Letters Left Unsent (book review)


I find it difficult to categorize J.’s latest and first non-fictional work Letters Left Unsent.
I think it is a collection of essays that weave together J’s autobiographical journey through the humanitarian industry with contemporary reflections on aid work, aid workers and being a global professional in a line of work where popular perceptions and field realities often drift apart quite a bit.

As a core, probably even founding member of the aid blogosphere J.’s writings as Tales from the Hood and now on Aid Speak form an essential core of the book which includes many of his well-known comments on getting into and surviving the aid industry.

But Letters Left Unsent is certainly more than a compilation of blog posts and diary-style vignettes. As with his previous fictional takes on humanitarian aid and dating work he manages to tell a story-the story of humanitarian aid in the 21st century: Aid work and workers are compassionate professionals, operate in complex environments and their stories are very often not coherent. Letters Left Unsent supports this important narrative by escaping aid worker memoir conventions of a linear storyline from grad school to first burnout to post-earthquake Haiti.

Quiet anger and space to think for ourselves

In one of the first vignettes, Quite Anger, J. shares some impressions from rural Afghanistan:

We spent maybe 50 minutes in the hospital that day. During that time we heard two new babies come into the world. Twice we heard that distinctive newborn cry, low and soft, the sound of tiny lungs inflating for the first time.
But by the time we left—we were told—one of those two newborn babies had already died.
It is one thing to read about infant mortality. It is quite another to confront it face-to-face, in situ.
As we drove away, I remember feeling a kind of quiet anger. Quiet anger of the sort that makes your blood boil and your heart break simultaneously, accompanied by the helpless realization that there’s nothing you can say, and there’s precious little you can do. Quiet anger on behalf of another person who hasn’t asked you to feel it for them.
It was not mine to feel, but I felt it anyway. I felt quiet anger at the economic and cultural, global, and local systems that would not just make this kind of thing possible, but would actually enable, and even cause it. Quiet anger at an unfair world where a child dies before the age of even one hour.
And then the vignette ends. There is no (re)solution. Nobody comes back the next morning to ‘fix’ things and probably even today newborn children and/or their mothers are dying in the same hospital. The powerful feature of most of the short entries is that they do not release us from thinking for ourselves. Instead, they make us experiencing the complexity and ultimately the quiet discomfort of the world often being a tough, unfair place and you need to get politically and professionally involved beyond ‘good intentions’.

Solid career advice for a more professional aid industry
But similar to his previous writing and blogging endeavors, J. also offers many pieces of solid career advice for newcomers and seasoned members of the global aid industry that make this collection an indispensable resource for teaching and learning and a great candidate for any summer reading list. Chapters like Aid work Suitability Self-test or DO Something are powerful reminders of one of the key themes of J.’s writing: Humanitarian aid and development are undeniable industries, but that also means that they require professionals-well educated, skilled professionals who deserve a professional salary and a professional work-life balance. And most importantly, your personal and professional goals should be driven by an honest assessment of your skills and worldview to engage with development challenges beyond what J. describes in the chapter Caricature:

Gushing, feel-good stories about the high school students who collected clothing and then distributed it all in-person at the orphanage in Nepal, or the nice old couple who sent 37 refurbished bicycles to Zambia keep ingrained in our psyches the incorrect notion that fixing poverty is easy, that the needs of the poor are uncomplicated, and that the key challenge is simply around volume of need.
I would argue that poverty, like institutional racism, is held in place at least in part by our inability to see it for what it is. I’d argue further that our inability to see poverty for what it really is, is itself at least partially due to the fact that we continue to caricature poverty, and even the poor themselves, rather than seeing them as real, whole, people.
‘Even if you’re “doing it wrong” you’re doing something!’
I’m not suggesting that we should publicly take down the nice lady at the neighborhood BBQ who talks about how she went to build a church in Mexico. But at the same time, let’s understand that bad aid which goes unchallenged simply turns into more bad aid. Unchallenged bad aid—even bad aid implemented by super nice, well-meaning people—further entrenches and perpetuates those stereotypes about poverty and the poor and what it takes to address, if not fix, it all. (from Caricature)
Personally, I found this unsent letter particularly relevant for my own line of work: Communicating development in a critical way and repeating core challenges and paradoxes around ‘helping the poor’ are actually more important than ever: In a seemingly globalized world with a seemingly abundance of information it will remain an important task to ‘talk development’ in a nuanced way, challenging old stereotypes as well as the ‘stereotypes 2.0’ that a younger generation of enthusiasts is exposed to. J. often includes rough dates and places in his letters, but the collection is almost a timeless piece that would not have been written much differently before the, say, rise of philanthrocapitalism or social entrepreneurship. Good, successful, fulfilling aid work has a core set of practices that are fairly independent from more technology, better ‘knowledge management’ practices and pieces in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Is reflective writing about development entering a new phase?

In some ways J.’s 20+ years of experience also span the transformation from the traditional model of Western/Northern people and agencies helping Southern beneficiaries and countries. As J.’s writing and career mature I am looking forward to emerging ‘local’ voices and new engagement with the old paradoxes and paradigms of development and how they are changed, repeated and re-invented as global aid dynamics are in the process of change, as I wrote about recently:


One of the best features of the book is its suitability for academic reading lists: Many of the vignettes can easily open up seminar discussions as they capture key challenges of our work and life very well, as summarized in Buyer Beware:

Understand that this work will take as much as you have to give it. It will let you choose to work rather than spend time with your family. It will let you choose to deploy rather than to work on your relationships. It will let you spend your hard-earned pittance on therapy or medical bills not covered by insurance. You will not get a gold watch when you retire, and there will be no memorial for you when you die.
I know, it sounded so much more exciting when you received the acceptance package from an expensive graduate program that you are looking forward to starting in the fall…

But as many students often find it difficult to read longer journal articles or books, Letters Left Unsent gives you the guilt-free feeling of reading a book while engaging with short, blog-style diary entries and reflections that are actual useful…


J.: Letters Left Unsent. ISBN 978-0-9893659-2-5, 165 pages, USD 4.58 (Kindle edition), Evil Genius Publishing.

Full disclosure: I was a beta reader for an earlier version of the book and very happily provided pre-publication endoresements.

Popular posts from this blog

Links & Contents I Liked 235

Combat charities and the mediatization of extreme humanitarian volunteering

Links & Contents I Liked 239

Can we transform the repetition of virtual development debates into something bigger? And do we have to?

Links & Contents I Liked 241