Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review and Author Interview: Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid by Jessica Alexander

Title: Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid
Author: Jessica Alexander
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publish Date: October 15, 2013
Source: I received a copy from the PR; however, this did not affect my review.

Why You're Reading a Book:

  • You're a non-fiction fan.
  • You're a memoir fan.
  • You don't mind tough subjects.
  • You are an armchair traveler.
What's the Story?:

From Goodreads.com: "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."

My Two Cents:

"Chasing Chaos" is the memoir of Jessica Alexander, a woman who has traveled to some of the most difficult places on earth in order to try to make them better through humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid and international development are two things that I find absolutely fascinating. At one time in my life, I even thought I might want to go into international development as a career but life had different plans (that is a story for another day). I was really interested in reading something from the perspective of someone who had seen so much in that world. This book was absolutely engaging and fascinating.

I think a lot of times humanitarian aid can be glamorized a little bit. I fully believe that it is important to give to those who need it but it is not that simple when it comes to countries that really do not have the infrastructure to take in that aid. I appreciated that Ms. Alexander really showed both sides of the coin. You get to see the really good parts of being involved in the aid world (helping people) as well as the really bad and frustrating things (the fact that eventually you get burnt out even if you are doing something really good because of the conditions that you are trying to work in). This is a realistic portrait of what it means to be an aid worker in places like Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda among other places.

In a lot of ways, this book really opened my eyes quite a bit and perhaps by now, you all know how much I love learning something new and different from a book. Alexander does a really good job of engaging the reader and making her feel the things that she was feeling throughout the book.

I fully recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered about this world and what it's like to be on the front lines of an aid movement. This book may also appeal to some of my fellow armchair travelers. Alexander gives a really good picture of what all of the different places that she worked and it is truly fascinating.


Author Interview:

I am incredibly pleased to have Jessica Alexander here to A Bookish Affair today.

  1. How did you decide to get into humanitarian work? What do you think draws so many people to this line of work?
I’ve been told that I’m someone who doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet – so I guess you could say that I enjoy moving around and for that reason this career suited me well. I enjoy diversity and so while the perpetual jolts of this life oftentimes threw my personal life into chaos, and ultimately led me to reconsider the direction that my career was taking and the impact it was having on my relationships and stability, when I was younger, it was an ideal path.
2. What made you decide to write "Chasing Chaos?"
When I tell people about the book, sometimes they ask, “Aren’t you too young to write a memoir?” And it’s true—I’m not at the final stages of my career (or life for that matter!)—and so it may seem curious that I wrote this book now. But when I returned from field postings I found that my friends who were not in this field had some real misconceptions about the work that I did and the people who inhabited this life. I’d get questions ranging from “Does everyone you work with have dreadlocks?” to “How can you afford to volunteer all these years?” Their statements were even more surprising—things like “I’m surprised you made it out of Sierra Leone alive, because, well, have you seen Blood Diamond?” to “You’re such an amazing person. The world needs more people like you.”
It was hard for me to explain to them why they were misinformed, and to distill the experiences I had, the work I did, and the people with whom I worked into pithy anecdotes at parties and social gatherings. So I began to write about these things. In this book, I wanted to demystify some of the ideas that people had about humanitarian aid. Given also how involved Americans were in fundraising for humanitarian disaster responses—especially in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake—I wanted to provide insight into where people’s money went when they donated and how best they could help.
3. What is the most interesting thing you've experienced as humanitarian worker?
How industrious, resourceful and resilient the local communities are. They are always the first responders in any emergency and we often overlook their capacities and ability to respond themselves. Certainly international aid can fill important gaps, but we often forget that they are the first responders and assume people are waiting for a handout when they’re busily getting back to daily life. I’ve learned so much from seeing how they cope.
4. How do you think we can make our humanitarian programs more effective?
The humanitarian landscape is changing: local government actors are more active, capable and vocal in crisis management, affected people are increasingly accessing technologies to voice their needs and provide real-time feedback. They can say what’s working and what isn’t, what kind of assistance has been useful and what hasn’t. Other actors such as the military and private sector are more involved in what was once the exclusive territory of humanitarian organizations . Finally, new models of assistance (such as mobile money and vouchers which put money and choice into the hands of those who have been affected and know what they need) are altering aid delivery. By 2030 many countries will reach middle income status and they may demand that they are in the lead in a humanitarian response. Given these changes, the humanitarian sector needs to reassess its role and where it can add the most value to a humanitarian operation.
5. What advice do you have for those that are interested in pursuing humanitarian work?
Humanitarian aid is a highly professionalized field and just having a good heart and motivation doesn’t qualify you for jobs. There is an unfortunate Catch 22 to getting a job – they all require some field experience, but to get that field experience you need a job! When I started out I took the limited skills I had from working in marketing for a year and applied to PR jobs with humanitarian organizations. I landed an entry level job there which helped me get my foot in the door. After a few years coupled with two masters degrees I was able to shift to more program work.
If you can’t get a job with an international organization, perhaps consider first working for a domestic organization as many of the skills required and challenges you’ll face are the same – managing programs, overseeing grants, logistics issues – and it can help you determine if you like this line of work. And learn a language that is used in these contexts – French and Arabic are particularly good.
6. What do you wish more people knew about humanitarian aid?
I often see my students romanticizing the work that aid professionals do. I wanted to provide a realistic perspective about the day to day reality: that a lot of this work takes place in an office and not out in the field, the loneliness and frustrations that come with living in some of the most troubled places in the world, the way that this line of work can erode your sense of home and belonging. I certainly had no clue when I started out what I was in for and probably would have gotten a lot out of a book like this. Aid work is a serious emotional and physical commitment too. You’ll be a different person when you come out of it; you will see things differently.  
This career has many paths – a life in the field, a life in HQ, a life shuffling between both worlds, a life moving from one disaster to another every few months. Choose the one that best suits your lifestyle, your personal goals, and your interests, and you will be happiest and therefore most effective.
7. Now a fun question, what three books would you take with you to a deserted island?
Anything by Philip Roth, Martin Amis or Mary Karr.  

1 comment:

  1. I think I need to read this book. I have always wanted to do this kind of work, but with a family it seems impractical, so i guess reading about it will have to do!


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