Reading Jessica Alexander’s book Chasing Chaos: My decade in and out of Humanitarian aid was not exactly what I was expecting. It had the relevant information about disasters, a bit of cynical humour, some sadness and mind blowing craziness, but the thing that made it different from other books I’ve read with similar topics was her perspective. This wasn’t just a road trip or a short term calling to help, this was her job. For years. She doesn’t consider herself special or heroic, as some might try to label her, and seems to have a lot of disdain for that kind of attitude. She went to places that were ravaged by conflict or humanitarian crisis for a decade and the story that develops isn’t just about the people and places she went to, but how this kind of life changes the people who are there helping and what problems exist in the industry that is humanitarian aid work.
It was interesting to read about her transformation from the wide eyed and excited beginner yearning to get her hands dirty in the field, to the tired and jaded, but honest and wise person who emerges at the end of the book. Being on the ground in so many different places (Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, Sierra Leone and Haiti) and in so many situations (as an intern, running a camp, doing research in the field, and audits of aid organizations) gives her a well seasoned voice about when aid works, when it doesn’t, and for when it doesn’t, why.
Some things she said made a lot of sense. In peoples enthusiasm to help, they often don’t try to find out what people actually need (there was a poignant point of how high heels and jeans were delivered during the Sri Lankan tsunami to a population that wears sandals and saris. Was this well intentioned? Yes. Would it be used? Not really.) as the western world sometimes thinks that “poor” people should be happy to get their cast-offs. There is a lack of understanding of culture, and a lack of respect for the people getting the aid, which dehumanizes them and can cause misunderstandings that can ruin lives. Like when an orphanage goes up in an area, more orphans suddenly appear because the orphans have it better than the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, basically giving parents incentive to abandon their children. Another horrific point was how there was a correlation of AIDS going up when a program designed to give loans to HIV positive women came in, meaning some of these ladies were getting the disease intentionally, just to qualify for aid.
What I didn’t like was how Jessica disparaged the weekend warriors and others who came to crisis areas to help for short stints or a few weeks, and those particularly trying to help through non-professional channels. Although I can understand some disdain over a bunch of tourists who want to take pictures with sad children and update their Facebook statuses with how they were
not changing the world, and were blundering into some crisis areas like they were zoos, that doesn’t mean that people who were not affiliated with the big organizations couldn’t make a difference (see my review of the third wave here to see just that). It is sad that people were trying to find kudos back home from getting up close with the underprivileged, but I still can’t accept (and maybe that’s because I idolize these people a bit) stereotyping every would be do-gooder into a large and completely ineffective group.
I appreciate that experience in the field can give people the insight into the culture, and that well meaning aiders were making some things worse, but if they tried to help, then I say let them. It’s going to these places to see what it’s like that helps bring perspective and awareness to the people trying to help, and their social circles, and it’s these kind of actions that can become big motivators for the donations that keep the “real” aid organizations alive. Just because some people are inefficient or insensitive doesn’t mean that the other 100 that followed couldn’t have done a good job with some direction. These are resources flooding to the already flooded doorstep, the fact that they aren’t being utilized and are instead shunned or ignored by the people doing the “real” work is infuriating to me. That’s one thing that drives me crazy with aid, so many people want to put their stamp on everything, but if all the organizations could just work together and be willing to take some free aid (in the form of these volunteers) themselves more things could get accomplished. I’m off my soapbox now.
Don’t get me wrong, although there is some negativity here, I really liked this story. I liked it’s honesty. I liked how it told some hard truths and showed how aid workers were just normal people trying to do their jobs. I appreciate that Jessica doesn’t want to be martyred for her work, yet, realistically speaking, any job that tries to better the human race, help those who need it or can bring comfort to the suffering, in my mind, is heroic. I’m very liberal with my heroism, but then, maybe I want to live in a world with more heroes. Heroes to me are just people. People who want to change the world, people who help people, people who hold doors, save kittens, smile at you on the street. I’m going to give them all the hero badge (or cookie?) for trying. Jessica, take your darn cookie. Oh, and everyone else, particularly if you are interested in one day doing some aid work, try this book. There might be a cookie in it.