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Do-gooders, really?

Kaushik Barua | Updated on April 17, 2014 Published on February 07, 2014

Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid Author: Jessica Alexander Category: Non-fiction Publisher: Broadway Books Price: ₹975 (Flipkart)

Chasing Chaos is a gripping ethnography of that strange, and increasingly prominent and powerful tribe — the international aid junkie

When Jessica Alexander drives into a refugee camp in Rwanda, her humanitarian aid worker colleague, surrounded by newly arrived refugees from Congo, asks her: “I wonder how the mothers keep their kids apart? Don’t they all look the same to you?” Alexander doesn’t respond to the question, coloured as it is by off-hand racism: don’t all black people look the same? Later, during her work with the community, she is often addressed as ‘Mel’. Melanie is the Canadian volunteer who works for another organisation, six inches shorter and with cropped blonde hair as opposed to the author’s long and dark hair.

This seemed like an uncannily apt metaphor for the central question raised by Alexander’s intimate and self-aware memoir of her years spent chasing humanitarian crises across the globe. From a statement on racism, the narrative switches to examine how well the two communities — those affected by crises, usually in Asia or Africa and those who responded on behalf of international agencies and NGOs, usually well heeled Europeans and North Americans — understand or even recognise each other.

Chasing Chaos is not an account of the crises per se; details of the causes and complexities are glossed over. But it is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of the politics underpinning the massive displacement witnessed in Rwanda or Darfur. Nor is it an in-depth assessment of the response mounted by the international community to natural disasters such as the tsunami (Alexander also covers the period she spent as an evaluator in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, covering the rehabilitation and resettlement efforts). It works best as ethnography of a strange, and increasingly prominent and powerful tribe: the international aid workers, covering their motivations and contradictions. When she accepts an assignment in Darfur, despite resistance from her concerned father, she admits with disarming honesty, “If I wanted to keep doing aid work, I had to go to a place like Darfur. Hardship duty stations like Darfur… were where you moved up in the ranks and built your resume.”

In Darfur, Alexander is flown into the command of a committee representing the 24,000 residents of the El Fasher settlement. She is assisted by Ishaq, her ‘local’ assistant and translator. She soon realises that it is ludicrous to think she is the ‘boss’: aid workers like her are entirely dependent on Ishaq and others like him for local knowledge, to navigate tenuous local politics and to understand which relief measures were feasible. But when she insists that Ishaq lead one of the meetings, he refuses: “believe me, they’ll listen more if you are there.” Therein lies the irony of international assistance. The objective of such assistance is to help communities get back on their feet. But when the money comes in tandem with large armies of international professionals, decisions are taken by those who control the purse strings, but not by those whose lives are most entwined in the consequences. And as aid agencies compete for greater resources from increasingly tight-fisted Western governments, every crisis is an opportunity for agencies to raise their profiles and budgets up one notch or many.

Alexander is clearly aware of these contradictions. The role of the aid worker (including her own) and her effectiveness in short assignments is interrogated with candour. But she does not present, or even seriously contemplate, any alternatives. There is enough critique of her colleagues and the agencies they represent, and most of it is well-formulated (On occasions, she is a tad too uncharitable, referring to some of her older female colleagues as “humanitarian widows”, women who have dedicated their lives to aid work, shuttling across countries and failing to form any sustainable relationships. The most prominent breakdown features another woman colleague who runs over the water jerry cans of refugees who don’t get out of the way of her jeep after one warning). What is missing from her narrative spanning across Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Indonesia is a clear view of local alternatives, ownership of development and humanitarian initiatives by Asian or African countries and professionals. This could be because of the international institutional framework she operated within.

But again, Chasing Chaos is not, and is probably not meant to be, a defining assessment of international humanitarian interventions over the last decade. It is a memoir of her bewildering experiences — professional successes and frustrations, personal relationships that crumble over long-distance Skype calls, social settings across continents and seemingly from different universes, none of which she fits into with any ease after a few peripatetic years in the sector — and it is a story she has recounted with great wit, warmth and self-awareness.

Thankfully, Alexander’s story does not end with a cute coming-of-age revelation (she realises only that to sustain her personal relationships, she has to re-settle in the US, but she does not end with any profound insights on her place in the world). There are no easy resolutions to her doubts, as there are none to the development and humanitarian crises that surround us.

Kaushik Barua works in the development sector and is the author of Windhorse

Published on February 07, 2014
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