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The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War [Paperback]

Jean Dreze , Tony Vaux
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 April 2001
Provides an analysis of some of the most traumatic situations involving famine and war of the last two decades, helping us to understand what it takes to be an aid worker and how important humanitarian action is today. Famine and war evoke strong emotional reactions, and for most people there is a limited amount they can do. But the relief worker has to convert emotional responses into practical action and difficult choices - whom to help and how. Their own feelings have to motivate action for others. But can they separate out their own selfish feelings and prejudices in such an emotive climate? How do they avoid being partial among those they are helping? Are they motivated by altruistic concern, or the power they experience or the attention they receive? Tony Vaux brings over 20 years experience as one of Oxfam's leading emergency managers to the exploration of the conflicts between subjective impulses and objective judgements and the dilemmas relief workers contend with.

Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (1 April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853838799
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853838798
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 13.5 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 578,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'This is an absorbing book.' Daniel Wolf, writer and producer, The Hunger Business, Channel 4 'Highly informative, often provocative.' Development Policy Review 'A searching self-examination by someone who has been on the front lines of emergency responses.' James Boyce, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts 'Vaux's book is as much an examination of himself as of the agency and industry he worked for.' The Healthy Exchange '[Tony Vaux] discusses very difficult and emotional topics with wonderful clarity and courage.' Oxfam 'The Selfish Altruist highlights the key issues and quandaries that relief staff and policy makers have grappled with over the past 15 years. As someone with personal experience of a wide range of emergency situations, Tony Vaux has not shied away from confronting some awkward truths.' Will Day, director, CARE International 'Most original is the clarity of thought that helps us to understand what it takes to be an aid worker.' The Ecologist 'The book is a 'must' not only for enthusiasts and critics of humanitarian aid, but also for those ambivalent towards it. Whatever the reader's point of view, it is bound to be questioned.' Development Policy Review 'Vaux's work has thrown open questions for discussion.' International Sociology 'This book surveys the emotional well-springs behind the doing of relief work and suggests that they are not determined by our cultural or biological heritage.' Aslib Book Guide 'The strength of the book lies in Vaux's passion and the breadth of his experience which enable him to explore with great insight the urgent developmental questions.' Methodist Recorder

About the Author

After studying English at Oxford, Tony Vaux worked with Oxfam GB from 1972 until 1999. He spent nearly seven years in India developing Oxfam's work with community based projects. From 1984 he was coordinator of Oxfam's global emergency programmes, and became particularly closely involved with Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique and Somalia � all of which feature as chapters in this book. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he turned to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, building up new Oxfam programmes in response to conflict and poverty. Since writing this book on a sabbatical year in 1999-2000, he has been working as an independent consultant, focusing on areas of conflict.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
What are our feelings when we see the victims of famine and war: the starving child, the distraught mother, the old person whose way of life has been destroyed? Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read book 27 Feb 2006
By no_name
The Selfish Altruist is both superbly written and fantastically informative and interesting. I read it as a lay-person to the world of relief and aid work. It really opened my eyes to the daily moral dilemmas that take place in this field. But in the safe hands of Tony Vaux I actually finished the book feeling more inclined to make donations to Oxfam and their ilk than when I started it. A seriously thought-provoking piece of work- I have bought copies of this book for many of my friends.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informed and Balanced Comment 9 Jun 2010
I read The Selfish Ultruist immediately after reading Linda Polman's War Games; the contrast could not have been more striking. Tony Vaux's book is a well researched, well informed assessment (warts and all) of aid delivery. The fact that it is written by a person who has worked in the field for Oxfam for a considerable time means that the comment has a ring of authority. I particularly liked the examples where due to thoughtful and informed work projects that did more than simply provide food and blankets were being used to help give people their self-respect back, give them something useful to do and at the same time providing significant relief.

I would take issue on one or two details such as the suggestion that women tend to dominate in development projects and men to dominate in disaster releif; there seems to be at least as many women, if not more, working in disaster relief and even more on the development side. More importantly I don't think trying to measure this is constructive. Secondly Tony sometimes unjustifiably beats himself up when things go wrong and even when they go right he seems to apologise for it. In particular I think he is very unkind to himself and Oxfam over Kosovo; the fact that the politicians gave Milosovec no where to go and wanted to fight him without putting any troops in can hardly be his fault.

This is a serious review of how aid is delivered and how it is affected by the political changes in the world as a whole.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars self-recognition 6 Feb 2002
By edward j. santella - Published on
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why do we do it? 12 July 2006
By S. Alex - Published on
One of Vaux's clear intentions when constructing the questions throughout this work is achieving a personal catharsis. The motivations and decision making apparatus of himself and the aid community come under mercilessly objective evaluation. The graphic nature of the situations may tempt the reader to give in to the hoplessness that front line aid workers experience, though dwelling on the situations descibed in this book would be, in my opinion, missing the point. The point is understanding why we do the things that we do. Can an aid provider ( NGO ) overlook causality and bring aid to the person in need? Will attempts to affect causality do more harm than good? Do underlying motivations exist that influence the manner in which aid is provided? The answers to these questions are not simple or finite.

This book forced me to be introspective in ways that few others have. If you want a true lesson in disciplining your objectivity it's definitely worth the time.
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