A common refrain among humanitarian aid workers, once you get to know them and they let their guard down, is "We can't save everyone." Jessica Alexander starts out more hopeful than that, only to find herself getting sucked into the same cynical trap as so many others in the field. Her journey is chronicled in "Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid," an enlightening but uneven memoir.
Alexander writes in an easy, conversational manner. The result is the type of book that can be read in an afternoon. In some ways, this is good -- it's more likely to keep the interest of people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the world of humanitarian aid, and there is a great deal in it that will be eye-opening to such readers. In that sense, Alexander has made a helpful contribution. But for those who know about the aid sector, the book isn't particularly meaty, nor does it reveal much that isn't known.
"Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid"By Jessica Alexander
Broadway Books, 400 pages, $15
Alexander is quite good at pointing out the many challenges faced by aid workers, such as the danger that their efforts can become a permanent fixture. (The idea that many people in a poor country pretend to be refugees because the camps have better infrastructure and offer more resources than their existing village is deeply disturbing.)
However, Alexander doesn't really propose much in the way of solutions to the many problems in the world of aid, chief among them an unfortunate dearth of accountability and ridiculous levels of redundancy. She even avoids mentioning the names of some of the organizations she worked for, which undercuts her stated concerns about accountability.
In all fairness, "Chasing Chaos" isn't being billed as an academic treatise about the world of aid, but rather as a memoir. So we learn a great deal about Alexander's personal life, especially how much the death of her mother affected her as she traveled to various hot spots, from post-massacre Rwanda to post-earthquake Haiti. (The 2004 South Asian tsunami also makes an appearance, as does the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.) Alexander performed various tasks, from effectively running a refugee camp to acting as an outside assessor of aid programs. Her tale about trying to save an infant girl with hydrocephalus only to run into uncaring bureaucracy is particularly affecting.
But Alexander's "decade in and out of humanitarian aid" has some significant outs. If anything, her experience points to one of the major weak points of aid work, which is that these servants of humanity don't stick around very long in one place. They get burned out, jump at better offers or are simply more interested in getting their next adrenaline rush at the newest world disaster. To her credit, Alexander acknowledges some of these weaknesses in the sector, but one wonders whether 10 years "in and out" of humanitarian work was really enough to write about.
It was nice to see Alexander discuss some of the personal shenanigans among aid workers -- she didn't gloss over the sexual flings, the adultery and the partying that's part of that lifestyle. Yet, she could also be downright derisive. Her brief mentions of "humanitarian widows" -- middle-aged women who were divorced or unmarried, without kids, who'd given their best years to the world of aid -- came across as pure snobbery. Another troubling aspect of the book is that she didn't seem to do enough research on some fairly sensitive aspects. For instance, her description of Islamic law, or Sharia, as making it illegal for a woman to have sex outside of marriage even in the case of rape appears to give credence to one widely disputed interpretation of the rules of Islam.
Overall, "Chasing Chaos" is a solid contribution to what is hopefully a growing genre of writing about a sector that deserves more attention and oversight, not least because it is accessible, easy reading for people not engaged with the subject. Still, it could have been stronger with more research and more years of experience to write about. According to her publisher, Alexander is now pursuing a Ph.D., focusing her research on accountability in humanitarian action, so perhaps we will see more substantive work from her in the future.