Entries tagged with “Tales from the Hood”.


A very long time ago, J asked me to review his book Letters Left Unsent. I’ve long been a fan of J’s writing on his blog Tales from the Hood, and have had the fortune to meet him, hang out, and develop what passes for a friendship in an era where people living on different coasts, and constantly on the move, can stay in touch through various electronic means. All this by way of saying that this will hardly be an impartial review.

So, here is my one sentence review: If you are interested in going into development/humanitarian work, or know someone who is, you need to get a copy of this book and read it/give it to them.

This is not to say that you will enjoy every message in the book – actually, you or your prospective aidworker will likely hate whole chunks of it. The reason for this is simple: the book is hard – really hard. It’s not the prose, which is actually quite fluid. It is the content. The book contains some of J’s most unvarnished stories and writing, work that strips away the romance of the job, exposing it as just that: a job. In chapter after chapter, J demonstrates that development and relief work is a very important, rewarding job, but sometimes a job where the biggest impacts come not from handing some poor soul food, but in getting a spreadsheet right or from attending the right meeting. Further, these lessons are not delivered in a detached, objective manner that can be easily forgotten, but through personal stories that emerge as J points the keyboard at himself and his own experiences. This is no casting of stones at unnamed, straw-man others (something the world could use much less of). It is, at times, a brutal first-person account of the compromises, decisions, crises, frustrations, and rewards that this career brings.

To be fair, there are personal reasons why this book challenged me. First, I know J personally. This means that I know how seriously he takes this job, how hard he works, and how much he believes in what he does. This means I cannot dismiss this book as the work of a cynic or an anti-aid crank, and therefore when the stories and their lessons hurt, there is no easy escape route. Second, some of these stories hit pretty close to home. J and I live in pretty different parts of the aid world. I’ve spent the bulk of my career as an academic, with a brief stint as the employee of a donor. I don’t live for or between deployments, and I never really have. But I’ve been in donor coordination meetings for a major crisis (the 2011 Horn of Africa famine), and in reading this book, I was transported to days of watching terribly difficult decisions get made, measuring the toll the crisis took on people around me – and I still consider those experiences to be some of the tougher ones in my career. At the same time, I’ve spent an awful lot of time conducting fieldwork. In my early days as an academic, I would disappear into villages for months on end. In the pre-cellphone era, this tended to have a deleterious effect on my personal life. Some of the collateral damage from such travel that J describes marks my own personal history. In this book, I heard the echoes of some my own decisions, and my own consequences…

So, I am not J. But I know J, both in the sense that I know the author, and I know many of those in this field for whom he writes. From my perspective, his stories ring true, and the lessons they present are real. And I have my own reasons for feeling challenged by this book, but I suspect most aidworkers would experience similar feelings as they recognize themselves in this book. In the end, my personal biases and feelings don’t change what I think is the value of this book. It is an important illustration of the development/aid worker’s life that does not resort to pieties or broad brushes. Instead, it wrestles with the ambiguities of live in this career. Development work is hard. Humanitarian assistance is hard. It is thrilling and appallingly mundane. It’s malaria and spreadsheets. Mostly spreadsheets. We succeed. We fail. We keep going, trying to learn from both. But if you are headed into this field, into this career, you are headed where J has been. Only fools ignore history, even if it is not their own. Only a very foolish prospective aidworker will ignore this book.

Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.

In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake.  MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry.  While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…

Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border.  The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving.  Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it.  Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”.  This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable.  As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective.  Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.

The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM.  In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion.  In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures.  This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers.  In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life.  And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative

I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.

 

Buy it here:

Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.

 

 

 

 

*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…