J. is on a mission: to prove to the world that there’s a market for “humanitarian aid fiction”. As a highly experienced aid worker and prolific blogger (latterly at AidSpeak, formerly at Tales from the hood and one half of the team behind popular satirical aid blog, Stuff Expat Aid Workers’ Like (SEAWL), if anyone has the credentials to make this work, it should be J. But with his latest effort to bring the genre to life, Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, he doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The story centres on a refugee camp just inside Ethiopia’s border with Somalia – Dolo Ado. Or to be more precise, it centres on two American inhabitants of Dolo Ado – Jon and Mary-Anne, employees of Oxfam America and the fictional World Aid Corps respectively. Each lives apart from their partner, leaving space for a will-they-won’t-they relationship to emerge between them.
But the romantic plot-line is really just a useful hook on which to hang the author’s thoughts on humanitarian aid work. Jon, the more experienced protagonist, is J’s primary mouthpiece – surely their shared initial is no coincidence? He expounds at length on the many injustices and perverse incentives at play – difficult relations with HQ, intense inter-agency battles for funding and prestige, the immense distance between those who understand a particular context and those who control the key decisions, and the challenge of balancing a career in humanitarian aid with “a life”.
“So, we’re all on the side of right and light, warriors for the poor, and all of that. Then we get into it a little way and we see that it works by calculus, not math. We see what goes into the sausage. We see that for all of our dialogic, participatory, multi-stakeholder, community-led, bottom-up, embrace-and-empower-everything-local ideals and maybe even practice, that the decisions that truly matter are made elsewhere and the basis of other things entirely. We come to understand that we have to play hardball.”
Part of J’s mission appears to be to mount a defence of aid work against its critics.
Maybe the cynicism, the snark, the excessive team house drinking are at least evidence, if not proof in and of themselves, that the aid system is broken. But where the wide-eyed critics are wrong is in believing that these are what make aid broken. In fact it’s the opposite: Aid is not broken because aid workers are cynical, hedonistic alcoholics. Aid workers are cynical alcoholics because aid is broken, and further, because they have been repeatedly slapped down by their own leaders for trying to make it better.
But he is just as convincing when presenting an opposing view – voiced here by Tekflu, an Ethiopian colleague of Mary-Anne’s:
“You children come here to patiently explain to Ethiopians about accountability and honesty… You think we need you to help us know right from wrong. Yet you come here to ‘supervise’ people old enough to be your parents. My youngest daughter is your age. And you pay us the wages of common laborers, which we accept because we want to help. But you take your salary and spend it on beer and cigarettes, you get your expense-paid R&R back to America, but we don’t even get bus fare back to Addis to take care of our sick parents…”
These arguments are reasonably well presented, at least to a reader with an existing interest in the field. But therein lies the first problem: to the reader who already has that interest, there’s little that’s new here, while for readers outside the sector, there’s a fair bit of jargon and navel gazing to get through to find the points of insight.
There’s a second problem as well, which for me is even more of a concern. Though the novel is set mostly in and around Dolo Ado, it could be any one of the world’s trouble spots. There’s almost nothing at all about the local environment, society, history or politics, and with a few brief exceptions, almost no occasion on which any of the Ethiopian or Somali characters play any meaningful role. None of the non-Americans in the story are portrayed with much depth or subtlety – the cliches come thick and fast.
This is a problem partly because the omission weakens the story – I wanted to know where all this was happening, why the region was in the state it was, to understand the other characters. But it’s a more serious issue because it seems to betray one of the more worrying traits of much of the humanitarian aid sector: an apparently willful blindness to local context. Aid workers are political actors, whether they like it or not, whether they recognise it or not.
It concerns me that a leading (unofficial) spokesperson for the sector didn’t feel the need to include anything significant either on local culture, history and politics, or on local characters, in a novel set in the humanitarian aid world. From reading his blogs, and from what I know of his career, I’m pretty confident that J. does recognise that these things are important in humanitarian work, so why leave them out of a story that takes that work as it’s primary theme?
Having said that, it’s well worth reading. The story’s interesting and well-told. The writing is clear and very readable, though it could do with a good editor to smooth out some of the rougher edges (I lost count of how many times one minor character is referred to as doe-eyed). With a little added context, humanitarian aid fiction has potential. Unfortunately, for this reader at least, this isn’t quite it.