Jessica Alexander opens her memoir with her breaking point.
The stress of aid work and the loss of idealism wore her down. She realized it when she reacted to being pelted by pebbles, thrown by two boys in Darfur, by grabbing rocks to throw back.
The rocks did not leave Alexander’s hands. She thought better of it quickly. She knew she was at her mental tipping point.
“I tossed the rocks aside, my hands stained brown from the scooped earth,” she writes. “I need to get the hell out of here.”
Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid covers the trajectory of an idealistic young girl who started aid work in Rwanda to a hardened aid veteran responding to the earthquake in Haiti. The honest telling of the life of an aid worker is a compelling read, even for aid worker set.
In Rwanda, she proudly fought off cynicism and even secured housing with a Rwandan family. The bright-eyed Alexander’s outlook changed quickly with her next posting in Darfur. There, she struggled to help manage the response to an ongoing conflict. Little victories were worn down by the persistence of the problems faced by Sudanese that she could not help.
She quickly learns that her belief that she could make a real difference in the lives of people in dire need may not be true.
Aid workers will find many stories that they know well. They will likely not find the book as informative as people who know little to nothing about aid work. Alexander’s book one that aid workers should gift their parents, not the other way around.
It will also connect with students and new aid workers. Alexander, only in her early-thirties, is feels more like a peer as opposed to the grizzled veterans talking about working in the 80’s.
The use of brutally, some times uncomfortably, honest stories makes Alexander easily to connect to as a reader. Her struggles in her personal and professional life are palpable from page to page.
Doing so opens readers to the realities of aid work. She describes her discomfort with being told that she is a modern day Mother Teresa. Friends and family heap praise upon her when she returns back from the latest conflict.
The strength of the whole book is that it shows aid workers are nothing like what people at home imagine. Aid workers do very important work in some of the hardest places in the world, but they are also people. They party, cheat on spouses and have petty spats between organizations.
Aid workers are people too. It is obvious, but not often understood by outsiders.
Alexander peels back the varnish of the humanitarian industry without being bitter. She shows the problems that make aid work harder, but manages to stay away from direct criticisms. When surveying the relief response to the 2006 tsunami, Alexander sees how people displaced by the flooding get better treatment than those in a nearby camp who were displaced by conflict.
The better conditions afforded to some and not others, due only because of strict spending rules, bring to light some of the contradictions and inefficiencies in the humanitarian sector. Despite that, Alexander does not damn all of the work. Her experiences do not leave her bitter and declaring that all aid has failed.
This is what makes the book strong and important. Aid work is difficult and fraught with immense challenges. Some times aid workers have control over decisions, other times there is no choice. A lack of funds for Darfur means that people in extreme need are not always helped.
Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the book’s publisher.