From Hollywood to Holy Wars (book review)

I want to kick off the new blogging year with a positive post and reading Cherie Hart’s biography From Hollywood to Holy Wars-Hounding Celebs, Dodging Bullets, Raising a Family Abroad over the holidays left me exactly with those good vibes.

As you have probably figured out by now, primarily because I keep mentioning it at the beginning of most of my book reviews, reading autobiographies written by aid workers is part of my research on how development is communicated through energing literary genres, including (non-)fiction works.

Cherie Hart’s reflections on her UNDP communications career from about the mid 1980s to about the early 2010s are a breeze of fresh air to my reading list that is dominated by retired male diplomats or UN staff who are usually quite serious about their serious UN business.
I really enjoyed getting to know Hart better as a journalist, communicator, UN bureaucrat, woman, wife, mother and expat aid worker as it is usually quite difficult to bring out these different aspects in memoirs. Too often they are reduced to seemingly important professional features of crises starting and ending, relationships failing and becoming more powerful within the global development structures.
It also helps that Hart worked in journalism prior to her UN career and honed her storytelling skills.

From the National Enquirer to UNDP
The first part of the book is dedicated to her post-college career with the National Enquirer and I am glad that I can focus my review on the second part post-journalism. It is probably fair to say that American tabloid journalism has not gotten better since the 1980s and after a few years in the business Hart realizes the need for a career change.

It didn’t take long for me to see grown-ups (mostly men) abuse their power and do remarkably offensive things (p.120).
Hart’s first encounter with sexual harassment right at the beginning of her tenure with UNDP differs from the usual narrative of how new staff with bright ideas and plenty of motivation to change the world experience the ‘good old days’ of the UN transitioning from an international idea into a global organizational apparatus.
I wrote positive, happy news for our inhouse propaganda machine that churned out glossy magazines every month (p.128).
Perhaps this is an already seasoned tabloid journalist with hindsight writing and yet again this is an important reminder not to be too romantic about the UN system and how it communicated development.

And yet Cherie Hart also points out the ambiguity of the transition to a digital world of ‘streamlined’ communication in the context of her field visits:

Those early UNDP overseas assignments didn’t take place in meeting rooms, PowerPoint hadn’t yet poisoned our thinking or stymied the way we worked. I could see, touch and take pictures of people and our projects. The words “upstream policy dialogue” – UNglish for getting people together for international gabfests to hash out policies – hadn’t become the norm (p.147).
Inside a gendered UN system
From an analytical perspective it is quite interesting how Hart’s narrative often deviates from the traditional ‘how I circumvented UN red tape and got food delivered to civilians in Cambodia’ approach dominant in other memoirs. That is perhaps because she worked in communications rather than programming, but I think it hints at important broader issues of female staff see themselves and their work within large organizations.

I certainly saw UNDP families split up over ambition. Women had few options if they wanted to climb the career ladder. Only a handful of women ran field offices, and rarely, of ever, were those women married or had a family in tow (p.180).
These observations may not be surprising for those who have been researching international development over the years, but they are surprisingly absent from many autobiographies.

Hart’s first long-term posting aboard in Bangkok allows for interesting insights into one of the more convenient expat bubbles the UN has had to offer at a time when Thailand was already a global hub for the UN and before it became a victim of contemporary overtourism.

What a life. While I wrote stories and editorials about poverty eradication and growing inequality in Asia and helped launch handwringing reports about social and economic gaps between men and women, rich and poor, urban and rural, we played tennis at the British Club and had drinks at embassy parties (p.187).
I enjoyed throughout her book how Hart manages to engage with many different levels of her work, including insecurities and dealing with ‘imposter syndrome’ or broader managerial issues of men ‘failing upwards’ (p.247)
I was running on adrenaline and fear, not because of the war (in Afghanistan) but because my own insecurities that continued to haunt me. I wanted so much to get (UNDP Director) Malloch Brown all over the media and to prove that I could pull in interviews with journalism’s heavy hitters. I was so nervous in the lead-up to their arrival that I’d retch at night (p.207).
Is the digital UN system talking too much to itself?
When Cherie Hart finally contemplates leaving her UN career I was a bit surprised by her interpretation of the digital ‘revolution’ and what it means for communicating development:
For me, the innovation lexicon stifled any kind of free thinking (…). So many meetings, conferences, reports and reporting mechanisms, either demanded by donors or internally generated to justify our existence. Too much of the communications work now involved promoting ourselves to ourselves through self-congratulatory Tweets, Facebook posts and web stories (p.266).
Perhaps UNDP or similar large aid organizations will be (or are already?) the printed newspapers and legacy media brands Hart encountered at her Enquirer work almost 40 years ago?

In the end, From Hollywood to Holy Wars (despite the slightly cheesy title…) delivers a well-balanced memoir in which Cherie Hart finds a really nice balance between critical reflection on her UN work without descending into snark and sharing an aid worker life with the right dose of work-life balance. Hopefully her easy-going book will inspire more women to write about their experiences ‘in development’ and add more nuances to more traditional accounts of how the aid industry really worked and the challenges on personal relationships and families while ‘saving the world’.

Hart, Cherie: From Hollywood to Holy Wars-Hounding Celebs, Dodging Bullets, Raising a Family Abroad. ISBN 978-2-8496-6028-7, 300pp, 19.99 USD (pb), Jalan Publications, 2018.


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