Tales of Aid Workers
This year I was ready to embrace the risk of reading again, minus the heartache. So I avoided books about genocide survivors and instead reached for books about aid workers dealing with genocide survivors.
Chasing Chaos byJessica Alexander is the first book I have read in a long long time that captivated me without destroying me. A large part of the fascination is highly narcissistic. It was a memoir of a woman who entered the aid industry in her mid 20’s shortly after a bereavement, in search of a meaningful life and spent a decade deployed in one disaster duty station after the other. In short, it was the experience of a woman whose life trajectory resonates. I need to caveat this of course by distinguishing the nature of work she was engaged in (proper frontline humanitarian aid in proper frontline disaster locations such as Haiti, Darfur, South Sudan) and what I did (low-key refugee protection in metropolitan capitals of Asia and Europe/Middle East depending on what you consider Turkey). But underneath these differences, I connected with some of her observations.
Changing as she chases chaos
Her narrative evoked a sense of how she starts shifting inside, imperceptibly initially and then irrevocably eventually, as she navigates through the various contradictions of the world. As time passes, a gap grew between her old world and her new world. She described of noticing elitist ignorance in her old world, such as how some of her New York friends approached the idea of ‘charity for Africa’ or their biases about men from this continent. About the specific ways in which international colleagues lived, the fishbowl world of working with the same people in different duty stations, bonding quickly through the absurdity of their working conditions. The embers of burnout creeping in as she forced herself to get through another day, doubting her value to this incessant influx of tragedy. I understood some of the less flattering encounters with the hypocrisy described, such as when international colleagues speak disrespectfully about the local population, or when a UN representative tries to avoid any contact with refugee camps. And I had heard too about the very real competition and politicking between different aid agencies that are so pervasive in this world.
Chasing Chaos is a personal depiction of aid work in hardship duty stations and the lives of these half idealistic, half disappointed individuals, and I would recommend it for anyone interested to know more about this world.
Humanitarianism: A pointless exercise or the answer to world peace?
There are many other musings out there about aid work, either by those aggrandising it or by those pouring scorn all over it. Some scoff that its agenda is self-righteous, its mechanisms hypocritical and there are blogs dedicated to the inherently dysfunctional souls that work within this field. I would agree that it is a world unto itself – an imperfect enterprise, frustrating, underfunded and careless. There is a lack of transparency in many aspects of its function and operations from recruitment to organisational spending. Ultimately, it is a band-aid phenomenon, not a root cause resolution. Humanitarian protection does not resolve global problems – it just tries to refrain the human haemorrhage from getting out of control.
Yet despite all that, it is impossible to imagine a world without them. Professional humanitarianism is a collective movement that was borne as a response to speak to the human suffering that followed devastating armed conflicts and persecution. Right from the get go, it accepted the reality that the human condition was predisposed to self destruct, and it confined its mandate to that of treating not curing. With this mandate, multiple organisations have been keeping millions of survivors sheltered, fed, educated and restarted in life. Rejecting the value of the different NGOs, UN bodies, esteemed institutions such as Medicins Sans Frontiers, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Relief Network, is to reject civilisation’s valiant attempt at reaching for our higher self. No matter how fragile and faulty, it is a safety net to know that when another disaster strikes, there are non-profit groups waiting in the wings, existing solely so that it can set up tents and distribute basic amenities for those that are finding refuge. Does it have room to improve? Plenty. Is it a self-reflective industry which seeks to learn from its past follies? It’s trying.
Humanitarians: Defective do–gooders or agents of change?
For me, personally, in my limited exposure within the lens of one UN organisation throughout various urban duty stations, it is an industry where I have seen with my own eyes the power of sacrificial love, the valour of war survivors and the grit of colleagues whose main obsession is to dignify those lives broken by loss. Are there completely unhinged jerks who gravitate towards this field to nurse some unknown wound? Of course. Are there profoundly inspirational figures who lead this movement with their empathy and generosity? Absolutely. In the end, just as Chasing Chaos reinforces, there is nothing neither malevolent nor saintly about the humanitarian business. It is comprised of the best and worst of people, as with any other industry in the world be it doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers, all driven to their respective careers for right or wrong reasons whatever that is. We are all here together, trying to find our path, to make a living and to live with some meaning. For some, that means educating the youth by teaching in high school. For others that means packing their bags to get to the next testimony of tragedy.