Review: Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and out of Humanitarian Aid

A common refrain among humanitarian aid workers, once you get to know them and they let their guard down, is "We can't save everyone." Jessica Alexander starts out more hopeful than that, only to find herself getting sucked into the same cynical trap as so many others in the field. Her journey is chronicled in "Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and out of Humanitarian Aid," an enlightening but uneven memoir.

Alexander writes in an easy, conversational manner. The result is the type of book that can be read in an afternoon. In some ways, this is good — it's more likely to keep the interest of people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the world of humanitarian aid, and there is a great deal in it that will be eye-opening to such readers. In that sense, Alexander has made a helpful contribution. But for those who know about the aid sector, the book isn't particularly meaty, nor does it reveal much that isn't known.

Alexander is quite good at pointing out the many challenges faced by aid workers, such as the danger that their efforts can become a permanent fixture. (The idea that many people in a poor country pretend to be refugees because the camps have better infrastructure and offer more resources than their existing village is deeply disturbing.)

However, Alexander doesn't really propose much in the way of solutions to the many problems in the world of aid, chief among them an unfortunate dearth of accountability and ridiculous levels of redundancy. She even avoids mentioning the names of some of the organizations she worked for, which undercuts her stated concerns about accountability.

In all fairness, "Chasing Chaos" isn't being billed as an academic treatise about the world of aid, but rather as a memoir. So we learn a great deal about Alexander's personal life, especially how much the death of her mother affected her as she traveled to various hot spots, from post-massacre Rwanda to post-earthquake Haiti. (The 2004 South Asian tsunami also makes an appearance, as does the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.) Alexander performed various tasks, from effectively running a refugee camp to acting as an outside assessor of aid programs. Her tale about trying to save an infant girl with hydrocephalus only to run into uncaring bureaucracy is particularly affecting.

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