musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: Aid Worker Fiction

Aid workers are constantly in a foreign land. In our home countries we struggle to connect with university friends and to explain our career choices, oftentimes to ourselves. In our host countries we struggle with perceptions and stereotypes, simultaneously battling and reinforcing them. In both places we find love in hopelessness and frustration in simplicity.

Such is the life of an aid worker. And such is the portrayal of Mary-Anne and her slew of heroes and anti-heroes in “Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit” (#MMMM), the second piece of 'aid worker fiction' by anonymous author J. of Tales from the Hood blogosphere fame.

#MMMM picks up where “Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel” left off, with Mary-Anne having moved from post-earthquake Haiti to drought- and conflict-prone Horn of Africa, the latter of which I know well from personal experience. The area between the Somali Region of Ethiopia and Somalia proper, in all its dusty and wind-blown glory, holds a special place in my heart. The Somalis. The Highlanders - foreigners in their own country. The idealists. The braying donkeys. The warm St. George. The stress. The fulfillment.

And thus the nostalgia emanating from #MMMM's 130 pages flows like the Webi Shebelle in rainy season. It is acronym and jargon-heavy, just like our business, and it transports aid workers into a sometimes uncomfortable / sometimes humorous self-reflective posture: was I in that 'life-saving' coordination meeting? Did I have one too many lukewarm beers under that same tree? Am I a "deployment smoker"?

In this way, one can almost overlook the dangled story lines and the sometimes choppy narrative, though somewhere my high school English teacher is cringing at the thought. For me these imperfections somehow reflect the predictable chaos of aid work, whether this effect is intended or not. 

Mary-Anne is the altruistic, newly minted rising star that all aid workers knew we would become sooner rather than later upon signing up for that first post overseas. Her mentor (and sometimes object of complicated desire) in the Dolo Ado refugee camp is Jon, a seasoned aid worker desperately trying to juggle professional and family demands while imparting on Mary-Anne (and us) his deep wisdom of a complicated world. Mulu Alem represents Ethiopian ‘Highlanders’ in the story, a government bureaucrat hopelessly stuck miles away from his love, the beautiful Aster, who (I believe is the same person that) nurses Brandon, the hapless former boss of Mary-Anne, back to health in Addis Ababa. Mark is the know-it-all Oxfam America director to whom relief environments are made infuriatingly more complicated by seasoned veterans like Jon. Jean-Philippe, who swept Mary-Anne (Mehreee-ahhhhn) off her feet in Haiti and followed her to an apartment in Nairobi that neither of them ever see, is relegated to the back seat of this tale, leaving young Mary-Anne to seek out more available outlets for her frustration and celebration. Ali is the sharp-shooting Somali teenager with a penchant for jihad.

The story is very real for those who have been there (read: in the 'field' doing humanitarian aid work) before. For those that haven’t, #MMMM is a rare ‘real’ glimpse into the strange, and often misunderstood, world of international humanitarian aid, told from the viewpoint of a few pawns with broad-sweeping implications for an entire industry. The skewed funding priorities that may or may not line up with need. The ever-present fight for finite resources between charities, all vying to “pee on a few bushes” in the humanitarian disaster du jour. 

Ultimately, #MMMM represents all that is good, bad and ugly about humanitarian aid. It is real yet fictitious (J. makes certain of pointing out that this is a work of fiction on several occasions). It is equal parts hopeless and inspiring. It is flippant yet wise. It personifies an industry’s own collective anonymity.

And it’s well worth your time.

“Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit” ($3.99) is available for download at Amazon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

What 'Change' Means in Afghanistan

A mixture of sadness and hope came over me when I first looked at the photo.

Afghan women studying medicine. A beautiful photo personifying the cultural revolution that was sweeping Afghanistan in the 1950s and 60s.
Courtesy: The Atlantic (AFP/Getty Images)

Ismail Jan*, I asked an office mate, isn't this a fascinating photo?

"Yes." Matter-of-fact. Non-emotional.

This was taken in Kabul in 1962.


So what do you think?

"I think it is a nice picture. The women are studying."


"But you see this," he points at the women, "caused this." In front of his finger is another photo, taken from behind, of a turbaned Afghan man with a wooden-handled Kalashnikov slung over his back.


"Yes. Most of us don't mind women getting educated. It's just that we were always a religious country and the revolution [led by the last king's of Afghanistan] to modernize was too drastic. It happened too fast. People were afraid. When people become afraid they become violent."

Hmm... it's a fair point, one I had never fully considered in the Afghan context. Incremental change vs. overnight revolution. Unfortunately that is a much harder 'sell' to those of us from cultures that require a near-immediate return on our investment and that (albeit only within the last 50 years or so) take gender equality as a given.

I picture a group of protesting aid workers in front of the Afghan Embassy in DC:

"What do we want?!" CHANGE!

"When do we want it?!" Incrementally... ideally within a 15-20 year time frame with well-established benchmarks and metrics.

'NOW!' seems like an easier concept for us to understand (and a catchier slogan); regardless of the fact that it took us (enlightened Westerners) centuries to free slaves and even longer to allow women the right to vote.

So what does change mean in Afghanistan? I have to believe that each conversation about celebrating differences, each gender sensitivity training, each new 'capacity building exercise' plants a seed (please excuse the use of an extremely over-used horticultural metaphor). Over time, with sensitivity to Afghan cultural norms and promotion of the more moderate elements of society (they do exist), change can come. Importantly, change has to be embraced and pursued by a critical mass of Afghans. The international community is there to support them in their fight against corruption and in the pursuit of peace; but only if they want, ask for and (dare I say one day) pay for our expertise.

But donors and taxpayers demand to see near immediate results, maybe even dream of revolutionary change? Be careful what you wish for...

Ismail Jan went on to tell me what happened after the modernization revolution led by Mohammad Zair Shah and others after their time spent in Europe: 50 years of protracted, increasingly-conservative-rhetoric-tinged (read: Taliban) armed conflict. It's much more complicated than that (and I'd love to read more about the mid-century 'cultural revolution' and it's impact on the subsequent instability if anyone has any suggestions). I realize that. But I'm having trouble thinking that at least a partial causal relationship doesn't exist.

Realistically, true change in Afghanistan could be a generational phenomenon.

In today's Afghanistan, young people with greater access to the internet and greater interest in prosperity (and modernization) will one day be in power. They are heavily influenced by a strong tribal elder system in which many local leaders undeniably ascribe to extreme or fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and that has been a pervasive part of their culture for centuries. But they also subscribe religiously to contemporary Turkish soap operas, they periodically sport Levi's instead of shalwar kameez and they plug away on iPhones in staggering numbers. Times, they are a-changin'.

As unsatisfying it may be to those of us who are products of the instant gratification generation, change will come slowly to a place where the number of fundamental problems is outweighed only by the tonnage of opium produced each year. Change will be slow. Incremental. Gradual.

And, most importantly, change will only happen on Afghan time.

*name changed