Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aidby Jessica Alexander Published 15 10 2013
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An eye-opening and intimate memoir about life as an international humanitarian aid worker in the field in Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Haiti.
Jessica Alexander arrived in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide as an idealist intern, excited to be a part of the international humanitarian aid community. But the world that she encountered in the field was dramatically different than anything she could have imagined. In this honest and irreverent memoir, she introduces readers to the reality of the life of an aid worker. We watch as she helps to resettle refugees in Rwanda, manages a 24,000-person camp in Darfur, and helps a former child soldier in Sierra Leone get rid of a tattoo that was carved into his skin by a rebel group. But we also see the alcoholic parties and fleeting romances, the burnouts and cyncism, the plans and priorities that constantly shift and change. Tracing her personal journey from idealistic and naïve newcomer to hardened cynic to hopeful but critical realist, Alexander transports readers to some of the most troubled locations and shows us not only the impossible challenges, but also the moments of hope and recovery.
"Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid" Reviews
I really enjoyed this book. I’ve been in the aid business for a while, and have had many of the same experiences and felt many of the same emotions that Alexander describes here. This isn’t some self-absorbed aid worker bragging about exploits or overblowing accomplishments. This is real and her observations are spot-on. Alexander tells the reader about the frustrations, the stresses, the personal and professional challenges and the deep satisfaction and sense of purpose that working with people struggling through incredibly difficult situations often brings. I constantly found myself tracing over my own career path, what got me into humanitarian aid and what has kept me here. The only difference is that Alexander has had the courage to write about it. She does so in very accessible, intimate way that makes you feel as if you’re traveling along with her while she tells you her story. You won't want the trip to end. Highly recommended, whether you are outside the aid business or deep in it.
It’s 2005 in Darfur, western Sudan. Jessica Alexander, a young American aid worker, is woken at 5.30am by the call to prayer. The night before she put a wet towel on her forehead and soaked her pajamas so that they would keep her cool. Now she gets out of bed to face the heat again and go to one of the camps for the internally displaced. Brought to Darfur to do something else, Alexander has suddenly found herself needed to manage Al Salam, a camp of about 20,000 people. She is just 27. She now spends her days trying to ensure that new arrivals are registered and that the kids don’t drown in the sewage pits. (Not that those kids are always appealing. The African Union peacekeepers have corrupted them: “It wasn’t uncommon for them to yell ‘suck my cock’ or ‘big tits’ when white women passed,” she reports.)
Was Alexander doing any good? If not, why not, and what should we do about it? In this thoughtful book, Alexander tries to answer these questions, and I think she sort of succeeds.
Alexander hadn’t originally planned to be an aid worker. On graduation she joined a New York ad agency, thrilled with her new briefcase, a gift from her mother, and the sound of her high heels clacking as she crosses the floor of the hall. Disillusion sets in as she finds herself working on a frozen pizza account. “When I wasn’t stuffing my face with our own soggy, salty brand or comparing the fat content ...to that of our competitors, I was watching their ads,” she says. Then her mother dies. “If I could die at age fifty, I wanted a more meaningful profession than the one provided by Hot Pockets and Sunny Delight.” Alexander decides she’d like to work in aid and development. She joins the New York office of an NGO, but quickly becomes frustrated that she has never been to any of the places her colleagues are talking about. She decides to do a Masters in development, and winds up doing a summer internship with the UN in Rwanda.
It is at that point that this book takes off. Alexander finds herself transcribing people’s interviews for refugee status. She finds out that these take a long time to process, being approved in Kigali and Nairobi and going eventually to Geneva. She is also less than impressed with her fellow-expats. “Most expats lived ...in spacious houses situated behind high walls, some with barbed wire at the top ...At dinner parties like these we drank alcohol from Italy and ate cheese from France. The expats sat around, complaining that their guard was caught sleeping again....” From my own experience, this needs a pinch of salt. Not all expats in aid live like that, especially if they work for NGOs. Still, some do. And as Alexander’s career progresses, she finds the aid worker’s expat way of life bizarre. “It wasn’t out of the ordinary when in any humanitarian setting to get an e-mail with the subject line “War Children Party— Thursday Night— Festive Attire Required!” or “Center for Survivors of Torture— Fancy Dress Night Friday.”
Alexander went on to do research in Sierra Leone (she is more positive about this) and eventually to help evaluate the responses to the 2004 tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In Colombo, she hears post-tsunami that there is actually too much money, chasing too few projects; NGOs building child centres, for example, and then competing for the children. There are also economic distortions from the influx of aid, and she meets a teacher and a judge who work for local NGOs because there’s more money in it. Meanwhile in Darfur there is too little money, and northern Uganda and Congo get no attention. In Haiti, where more than 220,000 people have been killed and approximately 180,000 homes wrecked, she finds that cars bound for aid agencies are held up in customs because (it is said) officials are getting kickbacks from car rental companies.
Working at New York HQ is no better, as she must confront the language of bureaucratic obfuscation. “Complementarity of processes, sectoral coverage, evaluability of impact, operationalization of the concept— eventually enough of these invented phrases were dropped in documents or e-mails that people stopped wondering if they held actual meaning. “Modalities are in place” was the response you got almost every time you asked how a project was progressing.” As an editor in one of the big aid organizations, I have to weed this noxious self-serving crap out of reports (I have banned the word modality). So I can confirm that Alexander has a point.
It sounds from the above as if this book telling us that all aid is a waste. In fact, Alexander is more nuanced that that. She points out that while aid may be an unregulated industry, it is a self-critical one, and it is considering its failures and increasing its transparency. She is right about this; one wishes the banks could do the same. She finishes by talking about innovations like cash transfers and mobile technology – again, this is true; UNICEF, for instance, is putting a lot of effort into innovation. Alexander also puts the aid “biz” in perspective. The sums spent are large ($ 17.9 billion on humanitarian crises worldwide in 2012) but are dwarfed by the $ 114 billion for Katrina relief, the $ 50 billion for Storm Sandy, and the $ 13.7 billion spent on the 2012 London Olympics. Neither does Alexander ever say that humanitarian aid is a waste of time. What she wants readers to understand is that aid cannot fix the world. Good government is needed too.
I did have reservations about this book. It’s a bit longer than it needs to be, and occasionally repetitive. At times Alexander is too negative about the people who work in aid. In fact some of them are profoundly committed and do lose their lives, as seven – four from UNICEF – did in a bomb explosion in Somalia in 2015. I wondered, too, if everyone in this book would really have wanted to be. Some deserve Alexander’s scrutiny, but perhaps not all. In particular, staying with a local family in Kigali, she records there was often someone’s turd floating in the toilet bowl; did she need to tell us that? I also found Alexander a little privileged at times. When she first decides she wants to do aid work, she is told to go into the Peace Corps to get some ‘field cred’. But: “I wasn’t exactly prepared to commit to living in a remote village in Burkina Faso or Guatemala for a whole two years. Not at this point, anyway.” I started as a volunteer and served for nearly five years. I also wondered whether she realised how lucky she was to get her student internship in Rwanda.
Still, she made good use of it, and has clearly not been afraid of hardship. Few people would live and work somewhere like Darfur by choice. Also, while Chasing Chaos has no literary pretensions, it’s well-written. The beginning was immediately evocative for me, as I began my own international career in Sudan, albeit many years before. I could feel the extreme heat and hear the scraping of the zinc doors, and taste the very sweet tea and imagine the bleached-white sky at midday.
And in general, I did like this book. Alexander is clear about the frustrations, and clear about their causes. She appears to be someone with values and common sense. She also accepts that while her business should not exist, it also cannot not exist, at least for now; and she is responsible and practical. Chasing Chaos is an honest and readable book about life at the sharp end of humanitarian aid. Despite some reservations, I strongly recommend it.
When we think of international aid workers at all, we tend to think of them in one of two ways (mostly depending on our political leanings): selfless saints or intrusive busybodies. Strangely enough, Jessica Alexander, the author of this memoir, agrees with both views after a fashion.
Chasing Chaos is Alexander's story, a recounting of her baptism-of-fire in crisis-area fieldwork for various NGOs. Her mother's death from cancer spurs her into doing something to "make a difference," which sends her to various of the world's hellholes over the following ten years. There she faces the exhilaration of handling nonstop emergencies, the bewilderment and displacement that come from being thrown headlong into alien environments, the triumph of small victories, the terror of being faced with one's own shortcomings, the seemingly endless grind of working too much to get too little done, primitive living conditions, bureaucracy, loneliness, crumbling relationships and the expat's curse of feeling as if she doesn't belong anywhere.
Alexander is a lively, engaging guide through all this. She's well aware (often too much so) of her early inexperience and her skills deficits, yet plunges in anyway with a moxie that can be infectious. She draws clear portraits of the many people who cross her path: fellow expats, coworker "nationals" (the people who call the hellhole "home"), refugees, visiting officials, the occasional hookup. Her descriptions of life in NGO compounds, refugee camps, guesthouses and no-star "hotels" are atmospheric and easy to visualize. She teaches the reader a goodly amount about how the international aid game is played without making it seem like homework. Despite the occasional sturm und drang, this is a very fast read; I polished off the almost 400 pages in a single afternoon.
My quibbles are few. The chapters concerning her brief intervals in the U.S. between assignments aren't nearly as interesting (to us or, evidently, to her) as those set in the field, though I suppose they add roughage to a narrative that sometimes risks floating away on its own airiness. While it's good that she explicitly acknowledges that at bottom, she's a privileged white New York City girl parachuting into other people's messes, she can belabor the point.
This book reminds me of nothing so much as Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy , another tell-all memoir written by a young woman who, in a burst of idealism, joins another globe-spanning organization to do some good and is undone by the messiness of the world and the dysfunction of the agency. It's more than a little ironic that the respective authors' parent agencies -- the UN and NGOs on one hand, the CIA on the other -- could switch books and the outcomes (and narratives) would be much the same.
Chasing Chaos is for anyone who reads a newspaper and wonders what really goes on when Doctors Without Borders or Save The Children lands in the middle of a disaster or war zone to try to save the day. Like Alexander, you may come out admiring the sheer grit of the individuals in the field while shaking your head at the overwhelming scale and general hopelessness of the work they undertake. You'll probably enjoy your few hours in the author's company and be glad someone like her is around to do these things -- someone who isn't you.
Awesome book about the benefits and downfalls of Humanitarian Aid told in a very engaging way.
This book is fascinating and impossible to put down, as well as an insightful look behind the scenes of the past decade's most important humanitarian aid efforts. Jessica Alexander's story is surprisingly moving and captivating. If you liked Emergency Sex, you will love this book. Highly recommend.
Jessica Alexander doesn't want to be told how amazing the work she did and does as a humanitarian aid worker is and how much of a VIP she is. She makes that clear in Chasing Chaos that she sees herself as a very small fish in a very large pond, even after she rises to senior levels in the world of humanitarian aid.
That's what makes this book, and Alexander's story, all the more compelling.
There isn't any flowery language to hide the fact that the entire story is necessary because something has gone very wrong somewhere in the world (Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Haiti, etc.). Things hardly ever go how we'd most like them to. But that's life.
We always say that donating our $10 straight from our smartphones to Red Cross when there's a disaster is the best we can do, and maybe it is. There's nothing wrong with donating $10 to the charity of our choice. Most times that charity will know just what to do with it.
We are little fish in a big pond. That's probably not ever going to change, for most of us, but it doesn't mean we can't do whatever we possibly can to do something that feels right.
That's what I learned from this book.
I received my uncorrected, early review copy of Chasing Chaos through the Google FirstReads giveaway program. I'm incredibly happy I had the chance to read this book and I plan to tell everyone willing to listen that they should read it.