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What Mom said...
It’s not only taking a journey through 10 years of work in the humanitarian aid profession but the ongoing observation of Jessica Alexander growing into a new person that made Chasing Chaos so appealing to me.
Jessica begins her work life in NY with a marketing agency, making good money but not feeling fulfilled or in the right place. Her life is turned around when her mother dies at age 50 from cancer. Jessica quits her job and goes to Central America alone. She observes the inequities and “returned home determined to pursue aid work.” (17) We follow her to Darfur, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and Haiti learning about the skill, hard work, and grittiness that are required to work in uncomfortable and dangerous physical, political, mental, and emotional conditions.
Jessica points out the differences between working with constraints due to flagging international interest in long-term dislocated populations of refugees in Darfur and other African countries and helping with more immediate needs - and the attendant mass influx of sometimes ill-conceived if well-intentioned donations - in a crisis mode when the tsunami struck in Indonesia. She also notes the difficulties for the aid organizations when large amounts of money flow in in response to sudden emergencies: how do the agencies determine where the funds will do the most good, where it most needs to go, work with the local population to get their input, hire more staff to implement the plans. Experience helps, but each new crisis is different from the last, so adaptation occurs in every instance.
Jessica no longer works in the field full time but she continues working with the humanitarian community in NY and is a professor at Columbia, Fordham and New York University while working on her PhD researching the subject of accountability to affected populations in humanitarian action. She wonders: “We will never be able to prove a counterfactual argument—what would people’s lives be like without aid? Would they be better, or worse off?—so in some ways it is a profession based more on belief than empirical evidence. And I stay with it because I believe in the purpose of aid: to alleviate suffering of people when they need help most.”
Me? I'll be uncharacteristically brief.
I admired this memoir for its breezily conversational tone and thought-provoking content, and I will recommend it to my students and friends who want to change the world for the better. The content here is thought-provoking on many levels and might help all of us world citizens better understand the challenges of attempting interventions in cultures not our own.
For me, revisiting many of the most heavily-publicized countries devastated by war and other human-created tragedies during the latter part of the 20th century became a painful yet important reminder of how intractable human tendencies toward violence truly are. I fear that we will ever be imperfectly addressing the needs of those displaced by war.
If you've ever wondered about serving those in need (especially those beyond your own country), this fast-paced and accessible memoir is a must-read.
With gratitude to the publishers and publicists at Broadway Books for offering us this worthwhile memoir for review.
MFB from Mom and Me,
Action Insight from Mom:
When you've contributed clothes or other items to an agency doing overseas relief have you ever wondered about the individuals who might be receiving them? Alexander's observations of an onslaught of donations from well-intentioned by less-than-culturally-cognizant Westerners after the tsunami in Sri Lanka & Indonesia might cause you to ponder: “People who had worn only sandals were being handed 4-inch heels…Shipments contained children’s books written in English, medicine bottles with labels printed in languages nobody in these communities could read…”
Makes one think about our motivations and understanding when we send used clothing, toys, etc. to "needy" people elsewhere in the world...