Samantha Power seems to love big subjects, and writing big books about them. Following her Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Problem From Hell", she has written a highly compelling and important biography of Sergio Viera de Mello, the UN Mission chief killed in 2003 in Iraq.
A career UN civil servant, de Mello may at first glance appear an unlikely subject for a biography. Yet his was an extraordinary career; and even while working for an often derided institution (unjustly so, as the author is keen to argue), he earned the respect of people across the globe, from refugees to heads of state. On a journey that led him through Sudan, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Congo, Kosovo, East Timor to his untimely death in Iraq, he strove to wed his passion for academic philosophy to his practical experiences, always pushing for better responses to ostensibly overwhelming problems. This was a remarkable life that would, and perhaps one day will, make a remarkable film.
The beauty of the book, though, lies not only in its descriptions of what happened. In Power's eminently capable hands, de Mello's life is also mined for the practical wisdom he accumulated through his reflective and relentlessly self-critical approach to his work. Thus one man's biography is used to explore some of the most urgent dilemmas in the world today. Presented in a final chapter with great intellectual coherence, the result is a series of cogent arguments on how to lift the promise of international cooperation from its current state of uncertainty, contention and mistrust.
The tragedy is that at a stage when de Mello's wisdom is most urgently needed, he is no longer alive to impart it. Yet we are fortunate that Samantha Power has stepped in to the breach. This book will no doubt win prizes; read it now to see why.
This book is highly recommended, to anyone with an interest in international affairs. Its a tremendous work of research on Power's part to convey so much detail of de Mello's life and achievements, in some cases of operations / conversations dating from more than two decades past. The style is uber accessible, exactly right for the subject, and indeed reads like a 500+ page New Yorker article, unsurprisingly given Power's journalistic background and that (possibly) the first public outing of some of this material was in an article in that magazine in January 2008 ("The Envoy").
There is a sadness that envelops the book, of course, which is that everyone knows the denouement before picking it up for the first time, making it both a study of leadership and achievement, and also of tragically wasted opportunity. We are left wondering not just whether he would have been Secretary General one day, but what kind of Secretary General would he have made? Would he have carried on trying to avoid making enemies? Where would that have taken him? Would he have made a better one than Annan, who to me ends the book still slightly inaccessible, ephemeral, as if he didn't really make himself or his insights available to Power, or couldn't bear to, even now.
The other source of sadness of course comes from his life being cut short with so many important loose ends unsecured. The absence of goodbyes, the strong sense of it being the wrong woman on the Brazilian air force jet, there being no shoulder being colder than the one of the UN bureaucracy, that only flew his partner Larriera as far as Buenos Aires because thats what the rules allowed. A final poignant image of Larriera and de Mello's mother celebrating the end of Annan's tenure with a bottle of champagne, something a reader feels the de Mello of the previous 500 pages would never have wanted to see in a million years, and proof of the mess that violent and sudden death can trail in its wake.
Its an important study on many levels, not least because humanitarianism has always been about leadership. From Dunant onwards, its a story of exceptional individuals achieving exceptional things in the face of exceptional adversity, even other people's. The world's tragedy is that there aren't enough de Mello's, and they don't come around often enough. For every de Mello or Jan Egeland, there seems to come along a Kenzo Oshima or a John Holmes, well-motivated and ultimately invisible, into whose well-intentioned blandness the world's conscience is allowed to hide.
And if you need a new hero, look no further than Gil Loescher, the sole survivor who was in de Mello's office at the time of the blast, and the "tutorials about resilience" that he talks of having derived from the refugees to which he has devoted his career. May your "second life" be a beautiful, a long and a productive one, good sir.
This book is a masterpiece. Samantha Power brings back to life this titan of humanitarian affairs. It casts a new light on the complexities of humanitarian assistance in a world torn by political conflicts and indifference to human suffering. It offers recognition to one of the most successful international staff members of our times.
The book is very inspiring. But I learned that being an aid worker and being in UN or NGO is not enough to save the world. We need to be politically aware and think what we as aid workers need to choose while working in the field or head offices as a policy maker. The last chapter is so moving, it makes me think why we should try to choose our assignments rather than being chosen for assignments overseas by others.
The is the first book I have read where I have bothered to read the acknowledgements. Samantha Power explaination of the political context of Sergio work is spell binding. I got sucked into the book and felt for this man for each page of the book I read. An amazingly frank account of the politics and life of Sergio Vieira de Mello given that he has died relativly recently.
I read this book to find out about the grey buildings and the "highly paid" UN officials that I live near to in order to find out about their mindset. I had also seen and heard the man at conference shortly before he died. He appears to have been pragmatist when pursuing his tasks, not letting ideology/idealism hamper his effectiveness by making compromises in the short-term for long-term interests. The author shines a light on this attribute in a number of different situations he was involved in. Another aspect of the book that he could at times be a chauvanist in terms of philandering while his wife stayed in the background. He pursued his career giving top priority to it. I saw him at a conference on womens rights shortly before he died and this aspect left me wondering after I d read it. An excellent book showing what makes this particular type of "civil servant" tick and what the organisation demands of its people in terms of committment and loyalty.