In May of 2000, when her mother died after a long battle with lymphoma, Jessica Alexander was working for a marketing firm in New York City and making good money. She wasn't sure a career comparing frozen pizzas was all she wanted, but she couldn't think of anything else. The death of her mother was her wake-up call. She suddenly realized she wanted a job, and a life, with more meaning.
Alexander tells a compelling story in Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid. She opens the door to life as an international aid worker, detailing the gritty realities and bizarre juxtapositions of the work.
The opening chapter shows just how burned out a humanitarian aid worker can get when her own living conditions deteriorate to a level closer to those of the refugees she works with. Oppressive heat, no running water, lack of sleep, and "the unrelenting feeling of futility within the enormity of this war" would tarnish even the shiniest of idealistic hearts. Alexander is pushed to the point of wanting to throw rocks back at the children in the camp in Darfur, who tease her every day.
Aid workers tend to follow the work, applying for positions at the site of the latest crisis. Attraction to crises, a need to tackle disasters as soon as they happen, can be addictive to some involved in aid work. Reluctant to take needed time off, they express feelings of guilt for going off to enjoy themselves while people in the camps continue to suffer. Romantic relationships are frequent casualties of the lifestyle, and burn-out is common.
Rest and Relaxation time is built into the contracts of all the agencies, but according to Alexander, workers renamed it "'Rest and Reconsideration,' because some people never returned after a reminder of what they were missing."
Most of us realize that life in a refugee camp is no weekend at the Hilton. Thinking back to news coverage of conditions for Hurricane Katrina, those refugees should be a vivid reminder that conditions can deteriorate rapidly, and then no one is safe.
But there is an upside to the picture. After the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the people of Myanmar demonstrated how well they could take care of their own and begin the process of rebuilding. They had to close their borders to the foreign aid workers to do so, but they managed nicely on their own. When local governments have their citizens' welfare truly at heart, they are able to rally together when disaster strikes.
Wars and civil unrest are different, and outside aid may be all the displaced civilians can expect. But changes may be coming in how that aid is delivered. Cash may be the new face of humanitarian aid. "The use of cash in emergencies is one of the clearest examples of transferring decision-making to beneficiaries and allowing them to decide for themselves what they need most."
There's a caveat to the cash solution. "Give the money to women. Women will spend it on the family." And really, what more need be said?
Jessica Alexander teaches at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, and the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University while pursuing her Ph.D. at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She focuses on accountability in humanitarian action. Visit her FaceBook page.
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