My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid
By Jessica Alexander
(Broadway Books, Paperback, 9780770436919, 400pp.)
Publication Date: October 15, 2013
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Jessica Alexander arrived in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide as an idealistic intern, eager to contribute to the work of the international humanitarian aid community. But the world that she encountered in the field was dramatically different than anything she could have imagined. It was messy, chaotic, and difficult—but she was hooked.
In this honest and irreverent memoir, she introduces readers to the realities of life as an aid worker. We watch as she manages a 24,000-person camp in Darfur, collects evidence for the Charles Taylor trial in Sierra Leone, and contributes to the massive aid effort to clean up a shattered Haiti. But we also see the alcohol-fueled parties and fleeting romances, the burnouts and self-doubt, and the struggle to do good in places that have long endured suffering.
Tracing her personal journey from wide-eyed and naïve newcomer to hardened cynic and, ultimately, to hopeful but critical realist, Alexander transports readers to some of the most troubled locations around the world and shows us not only the seemingly impossible challenges, but also the moments of resilience and recovery.
JESSICA ALEXANDER spent much of the last decade responding to humanitarian crises across the globe. A former Fulbright scholar, she has worked for various NGOs as well as UN agencies. She has a dual masters degree from Columbia and is currently working toward her PhD.
As an aid worker, Jessica Alexander worked in Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Haiti, but don't call her a hero or a saint. Alexander tells Michel Martin about why she wanted to challenge perceptions of aid workers in her new book, Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid. More at NPR.org
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“In Chasing Chaos, Jessica Alexander serves up a sharp critique of the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, wrapped in a tender coming-of-age story. Her quietly evocative prose recreates the painful, poignant, and sometimes hilarious experience of marching into 'the field' of armed conflict and disaster to relieve suffering, supported by donations from those who expect heroism. With remarkable honesty and empathy, Alexander reveals how absurd and presumptuous it is to imagine we can fix the world and, even more profoundly, why we must continue to try. An important book.” —Sheri Fink, New York Times bestselling author of Five Days at Memorial
“Terrific new memoir...It's Wild in Sudan.” —Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist
“In her new book Chasing Chaos, Jessica Alexander offers a poignant, clear-eyed look at the world of international disaster relief and her own addiction to aid work…Chasing Chaos is a reminder that happiness is an act of delicate and ever-evolving inner compromise. The book makes you simultaneously want to pack your bags and never leave home.” —The Daily Beast
“Enlightening...eye-opening...Chasing Chaos is a solid contribution to what is hopefully a growing genre of writing about a sector that deserves more attention and oversight.” —Associated Press
“Jessica Alexander's book, Chasing Chaos, is not only a candid portrait of the life of a humanitarian aid worker, but a wonderful coming-of-age story that will resonate with any woman who has questioned how to have a more meaningful life.”
“Refreshingly absent in Chasing Chaos are any declarations of grandeur or of superior moral fiber. Rather, Alexander’s honesty about her own ignorance on the true severity of the conditions in the places she visits is precisely what makes her remarkable story so accessible. Even now, after a decade working with multiple humanitarian organizations, the author still makes plain how much she has to learn. Alexander is proud of her achievements, and certainly should be, but it is in her detailing of the vast room for improvement in the system that she focuses, with a dry wit and healthy dose of honest self-evaluation, that we are able to connect with her experiences on a more personal level. We are all the more fortunate for it.”
“I think that is what Jessica does so well: puts a human face on aid work. And not just her face, but the faces of her international and national colleagues…Jessica reveals the inconsistencies, the ambivalence of aid work as she takes us to Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, New York, and Haiti. But, she also offers valuable lessons for the next generation.” —Brendan Rigby, whydev.org
“What Mary Roach does for the alimentary canal in Gulp and Robin Nagle does for garbage collecting in Picking Up, Jessica Alexander does for global catastrophe in Chasing Chaos...An entertaining memoir of life on the front lines of global catastrophe reveals as much about its author as the world of humanitarian aid.”
“A no-holds-barred description of what it is like to travel to world disaster sites and engage in the complex, challenging, nitty-gritty work of making a difference across lines of culture, class, age, gender, and perspective. In telling the story of her decade as a young and passionate humanitarian aid worker, Jessica Alexander also manages to tell us the best and the worst of what this work is like and to speculate on the aid establishment—how it has changed, where it works and what its limits are. A must read for anyone with global interests—and that should be all of us.” —Ruth Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service
“Chasing Chaos examines the lives that aid workers lead and the work which aid workers do with honesty, clarity, and warmth. While the book is peppered with hilarious anecdotes—it is also salted with tears. Honest, genuine, heartfelt tears. This life and this work that aid and development workers embark upon so often oscillates wildly between stomach bursting laughter and shoulder seizing weeping—Chasing Chaos captures these oscillations, and the doldrums in between the ends of the spectrum, perfectly.” —Casey Kuhlman, New York Times bestselling author of Shooter
“During ten years of working with the sick, the hungry, and the injured, Jessica Alexander touches and is touched by victims of genocide, earthquakes, tsunamis, and bombs. The compelling quality of this book is Alexander’s honesty, sharp observations, and conversational prose. With humor and insight, she shares the intimate details of her everyday life. Even if you’re a seasoned traveler, this entry into the world of humanitarian aid organizations—the good, the bad, and the frustrating—is fascinating.” —Rita Golden Gelman, author of Tales of a Female Nomad
“In Chasing Chaos, Alexander takes us to a place where few outsiders can go, cracking open the rarefied world of humanitarianism to bare its contradictions—and her own—with boldness and humor. The result is an immensely valuable field guide to the mind of that uniquely powerful and vulnerable of beasts: the international aid worker.” —Jonathan M. Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster
“Not only is Jessica Alexander a wonderful writer—her clear, evocative prose transported me into refugee camps in Darfur, war-trials in Sierra Leone and post-earthquake Haiti—but she is honest about the complexity of 'doing good,' without being defeatist. Funny, touching, and impossible to put down, this book should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in aid, and for all of us who wonder how we can make a useful contribution to a better world, wherever we are.” —Marianne Elliott, author of Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War
“A fresh, very readable, highly personal account of the trials and tribulations of a young aid worker as she confronts the daily realities— the good, the bad and the very uncomfortable—of life dealing with some of the most important humanitarian challenges of the last decade.” —Ross Mountain, Former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator, United Nations
“You'll start Chasing Chaos because you are interested in humanitarian aid. You'll finish because of Jessica Alexander's irresistible storytelling: her honesty, her humanity, her wackadoodle colleagues, her dad. I loved it.” —Kenneth Cain, author of Emergency Sex: and Other Desperate Measures
“A hardened idealist's challenging look at the contradictions, complications, and enduring importance of humanitarian aid.” —Robert Calderisi, author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working
"Jessica Alexander’s Chasing Chaos is a must read for anyone concerned with helping those in need. Americans are some of the most generous people on Earth in reaching out to those coping with disasters, both natural and man-made, but how we give and what we give can make the difference between saving lives and only making a bad situation even worse. The path to hell really can be paved with good intentions, as Ms. Alexander perceptively describes and as I have seen during my own twenty plus years working in Africa and the Middle East, including many tours dealing with the same countries Alexander portrays. She knows of what she speaks.” —Christopher Datta, Former American Foreign Service Officer and author of Touched with Fire: Based on the True Story of Ellen Craft