Chasing Chaos: My decade in and out of humanitarian aid (book review)

Reviewing books about aid work and particularly those written by aid workers is one of my ongoing projects where my academic interest in ‘popular representations of development’ merges with aspects of following an emerging genre of literature.

At the same time, I think that writing about the communication aspects around aid worker biographies and accounts from inside ‘the industry’ are important aspects of how ‘development’ emerges in written forms in the 21st century.

Based on my previous book reviews, one key challenge is to give each book its unique space rather than starting comparing right away even if a self-description as

Dressing in my baggy, worn-out khakis and long-sleeved shirt, I didn’t need a mirror to see how awful I looked (p.3)
of a female aid worker is not perhaps the most novel approach to convey the message that you have been exposed to ‘the field’.
To be honest, it took me a few pages to warm to Jessica Alexander’s Chasing Chaos and her writing and I was a bit concerned that her 2000 start in the industry, featuring routines such as

Work(ing) behind a desk staring at budget lines and spreadsheets cataloging the number of jerry can delivered and latrines built (p.9)
would turn into an ‘Emergency Sex’ copy (not that there is anything wrong with this book-it certainly had its time and space and opened many literary doors for aid work(er) publications).

And when her mother passed away and Jessica realized that there was

Something out there far bigger than my own New York existence, and I wanted to be part of it (p.17)
I had the secret hope that this would become the story of her taking up a social work profession in the States (even if the dusty Land Rover on the cover is kind of a give away about the location…Arizona maybe ;) ?!), rather than the introduction to aid work.
But given that this was almost 15 years ago and that I did not want to put on my academic critic glasses right away I read on-which is easy, because the book features engaging prose and is also well edited.

As Jessica starts her assignment in Rwanda (note to said editor: you cannot compare wild animals with human beings, so no ‘giraffe-like features of some of the women and men throughout town’ (p.29) in the future…) she finally manages to find an interesting, positive and humble voice that encouraged me to fully embrace her book.
Her posting includes office routines and finding a balance between the enormity of the post-genocide development challenge and her own role as a fairly small cog in the development machine. And her answer to feeling ‘like a displaced person’ (p.43) who has to sleep alone are not parties, ‘emergency sex’ or other cheap thrills. Jessica emerges as a strong, professional, female aid worker which creates plenty of opportunities for discussions with non-expert readers, students or even seasoned veterans of the industry (should they meet for weekly book clubs and feel the need to discuss ‘work’…).

A stupid boss or borderline racist co-workers help to move the story along, there are always nuggets of (self-)reflection that I find important-and they usually do not come across as self-centered:

Keeping some degree of distance from the short-termers was how we dealt with the transience of this existence. (…) Maintaining personal stability became important in way I’d never imagined (p.59).
The romantic entanglement with a local colleague in Rwanda is followed by the inevitable reverse culture shock story (‘I didn’t reference Nicholas Kristof in every conversation’ (p.85)-and it is actually quite scary to imagine that people did that in New York in 2003…), but the next part on Jessica’s work in Darfur is really what takes the book above the average aid worker biography. It is less the encounters with ‘humanitarian widows’ (p.99) and much more about a carefully crafted account of what life in and with a refugee camp is like-for aid agencies, refugees, ‘elite refugees’ and aid workers like Jessica who are all faced with simply complex and overwhelming situations of always more refugees and always not enough resources to help all of them. These are textbook humanitarian dilemmas and Jessica manages to tell them with dignity:
(The men of the camp committee) desperately wanted to participate in the decisions that were affecting the lives of their community members and families. Being there every day, listening to their concerns, and relaying those concerns back to other aid workers was the best I could do my job (p.163)
With the existence of a parallel economy fueled by international agencies, local aid workers didn’t really have an incentive to discourage its continuation-or, by extension, to solve the problems that kept us here and kept them employed (p.169)
My own stress was starting to show, too. The loneliness of the place was what really had started to strip me of my sanity. (…) No network, no Internet. No network, no phone. I could feel myself slipping, my irritation mounting, my mental strength withering (p.203)
For them (African expat friends), being in Sudan was just a means to an end. There was no ego involved. For Western expats it felt different, like we were here proving something. Our self-worth was wrapped up in this life (p.213).
I think these nuggets provide excellent inroads into the subject of aid work as passion and profession and they are exemplary of Jessica’s strength of adding important nuances to existing and established debates about the telos of aid and humanitarian work.

But we are quickly moving along with Jessica’s work to post-tsunami Indonesia and Sri Lanka, displaying unsuitable donations from the Northern hemisphere and local coping capacities, and Sierra Leone with its ‘preposterous range of people who you not only meet, but who you end up going surfing and spear fishing with on weekends’ (p.286-87) to post-earthquake Haiti. The final chapters of the book reflect Jessica’s professional and personal growth well-although moving from aid work to PhD research is not the most unconventional of career developments.

Her final reflections wrap up her personal phasing out of the industry and broader issues around aid work without moving into a ‘how to fix a broken system’ final rant. Aid is a ‘Band-Aid stuck on larger political problems’ (p.372) and in some ways ‘it is a profession based more on belief than empirical evidence’ (p.373), but nonetheless it is ‘highly self-reflective and self-critical’ (p.374).

But in the end I found her personalized, ‘on the ground’ view the best way to sum up a very good contribution to the aid worker biography genre:

Aid procedures weren’t developed out of lack of compassion; in fact, they specifically took into account how easily compassion could lead us (…) astray. Aid workers aren’t just a bunch of people doing the first nice thing that came into their heads. Sympathy was a shortsighted emotion: it told you to make the pain stop now, and so you went with the quick fixes. Because you wanted your pain to stop, too; you didn’t want to be someone who stood by, seemingly idle, while human beings suffered (p.310).
If you are looking for a last-minute holiday gift for a non-development professional with an interest in ‘our’ industry, Jessica Alexander’s book is a very strong starting point for moral, practical and meta-reflections on what drives those who fill humanitarianism with life, passion and professional work ethics.

Alexander, Jessica: Chasing Chaos. My Decade In And Out Of Humanitarian Aid.
ISBN 978-0-7704-3691-9, 387 pages, USD 15.00,
Broadway Books, New York, NY.

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy from Broadway books in October 2013


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