A Better Basra-a development review

As loyal readers of my humble blog know, reading accounts of transnational professionals about their experiences in the aid and reconstruction industry is one of my hobbies-even if this may sound a tad bit geeky ;).
Caroline Jaine's account of her time as a communications expert for the British Foreign Office in Basra, Iraq is a frank, unpretentious and un-cynical tale of how the mother of three survived in the militaristic bubble of Basra in 2006. This smart and inexpensive ebook (electronic publishing is another geeky hobby of mine...) is a great read-especially for those not yet war-, conflict- and development-hardened souls who want to get a better idea of what it feels like next time academic experts talk abstractly about the 'securitisation of aid'.

Here is what Caroline and Askance Publishing are promising the reader in 'A Better Basra. Struggling for Strategy and Sanity in Iraq':

In July 2006 British Diplomat Caroline Jaine volunteered to work in Iraq. As a 36-year-old mother of three, who had rarely been parted from her family, she knew she would face unique challenges. This is the story of Caroline’s struggles as a female civilian in a war zone. It highlights an extraordinary time during the occupation – those 100 days in Basra Palace were perhaps some of the most volatile and uncertain as the coalition fumbled with a plan for a better Basra and the beginnings of an exit strategy – but Caroline’s story is also a touching, personal account of these time and a thoroughly entertaining read.

I caught myself pressing the forward button on my ebook reader a bit too fast at some points during the first twenty or so pages. Caroline's introduction and her reflections on being an expatriate 'female misfit' during her first diplomatic assignments abroad (she did not enjoy the 'stitches and bitches' circles of the female diplomatic community (pp.21-22) read like too familiar a story and indicate that her intended audience is broader than the 'aid industry'. She does not come off as a smart expert, though, and her learning and preparations for the voluntary assignment to the Foreign Office's office inside the British military compound is interesting for a non-expert audience of students or 'members of the public' with a general interest in conflict zones. 
But the main chapters about her experience of living in the compound in Basra for three months are entertaining and critical-but at the same time are a testimonial of the absurdness of doing development, reconstruction or foreign policy work in a war zone. Driven by the political narrative that the war in Iraq was won and the transition to democracy on its way, Caroline tells vivid stories about the futility of her endeavours and the mental cost they have on everybody involved. 'Everybody looked the same' (p.29) does not just refer to outer appearances of soldiers, DFID staff or external consultants, but also to the power of military routines, mindsets and procedures. It shows how civilians have barely a choice other than adapting to the military 'theatre', a term that is officially used and adds an interesting performative twist to the dangerous reality, if they want to stay relatively save. 

Another topic seems to be more obvious, but Caroline's stories are not just about being one of the very few females in the compound or how femininity (humanity?) is lost when the military thinking takes over. Throughout the book she refers to incidents where the camp life puts tension on gender relations (and every other form of relationship for that matter) and it reads a bit like 'Emergency Sex' minus the sex and the really wild parties. 
What is equally depressing and interesting to read are her attempts to work and think strategically about communications and engaging with the Iraqi public via local journalists. Under constant attacks at some point and sleep deprived it becomes impossible to imagine how creative, flexible, forward-thinking, sustainable solutions could work. Inside the foreign policy and military machinery it appears like a task similar to setting up a Silicon Valley in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. 

Caroline resists the temptation to turn her story into a critical analysis of (British) foreign policy in Iraq. She is critical about the implementation of policy, but this does not turn into ranting about the war or the politicians behind it. It is up to the readers to come to their own conclusions whether or not it was 'worth it'. Instead, Caroline shares her personal insights and strategies to cope with the stress: E-Mails to her friends at home in England, Tai Chi in the early morning (which could almost be a post for 'Stuff Expat Aidworkers Like') and seeking 'spiritual clarity' (p.90) for herself, e.g. through artistic outlets such as painting portraits of correspondents in conflict.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading 'A Better Basra' and besides the content I hope that more aidworkers follow Caroline Jaine's example and publish their stories and reflections as inexpensive and globally accessible ebooks. 

Full disclosure: I met Caroline through a common friend in London a few years ago and have followed her artistic endeavours virtually ever since. Other than that, I am still not powerful enough of a blogger that people or publishers offer me bribes ;)!


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