Here’s a list of the books I’ve been reading over the last year and a half as I figure out how the relief world works.
- Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. A sometimes funny, sometimes scathing, sometimes touching story of three aid workers working in the UN system in the 90’s. Will not leave a good taste in your mouth for the UN, or in fact, for some of the characters. But they get points for honesty, I guess.
- Triage, a well written novella about a terrible story of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)
- The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The dangerous life and mysterious disappearence of Fred Cuny. An profile of a legendary aid worker, and of his mysterious death in Chechnya. This book made me strike Chechnya from the places I would accept a job. (Well, the book and the fact I don’t even read Cyrillic, so I’d be useless there.)
- A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. A careful look at mistakes made and how to move forward. Pays special attention to the problem of the “humanitarian-military complex”.
- We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. The best book to understand the genocide in Rwanda. Nothing good comes of reading this book, you just feel sad and empty. Perhaps the only good that can come from it is educating people so that it never happens again. But clearly that’s not happening, since it’s happening right now, again, in Sudan.
- Another Day in Paradise: International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories. Does a really good job of letting aid workers speak in their own words about their motivations. Understanding your own motivation is key to being effective, I’m told. Hint: “I just want to help” isn’t going to get you through the hard days.
- Engineering in Emergencies : A Practical Guide for Relief Workers. Volumes of information in a form even gung-ho IT guys can use when the real engineers aren’t around.
- Transitional Settlement: Displaced Populations. The overall philosophy of this book is deeply humane, and reflects a quarter century of aid agencies completely screwing up. In addition to making the case for reform in the understanding of migrating people’s needs, it also has really cool sample layouts for refugee camps and the various other types of camps you may be called on to set up.
- Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. Haven’t started this one yet.
- The Humanitarian Companion. Nuts and bolts things to know, checklists, etc. I haven’t read too much of it yet, but the chapter on preparing to deploy was really interesting.
- Cause Celeb. From the author of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Essentially a trashy book for British women to read in the tube on the way to work, except the portrayal of aid worker life and frustrations seems to be very well researched and accurate. The earliest known reference to the MMM theory of aid worker motivations.
- Hope In Hell: Inside The World Of Doctors Without Borders. The latest book on MSF. Gives a very good overview of the organization, where it came from, and how it thinks. But if you really want to know the dirt, you have to talk to a returned volunteer. And let me tell you, do you hear dirt… 🙂
- The Selfish Altruist. A critique of non-self-aware decision-making by aid agencies, from an experienced and passionate aid worker. His point is we have built in biases, and not paying attention to them results in wrong decisions.
- A good New Yorker article on life in Chad.
Books I’ve been meaning to get and study, but haven’t yet:
- Wilderness Medicine, Beyond First Aid
- USAID’s Field Operations Guide
- In the Shadow of “Just Wars”: Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action
- Touched By Fire: Doctors Without Borders in a Third World Crisis
Be sure to visit AidWorkers.net. The aricles there are good. The signal to noise ratio on the forums is bad, but when you find an answer from an experienced worker, they are usually very valuable. Also, read stuff from MSF, lots of english editions of it things are available in the Biblioteque MSF.