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4.0 out of 5 stars Well then, should we do nothing?..., 13 Dec 2013
This review is from: Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid (Paperback)
To help those less fortunate, as well as those who are in immediate distress due to some crisis / catastrophe is an imperative for a broad range of people, fulfilled in a variety of ways from writing a check, to handing a dollar bill out the car window directly into the hand of an individual with a "Please help" sign, to making it one's life's work. Jessica Alexander is in the latter category, and this book is an account of her experiences, aptly entitled, since she, along with numerous other aid workers, seem to chase disasters, sometimes human-caused, sometimes natural, across the globe, and often bring their own form of chaos in their wake.

After graduation from college, in 2000, Alexander landed an entry level job in an advertising firm, which involved trying to convince consumers which brand of pizza was better. Ah, the "real world." Ugh! The author thought so also, and searched elsewhere for more meaningful employment, which led to an entry level job in a humanitarian organization. Her first overseas assignment was in Rwanda, in 2003, still addressing issues related to the genocide that had occurred eight years earlier, but also addressing the needs of others who had fled TO Rwanda, in order to avoid fighting in the so-called "Democratic Republic" of the Congo. It was a short term assignment, and she was back in New York City, itching for the next assignment. And that would be in Darfur, first temporarily, then on a more permanent hitch. And it was difficult there. She left Darfur on rather short notice to attend to the tsunami victims in Sri Lanka and Indonesia in 2005-06, back to NYC for R&R, then to Sierra Leone, and the "child soldiers" in 06-07, back to NYC, and then to Haiti, and the earthquake of 2010.

Thus, the author obtained a reasonable sampling of the headline-making disasters in the first decade of the 21st century. I found her account informative on a number of matters. For example, it is reasonable well-known that it is the Sudanese government itself, through the use of militias, has created the "crisis" in Darfur, the large province in the west of the country. But I did not know that all the aid agencies had to work with and through this same government (I assumed the agencies were coming through a neighboring country.) It does appear to be yet another example of the "human comedy": the Sudanese government is deliberately creating the refugees, and then uses the aid agencies to hand out the proverbial "band-aides," regulating their efforts along the way. In terms of money, in Darfar, the aid agencies never had enough; for the tsunami, they had too much, and could not figure out constructive ways of utilizing it.

Alexander's accounts seem to be quite authentic. She is reasonably critical of the aid agencies efforts, various personnel, as well as herself. She identifies some of the unintended dislocations cause by the agencies. For example, a judge will quit his job to become an interpreter /driver for the agency because the pay is double. She relates how one agency's efforts in Nigeria, with women who were HIV positive, led other women to contract HIV, so they too could benefit. And there are too many different agencies, all too often, as Alexander says, like a dog, peeing to mark their territory. She expressed clear doubts about her willingness to leave Darfur, after only seven months, just when she was becoming knowledgeable, to move on to the tsunami crisis. And there is a very understandable ambivalence that she expresses about the desires to have a stable life and fears of becoming a "humanitarian widow."

But I'd also fault her account on some points. There seemed to be no preparation or orientation of aid workers to the task at hand, or the culture of the host country, and how one country might differ from another. I remember well my 16 weeks of generally inappropriate and certainly "generic" training as a Medical Corpsman before going to Vietnam. In those 16 weeks, they devoted ONE hour to the question of "Why we were in Vietnam"? But based on Alexander's account, it seems like the aid workers get neither the 16 weeks, nor even the one hour. Sure, it is a "sudden crisis," but surely the principles involving camp management are largely the same, and someone with experience with a specific culture should be at the forefront of the efforts. At some level, she DID realize it was bizarre, but in 2005, at the age of 26, with no prior experience, she is managing a camp, coordinating the efforts of the other relief agencies, and working with `sheikhs' that are twice her age, in a Muslim country. Even she would say: we can do better.

She mentions only one other book in her account, Jeffrey Sach's The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Lifetime. Apparently it is a good book which I have not read. Although Alexander was not in Burma (Myanmar) for the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, she does mention that Burma itself made significant strides in recovery without the aid agencies. But I would have expected her to also reference Emma Larkin's Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma, which provides a sharp critique of the aid agencies once they became operative.

However, the truly stunning omission was the book written by her fellow New Yorker, Jonathan Katz The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, which chronicled not only the earthquake in Haiti, but as the title states, the disaster left behind. It was the Nepalese troops (yes, the "aid workers") that introduced cholera into Haiti, where it had never existed before, through appalling inadequate field sanitation. The cholera was in the drinking water. Yet on page 357, Alexander states that all the Haitians had to do was wash their hands in order to avoid it! It was such an attitude, and such ignorance that Katz was justifiable critical of, and in this case, coming from someone with almost a decade of experience.

So, to answer my subject rhetorical question, the answer is NO. But compared to almost any other enterprise, the deliverance of emergency aid by aid agencies could be radically improved, in part, for the reasons that Alexander does documents. 4-stars.
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