Aid Worker: Hard To Put Experience Into Words

Nov 13, 2013
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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, you've probably heard about the so-called genius grants - the MacArthur Fellowships that reward creative people in many fields. Now we want to tell you about a very lucrative new prize for young people, teenagers, who've shown promise in solving important problems and promoting peace. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we were just talking about how the Philippines is trying to cope with last week's massive typhoon. Now you've been hearing about the massive aid effort underway. And you might be wondering, along with the military, just who are those people who rush into the scene at times like this to help feed and shelter thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people who are affected by disasters or conflicts? Well, for 10 years, Jessica Alexander was one of those people. A decade ago, she arrived in Rwanda as an intern with a U.N. program for refugees. Since then, she's worked in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Haiti. And now she's written an interesting and surprisingly funny memoir about those experiences. It's called "Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid." I talked with her recently, and I asked her, what kept you in the work so long?

JESSICA ALEXANDER: Well, it's a really rewarding profession. And there is an addictive force to being an aid worker. I mean, once you're involved in humanitarian response, it's really hard to come home and sort of put your head in the sand and, you know, be done with it in a way. And there is this momentum that builds inside of you that just keeps propelling you to go back to these places. And so, you know, that combined with this global lifestyle that is quite attractive for many people, at least for me, was what some of the motivating forces were for to keep going.

MARTIN: You said that you wrote the book in part to demystify some people's perceptions of aid workers. So what do you think is the biggest misconception that people who have not done this work have about the work and the people who are doing it?

ALEXANDER: Well, I would come home and people would ask me some, you know, really funny questions. And these were well-informed people and, you know, well-educated, but they had these conceptions that we were either all saints or all volunteering or all hippies. And, you know, it was, like, well, this is actually a profession, and it requires a lot of experience and expertise in certain technical fields. And, you know, I just thought that people had a misconception about who we are, why we did this work and some of the real challenges that we faced out in the field.

MARTIN: What are some of them? I mean, I'm thinking about when you were in Darfur writing about trying to help the little girl with hydrocephalus. Do you want to tell that story?

ALEXANDER: Sure. I was 27, and I was working as a camp coordinator in North Darfur for a 24,000 person camp. And I was liaising between the aid community and the displaced persons community. And so I formed relationships in the camp. Some of them were quite close with some of the community leaders. And there was a girl in the camp who was the niece of one of my friends and colleagues there who had hydrocephalus, which was swelling of the brain or the head. And so her head was, you know, twice the size that it should be. And she was, you know, a year and a half, 2 years old. And she and her family had exhausted all options in Darfur. And so they needed a flight over to Khartoum. And because of just agency restrictions, we weren't able to provide her with a flight. Now you would think, well, isn't that what humanitarian agencies are supposed to do? They're supposed to save lives.

And that was one of my first confrontations with this reality that we don't work on an individual basis. We work for tens of thousands of people, and our services are to provide large-scale programs for many. And sometimes it's really hard to block out the individual needs on a one-on-one basis. And for me, it was extremely difficult because I did have a relationship with the uncle of this girl. And so my personal relationship was really clouding my professional judgment. And I got some pushback from some of my colleagues, which was, you know, by the way, we had, you know, cases of people with heart disease last week, and we couldn't send all of them to Khartoum. You know, all the time you're spending on trying to get this one girl to Khartoum, you could be working on, you know, providing the services to everyone, which is what we're supposed to be doing. But it was - it's really hard to kind of put on that clinical mentality of shutting out the individual and trying to work at a much more large scale with much shallower interventions.

MARTIN: One of the other things you do write about very honestly, though, is, like, the personal side of the work. And I think some of it is not going to be news to anybody who's actually done work in the field, but it might be news to people who have not. And one is about the - kind of the parties and the hookups, if I can use that term, that some people - you know, it's part of the lifestyle for some people to help them deal with the stress of the job. I'm wondering why you wanted to mention that and if you're worried at all about any blowback from some of your colleagues who don't necessarily want that side of the thing to be discussed.

ALEXANDER: I don't think I'll see blowback from my colleagues because I think it's a very human behavior. And, you know, you asked me about one of the misconceptions of aid workers is that we're all saints. Well, you know, we're human. And, you know, my first sort of interaction with this dichotomy, right, was, you know, I was on a roof of an agency building. And they were having a party, and it was, you know, a bunch of drinks and some food and a bunch of the aid workers. And, you know, I could see the IDP camp from the roof. And yet, the imbalance of it all did feel very stark. And I just had to stop myself and say, wait, I'm not, you know, at a pregame mixer for, you know, a football match. Like, we're in the height of a humanitarian crisis. And so it did feel somewhat unnatural to be, you know, enjoying yourself or, you know, relaxing with colleagues when this was going on right next-door.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you do tell a lot of these personal experiences, and I think people who've been in other fields can - will relate to them even if they're not quite as extreme. I mean, you'll - as, you know, you talk about, you know, coming back from a situation where you're dealing with really life or death issues and then you go to, say, a bridal shower and the big question is, you know, should you give out the Jordan almonds or the, you know...


MARTIN: ...Or the little gift boxes.


MARTIN: And that can be a little tiring, a little hard...


MARTIN: ...To sort of adjust. I think people - many people who've been in conflict zones over the last decade, you know, while this country's been engaged in two wars, will certainly relate - relate to that. So...

ALEXANDER: Sure, and, you know, you want these party-appropriate stories to just rattle off. And people say, how was it? You know, and you don't really have the words to put together to answer that question because the things that, you know, you've just experienced were so overwhelming, which is also part of why I wrote this book, to put those experiences into words in a much more articulate way than I ever could at an engagement party, for example.

MARTIN: But your book also holds a mirror to some of the bigger issues in international aid. I mean, you talk about some of the dilemmas that a lot of people have written about over the years. Like, for example, the amount of money raised after the tsunami, for example, meant that Sri Lanka became congested with agencies, some of whom were competing.


MARTIN: And then you made the point that because Haitians weren't paying for the help, that a lot of their opinions were not taken into account. I mean, these are all kind of things that just really make a lot of people really question the whole aid apparatus and say, you know what, is all that effort, aid, money, time, education, resources, is that really what we ought to be doing? Do you have some thoughts about that?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think, you know, you touch on a point that the aid industry has recognized and is working on. And one is the accountability to donors versus accountability to affected people. And you're right. I mean, the money comes from Western governments and is somewhat of a northern top-down approach that doesn't always take into consideration the needs and priorities of the people on the ground. We're - the rhetoric has now changed to be more, quote, accountable to affected people.

But, you know, it will take time to reorient the system so that, you know, those voices and the participation of affected people will play into how we deliver aid. But that first starts with incorporating the government and civil society sector into our response instead of having this sort of top-down international approach that says we know best and we know how to help.

MARTIN: Is there any one person you can't get out of your head?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think about the parents of that girl, and - spoiler alert - she does get to Khartoum, but she dies. But I think about her parents, and I think at least they know that everything was done and that she didn't die in Darfur with them wondering, well, I wonder if she got to Khartoum, would she have made it?

MARTIN: Jessica Alexander's new book is called "Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid." It's out now, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Jessica, thanks so much for joining us.

ALEXANDER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.