospect in a country where the coffee harvest is just about the only thing that generates money for the small rural producers who grow most of the coffee coming out of Honduras. 
La roya - coffee leaf rust - is an old foe for coffee growers, and there are definitely things you can do to stop it. But that’s in some kind of dream world where growers have money and time to spare for the major interventions necessary to stop the fungus, and in a time when the fungus was just an occasional problem and not a wide-spread disaster.
If you have money, you can fight back. 
You can, for instance, spray the plant with a number of fungicides over a certain period of time. You can cut the plant back hard and afford to sit back and wait through the two years before it produces again. You can take preventive action by spraying uninfected plants with copper, or buy new strains of plants genetically resistant to la roya and just start over. 
But the majority of coffee producers in Honduras are small-scale, independent growers, using coffee dollars to smooth the edges from what would otherwise be subsistence living. They’re a long way from well-off, most without money for anything beyond the basics when it comes to keeping their fincas in good working order. 
The bulk of the growers who belong to the COAPROCL coffee co-op in Sesesmil are facing losses of nearly 70 per cent of their crop. And that’s just this year: they’ll also have to weather two more years of dramatically reduced production, presuming they can even achieve the monumental task of cutting back every sick plant on their fincas. 
As recently as October, the growers thought they were heading into a banner year. But then the plants started dropping their leaves. Green, thriving plants turned to leafless, yellowing sticks within a matter of weeks. The ripening coffee cherries stopped ripening, many dying on the branch due to the lack of nutrients coming from the plant. 
The result: The harvest is late and small, with a gloomy forecast until 2016. 
The lines of credit will come due for producers any day now, but they won’t have the money to pay for them - or the money for school, medical needs, clothes for the kids, repairs for anything that might break over the next year, food and care for the animals, or all those other goods and services that families can’t produce on their own.
These cherries shrivelled before they could ripen
after the leaves fell.
I toured the fincas with an Australian couple who have a coffee-roasting company in Melbourne and an affinity for Copan beans. They added a whole new wrinkle to the la roya dilemma, noting that so far, resistant coffee strains just don’t produce as flavourful a bean as the varieties that are currently being decimated in Honduras.
So even a wholesale switch to one of the resistant varieties won’t be the answer. Not if it makes buyers unhappy. COAPROCL  producers are acutely aware that it’s all about the buyers - and satisfying the discriminating coffee drinkers of the world who give the crop its worth. 
Some regions haven’t been hit as hard. Comayagua growers expect to be down just five per cent, presuming they get a handle on the armed criminals stealing their coffee harvests right off the plant. In Lempira, losses are looking to be around 30 per cent. 
But whatever is coming over the next three years is going to hurt everyone. Even the guys loading the trucks at the export companies are bracing for a downturn; they get paid by the bag, and there are going to be far fewer bags around this year. 
Add in the people who cut coffee during the harvest season and we’re talking millions of people, in a country where so many already live right on the knife’s edge. Growers are also worried that if they can’t ship enough coffee to their overseas buyers over the next three years, they’ll lose markets as well. 
In another country, you’d like to think that government authorities would be all over this natural disaster. But that’s a whole other sad story. Brace for the hurricane. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

The best giving starts with knowing what's needed

Confession time: Have you ever had to come up with a fast donation for a food drive and solved the problem by digging around in the back of your cupboards for tins and packets of things you never use? 
I used to do it, despite nagging feelings of shame that all I was really doing was dumping things I didn’t want in the first place – cans of kidney beans, stewed tomatoes, cream corn.  After I worked at a non-profit and saw just how much unwanted crap got dumped at our door in the name of donations, I put that practice away once and for all.
I was reminded of that today when I poked my head into the storage room at Angelitos Felices children’s home and saw the piles of strange, strange things that people had donated to “help” the kids.
 Like stacks of refill pages for those three-ring personal organizers that people used to use back before Blackberries. Homemade scratch pads made from recycled office posters flipped over to their blank sides and glued together at one end. Weird plastic gee-gaws and unknowable objects, scraped from somebody’s pile of discards and packaged up for transport to orphans in Honduras.
I know, I know – people living in poverty are supposed to be grateful for all things, whether it’s another damn tin of tuna for the local food bank or an out-of-date calendar in English for poor families in Latin America. It’s more or less an unspoken rule that anyone who gives away anything is doing a good deed, even if their motivation is less about helping an unfortunate soul and more about ditching something they don’t want.
But really, feeling good about giving away things that you don’t want and have no use to the person receiving them – well, that’s a little lame.  That’s a “gift” designed to make the giver feel good without having put a moment’s thought into what might genuinely be of value to the person receiving it. That’s a gift that ends up stacked on a big shelf of useless stuff at an orphanage where so many real needs go unmet.
So how can givers be more effective? It starts with taking the time to find out what the needs are for the group you want to help – or alternatively, assessing what you’ve got to give away and thinking about a group that could really use those items.  
When I worked with street-entrenched sex workers at PEERS Victoria, I was ever so grateful to the people who would call first to ask what we needed, and then arrive at our door with the exact things we asked for.  I was less grateful to those who arrived with several boxfuls of their late father’s used clothes hidden beneath a thin layer of women’s clothes, as if there might be a hidden population of poorly clothed 80-year-old men working in the Victoria sex trade.
For those who want to give to the developing world, it’s a little more challenging. It might not be as easy as picking up a phone to call someone working at the grassroots level to verify what’s needed. It’s much harder to get your goods to the people who need them. To be effective in a foreign land requires more work.
Work to track down information on who’s doing what, and where, and how much they’re spending on administration to achieve their objectives. Work to ascertain whether it’s better to ship goods because there’s a scarcity in the country, or if the real problem isn’t stuff but a lack of money to buy it. Work to find a contact in the country who you can trust, or a proven organization that’s doing something you really want to support.
But the payback for that initial investigative work is the warm feeling that you’ve donated something that people really need.
Instead of digging out your worn ski jacket and wool pants for your church to ship off to children in the tropics, perhaps you and the rest of the congregation write a small cheque to a non-profit in that country that instead covers the costs of the new shoes the children need a whole lot more. Instead of collecting a few notebooks and pencils to send at great cost to students in a faraway land, you find a way to buy those goods directly in the country – and end up being able to buy even more with the money you save on shipping.
 Instead of rummaging around at the back of your pantry for your outdated tins of tomato paste to give to the homeless guy who has neither a can opener or a kitchen, you take fresh fruits and veggies to the local soup kitchen. (And your ski jacket and wool pants, because those guys really could use them.)
We give because we care, of course, and I don’t mean to mock those whose intentions are honorable. But the needs are vast out here in this troubled, complex world.  It’s wonderful when people feel the urge to give, but so much more effective when they give the things that truly make a difference. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

When nothing goes right

I´m having one of those days that Cuso International warns its volunteers about - one where the frustrations of life in a new country and culture build up to the point that you´re at risk of snapping rudely to just about anyone, "Come on, you people, get your freakin´act together!"
Admittedly, some of the frustration is petty. Everything seems to break here, including the kitchen clock we bought after we arrived  that has now developed the habit of stopping every time the hour hand passes "1." The electrical current is so irregular that I´ve burned through an expensive electric toothbrush, a Kobo reader, and no less than three power cords for my laptop.
One of those cords was dead within an hour of me buying it despite being plugged into the pricey new voltage regulator that the store vowed would solve all my problems. Maybe I had broken the regulator, the clerk suggested helpfully.
Which leads to another point of frustration: poor-quality goods and services. I had to be persistent for an entire week to get that store to replace the power cord, and it was touch and go to the end. Our bedside lamps fell apart within a couple hours of use after the glue used to make the shades sizzled under the heat of the 40-watt bulbs. My spouse bought the wrong kind of extension cord one time and could only get 50 per cent of his money back despite returning it in the original packaging, with the receipt, within minutes of buying it.
In November I bought a new $500 washing machine with a one-year guarantee for the Angelitos children´s home, but we couldn't get it to work. The store took three months to send around a repair man, informed me that the problem was that the digital display drew more power than the neighbourhood had available, then charged me an additional $100 to swap in a non-digital machine because the other one was now "used."
 I took my laptop in to be cleaned a couple days ago and it came back with the keyboard broken. Having lived here a year, I  know there's nothing to be done about that other than to have a good old rant in the kitchen and write a crabby blog post. I bought an external keyboard, but today that´s not working either.
The stuff all comes from the same Chinese factories where Canadians get their goods, and the prices are the same if not higher. There´s no obvious explanation for the inferior quality. But I´m starting to suspect there's a seconds bin in those factories with a big sign saying, "For sale in the developing world only." And like I say, it's not like there are any avenues for complaint in Honduras.
Putting my small gripes aside for a moment, the country´s truly serious problems are handled in similarly cavelier fashion.
I just spent two days walking around coffee plantations in Copan, where farmers are being devastated by an unprecedented attack of coffee fungus that's wiping out as much as 70 per cent of this year's coffee harvest in parts of the country. The news is even bleaker for the coming two years, because those plants will have to be cut back so hard that they won't be producing again until 2016.
Multiply that by the millions of Hondurans who make something of a living from coffee, and you've got a national emergency. From the producers to the truckers to the export companies to the two million hungry people who depend on the four-month harvest season for work, this will be unbelievably bad.
And yet there's the Honduran agriculture minister in the morning paper, assuring everyone that Honduras has the situation under control and the impact will be minimal. That's a lie.
The country - and several other Latin American coffee-growing countries grappling with the same fungus  - is heading into a natural disaster of epic proportions due to the fungus. What the government ought to be doing is jumping into this with a detailed plan of action and enough international support to help everyone in the industry weather this crisis. What it's actually doing is nothing.
Nor is it doing anything effective to curb the staggering amount of criminal activity in the country. People throw around the word "impunity" a lot in Honduras, but impunity is just what happens when you've got a compromised and inadequate police force, an absent court system, vast numbers of unemployed and poorly paid people and a disengaged government.
Those same coffee producers I met with this week told me of their little co-op being robbed of more than $60,000 last year by an unscrupulous Honduran coffee buyer. But there's nothing they can do about that, any more than they can stop the organized criminals who steal into the fields late at night and make off with their coffee crops.
How do you "fix" a country that lives so doggedly in denial of its own role in solving some of its problems? Bad clocks, power surges and lousy customer service are ultimately just irritants that get on a volunteer's nerves, but they symbolize an absence of care and attention that goes right up to the highest levels. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Passing the hat for basic needs

Hang around Honduras for more than a few days and you're bound to see some group or another staging what I've come to think of as a water-bottle campaign.
The fundraising drives are essentially a stepped-up version of passing the hat, using empty 20-litre water bottles - like the kind on the office water cooler - for collecting the money. The campaigns are similar to the Christmas drives that organizations like the Salvation Army put on back home; it's common here to see the bottles set out in public places or clutched in the hands of smiling young people soliciting at the side of the road.
But what distinguishes a Honduran maraton are the causes that people are raising money for. In a country with no apparent strategy or funding source for essential public services, passing the hat is really all you've got.
For instance, worried families and staff from the main public hospital in San Pedro Sula held a maraton last week to raise money for basic surgical supplies. Happily, the drive raised a million lempiras - about $50,000 - and surgeons at Mario Rivas hospital are briefly back in business.
Families at the big public hospital in Santa Rosa, Copan, organized a similar fundraiser a couple of months ago after word got out that newborns were being kept in cardboard boxes for lack of proper beds. No doubt plans are also underway for a maraton on behalf of the public hospital in La Ceiba, which was recently served with an eviction notice due to unpaid rent and electrical bills.
Schools use maratones all the time. The campaigns fund the absolute basics: Desks; a new classroom; decent bathrooms; books and school supplies. And while the government does take responsibility for teachers' salaries, the reality is that they're so bad about paying that teachers are always going on strike. (As are doctors and nurses.) If there hasn't already been a maraton to fund a teacher's salary, I'm sure there soon will be.
This past weekend, people were out in the streets of Copan Ruinas holding a maraton for a young man who was kidnapped last week. The kidnappers are demanding an amount that's way beyond anything the young man's family could hope to pay, so they've been reduced to wandering around town with empty water bottles hoping strangers might throw in a few lempiras for their missing son.
Perhaps the nuttiest thing is that Hondurans don't find any of this odd. It's just the way it is. In theory, they've got a democratic government and a lot of laws and policies around caring for vulnerable citizens and ending inequality, but the truth is that people are almost completely on their own.
Maybe that's not such a bad way to live if you're rich; after all, Honduras has all the bells and whistles of a developed country for those who have the money to access them. You don't notice the rich worrying too much about whether Mario Rivas hospital has surgical supplies, because they're buying their medical care  at the bright and shiny private hospital down the road.
But it's a pretty raw deal for the almost 70 per cent of the population that lives in poverty. They've got the worst of both worlds: a government that taxes them but at the same time feels little responsibility to provide basic services.
Governments are good or bad for all kinds of reasons. One that is largely absent leaves its own cruel mark on a country, and a long line of empty water bottles waiting to be filled.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Shaking things up

Paul says I've "gone Honduran" with the new blog look. He doesn't mean it as a compliment. We've had many conversations this past year about the crazy colours, unreadable fonts and cutesy designs that are favoured by some of the people we work with here.
But I don't know. I was good and sick of that blue-sky-and-puffy-white-clouds theme. I've seen it on other people's blogs, too, which I find very jarring. The idea of someone having a blog that looks just like yours except with different words - well, that's unsettling.
 It's much tougher to pick a new design theme than you might think, though. And if you let yourself get caught up in thinking about what a certain theme "says" about you, everything slows to a crawl. (Tried out a fairly attractive autumn-leaves theme, but for the life of me couldn't think of one reason why an autumn-leaf backdrop made any sense.)
So yes, the new colours are pretty bold, but I stayed conservative with the font type. It's called Molengo. I love trying out new fonts, but ultimately share Paul's viewpoint that unless a font is effortless to read, you've kind of lost the point. I redid my haiku site, too, but had a little more fun with the fonts.
Anyway, welcome to the new me. For now.

Monday, February 04, 2013

There's a scammer born every minute

I wouldn’t have thought that a scam targeting Honduran non-profits would be particularly lucrative. Few of them have a discretionary centavo to spare outside of their meticulously itemized project funds.
But this scam is a relatively clever appeal to the ego, and I can see how it might trick somebody running an NGO in a developing country like Honduras. It involves an invitation to an international congress on HIV-AIDS ostensibly being organized in Canada at the end of this month by the Ontario Public Health Association.
My boss at the Comision de Accion Social Menonita head office in San Pedro Sula received the invitation, forwarding it to me with a request that I verify its legitimacy.
Screen shot of the fake invitation
The OPHA has yet to respond to an email I sent asking about the scam. But the $620 registration fee to be mailed in U.S. funds to an address in Spain did raise my suspicions from the start. So did the fact that the invitation is in French – one of Canada’s two official languages, true, but not the one you’d expect an Ontario organization to use when sending out international invitations (or ever, really).
I did a Google search today on the name of the man listed on the invitation as the president of OPHA, M. Jean Paul Merlier. Not only is he not the president, but his name brought up a warning on the Web site of the Union of InternationalAssociations cautioning members about the scam. It also brought up a site that featured that particular invitation and a variety of others for the use of anyone in the business of scamming NGOs.
“An increasing number of email scams are using NGOs, international NGOs, development agencies, meetings, international conferences etc. as the hook to defraud or cheat unsuspecting recipients,” notes the UIA in a message about the OPHA scam, which first surfaced two months ago.
The organization then goes on to list 316 examples of similar scams dating back to 2009. Many invoke the names of internationally renowned groups from the World Health Organization to the Red Cross as a means of luring innocent NGOs into submitting registration fees for non-existent international conferences.
Unlike those Nigerian scams with too many capital letters and a promised payout that’s just way too rich to believe, somebody did put a little thought into the six-page invitation that my boss received.
There are some official-looking logos at the top of the page, albeit out-of-focus and strangely stretched-looking, and even a photo of the fictional Mr. Merlier at a podium with a Canadian flag in the background.  The invitation trots out many of the themes popular among the international-NGO set, from caring for the environment to addressing Africa’s poverty.
And while a $620 registration fee is huge money in a country like Honduras, the invitation promises an all-expenses-paid trip to Canada and a $620 per-diem for the five days of the conference. That could be enough to suck in an unsuspecting NGO director or two.
I don’t imagine the Ontario Public Health Association is happy about having its good name sullied in a global scam. But the association can at least get a rueful laugh out of being described in the invitation as “a charitable organization of Canadian law with international aims and objectives among others to assist individuals and organizations around the world through loans for business, education, economic development and environmental protection, especially to support African organizations involved in the social, environmental and economic assistance for humanitarian NGOs...”
As for the poor guy in a suit who’s pictured on the invitation as the fictional Mr. Merlier, I’m sure he’d be deeply unhappy to learn that his photo is being used to scam money from non-profits in developing countries. But at least he’s just got three more weeks to tough it out until the date of the fake HIV-AIDS conference passes and a new scam takes its place.