Tony Vaux took a job that landed him in Kosovo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Rwanda. He worked for Oxfam, one of the world's premier development and relief organizations. In his work, he helped some of the poorest and hungriest people on this planet. He believed his work vital, but he observed and raised questions. He saw that what needed to be done frequently did not get done. Vaux and his associates, over stressed and under funded, decided sometimes who would live and who would not. Food and medical aid became entangled with politics and military action. Many of the people helped were less than innocent and sometimes guilty of horrific crimes. Helping the vulnerable, the most laudable of tasks, he found, can itself be corrupting.
What saves this book from becoming another "realist" tome about how awful and hopeless we humans are, is Vaux's willingness to probe his own psyche as well as others'. We're often able to make ourselves quite comfortable with the assessment that the human race is, as Vaux states, "a species of exceptional brutality and cruelty" (page iv). We object only when the accusation is made against ourselves. If our accuser presses on and places before us our own behavior, we may admit that, yes, sometimes we have, under certain circumstances, acted brutally. But, we hasten to explain: circumstances forced us to act so. We had our reasons. They made us do it. It's a cruel world. Vaux rejects this sophistry. He admits, "the possibility that I too could be a killer." (184) By "killer" he does not mean that he could serve in a UN peacekeeping force. He means he is fully capable of having been on the wrong side in Somalia, Bosnia or Rwanda.
From this non-privileged position, Vaux recounts debates among Oxfam staff about the identity of the organization: will it aim to promote development or be an emergency relief action? Should Oxfam deliver aid to a society that oppresses women to the point that women will not benefit from the aid - or should the organization try to save as many lives as possible, even if most of them will be male? Will accepting help from one side in a conflict - in this case trucks with armed soldiers to deliver food - compromise Oxfam's neutrality and its future effectiveness?
It is also from this position that he raises his most fundamental issue. Vaux points out that aid workers are in positions of power and that power corrupts. Aid organizations and workers develop interests, organizational and personal, in seeing that acts are done in a certain way and that they receive credit. "Saving lives," he writes, "can be intoxicating, especially when people are weak and vulnerable." (94) "The motive of pity so easily interacts with the motive for cruelty, and the desire to help so easily becomes the desire for power. .... Managers in the `disaster relief industry', like those in charge of homes for children or the elderly, have the opportunity to abuse power because they are dealing with vulnerable people." (95) Pity becomes contempt.
But, Vaux argues, "Self-knowledge is the prerequisite of humanity." (72) "(T)o be happy requires a(n) ... abandonment of self - an ability to rejoice in other's success and in the formation of their altruism." (180) As another person has pointed out, aid may be something done to people. Better is to do something for people. But the best is to do something with people. Only the worker who has abandoned "self" is able to work with people.