Book Review: Chasing Chaos

Though Jessica Alexander’s book Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid is primarily a memoir of the first ten years of her humanitarian career, it is sprinkled with critique of the aid industry and history of the conflicts she worked in. The result is a compelling story of risk, discovery, culture shock, and the journey to finding one’s passion and purpose. For anyone who sees pictures on the web of blue vest clad UNHCR workers, or reads about another one of Angelina Jolie’s trips to the Syrian refugee camps, this book explains an ordinary person’s journey into such a career. Surprisingly, Alexander was not born with a desire to be a humanitarian. Her first experience working in humanitarian aid was during a brief internship in Rwanda while working on her master’s degree. It was several years before, when her mother died of cancer that Alexander decided to quit her marketing job and took a trip to Central America to decide what to do next. That trip inspired her to pursue graduate school and a career in humanitarian aid. Over the next decade, she worked in Rwanda, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and Haiti doing everything from refugee status determination interviews, managing a refugee camp, running children’s programs, and assessing aid responses post-disaster.

Alexander weaves into her memoir a good dose of humor. She has learned over the years to laugh at herself, and she, through her raw and poignant writing, allows the reader to laugh with her. She does not shield the reader from the inconsistencies and frustrations she has encountered throughout her career. In a way, her simple story pulls back a veil of romantic idealism from the life of a humanitarian aid worker and the industry itself. While no one is perfect, and Alexander admits this, she is not afraid to acknowledge the good that has also been done by NGOs and the UN around the world.

One point in particular struck me while reading this book. Alexander mentions toward the close of her story that humanitarian aid is an industry that has grown substantially over the last ten to fifteen years. The media coverage of significant global crises has especially fed this growth. However, in 2012 the industry was worth just shy of $18 billion. That seems like a significant amount of money for the international community to contribute toward the alleviation of global conflicts and catastrophes, but when compared with other industries, it is almost inconsequential. The US spent $114 billion on relief in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina while hurricane Sandy garnered $50 billion in pledges to help, and almost $14 billion was spent on the 2012 London Olympics (p. 374). These numbers tell us that there is still much growth ahead for global humanitarian endeavors, not only in dollars pledged, but also in the effectiveness and cultural sensitivity of policy and programs intended to alleviate suffering.

I would recommend Alexander’s book as a worthwhile read from which one will learn without being weighed down by the unique jargon of humanitarian aid. It may inspire the reader to move on to more detailed and academic works now available concerning the world of humanitarian aid. Please be cautioned that this book contains sensitive/adult material and some language.