The New Yorker on Aid Work

There is a really excellent article on aid work in The New Yorker.

Though this is pretty much a write-only blog at this point, and I don’t really know if anyone cares, here are my reactions to the article:

  • It is remarkably candid, but…
  • it is too hopeless…
  • because it focuses too much on the UN and not enough on independent actors.

Of course, any reader of mine know my biases: I am a cynical humanist capitalist from Silicon Valley (engaged to be married to a practical humanist socialist from Switzerland), who chose to work with MSF due to it’s independence. Because this article speaks to the core of my identity, of course my biases are going to be the key to my understanding of it.

First, above all, it is remarkably candid about the reality of our work. There’s a funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad explanation of how UNHCR field people are reduced to writing reports about reports, and how in N’Djamena, they are compiled into reports about reports about reports and sent to Geneva. He found someone candid enough to tell him the MMM theory of relief workers. He hinted at, but unfortunately did not discuss at length, the fact that many (most?) international UN humanitarian workers are African expats who are doing it for the money as much as for love of the work. There is fertile ground (full of landmines) to be explored there: What does it do to the UN’s effectiveness that many of it’s field people don’t like their job but are trapped in it by economic forces? How can international workers be effective when their primary motivation is not solidarity with the beneficiaries, but with their family (and it’s bank account) back home? What’s the solution?

Next, I say the article is too hopeless. At least one reason it is hopeless is that the situation in Darfur and along the Chadian border with Sudan is so hopeless. It’s a political/economic situation, a proxy war between the West and China. It puts into opposition China’s need for resources and disinterest in international norms with the international humanitarian principles the west stands for. No big surprise what wins out: as usual, follow the money.

The other reason it is hopeless is because the journalist got the UN side of the story. The MSF side of the same story has its roots in our very reason to exist, the MSF charter. MSF is in Chad the same reason we are in any country: because patients need us. MSF has hundreds of stories to tell about people in Chad (refugees, citizens, rebels, soldiers, it doesn’t matter who) who needed help and MSF had the capacity in place to give that help, when and where it was needed. There’s something beautiful in that, and the journalist let the heat, the walled compounds, the driving sand, and the rebel attacks divert his attention from the beauty and the power of what it means to just be there, and to be human, alongside other humans. He came close: he personally experienced the pain we all feel when you can’t do enough for one, let alone for everyone. That’s human, and that’s the hard part of the job.

He missed reporting on the the humanitarian imperative, which is too bad. Did he miss it because his hosts at UNHCR and WFP also are missing it? Or was it there, and he just blew it as a journalist? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and I don’t blame him one bit.

Which brings me to my final critique, which is that he doesn’t cover the story from outside the UN bubble enough. But there’s enough other brilliant journalism about MSF and other actor’s work, so perhaps it is valuable just to have the UN story.

Go, read. This article has won a place in my bibliography of humanitarian aid stuff.

PS: The headline is “Lives of the Saints: International hardship duty in Chad”. Headlines are often picked by editors long from the story, and I hope this one was. The people the author talked to undoubtedly told him that aid workers hate to be called heros, saints, or anything other than simply their job title (e.g. log, nurse, protection officer). Our work is too important and too dangerous for us to tolerate show-off heros as colleagues for very long. The professionals in the highest leagues of humanitarian aid (and he met some of them) know they are neither saints, nor heros and they never allow someone to call them one.

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