A novice humanitarian aid worker confronts mayhem in the field

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". Being an international relief worker can sound like an adventure. Listen to this recruitment ad produced by one relief group a few years back.

[Clip plays]
Narrator: No roads, no maps, saving lives in uncharted territory, confronting every challenge along the way.
[Clip ends]

Werman: But former aid worker Jessica Alexander says the reality on the ground can be much trickier. Alexander's own relief work took her to Darfur, post-tsunami Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone, and she describes some of the obstacles she encountered in her new memoir "Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid". Alexander doesn't set out to name and shame, so she doesn't list the aid groups she worked for, but she does describe some pretty dicey moments like the mayhem that erupted when a crush of tens of thousands of frightened Darfur residents converged on a camp where she, then a twenty-seven year old novice, was in charge.

Jessica Alexander: I was in over my head. I mean it was extremely overwhelming. There were attacks that had just happened, but in the field of aid, a lot of times there's high staff turnover and my predecessor had left and there was no one there to fill the role and so I sort of jumped in and that became my position.

Werman: It takes a special kind of person to shoulder those pressures. You write at one point in Darfur, "I wonder that they thought of me, a naive twenty-seven year old American girl clutching her camp management book like a list vest."

Alexander: Yeah. What I would say about that situation is I was this American girl who could use a computer and type and speak in English, which is what people at headquarters did, what the donors did. And so I was the boss when all of my staff were much older than I was. They had way more experience in these places than I did and so it was quite interesting to be this young person who was speaking to these elders as though I was the authority when actually I would rely on them for just about everything.

Werman: Is there one situation that kind of invites more of those agencies that might need shaming? I mean where did you see the weakest spine?

Alexander: Well, one place that I worked with, towards the end of the book, which you didn't mention was Haiti. There there were thousands of NGOs that came to Haiti, everything from Vegan Relief to more established UN organizations and NGOs. It created a huge mess because there were so many actors there doing their own little side projects. So you may go to a camp and you may see a bunch of people who are there for a week with frisbees and taking photos of people in the camp when you're trying to do a nutritional program for children. So, for example, a medical group that's very well-intentioned may come and give vaccines to some children in a community. But if they haven't worked through the World Health Organization through the Ministry of Health that is coordinating the health response, some NGOs that are may show up the next week and say, "OK, we're ready to vaccinate children here," and the community leaders will say, "Oh, our children were already vaccinated," and you say, "OK. Well, for what? And when? And which ones?" and they don't have the records because this organization didn't happen to work through the system. And so there were a lot of organizations there that I think were called out for bad practice and now the aid community is being much more stringent about creating standards and certifying organizations so that this doesn't happen again.

Werman: You were assigned some pretty intense postings, Jessica, and yet one of the worst parts of your experience was trying to reintegrate into your life in the US after being out in the field. How is the adjustment going for you?

Alexander: Part of sort of mental unraveling had to do with leaving and the jolt of going to a completely different culture and context and disaster response and working there and again moving around that country and working in some extreme environments, and then all of a sudden the next day, getting a plane and going home and being expected to put on a nice dress and do my hair and put on high heels and go mingle at an upscale party and rattle off stories about where I'd been. And my friends just really wanted to relate to me. They wanted to know what I was upto, but I just couldn't articulate where I had just been. When people say, "Oh my gosh, how was it?" there's so many things running through your head and you just say, "Um, it was fine I guess." It's really difficult to try to distill some of these experiences into party-appropriate stories.

Werman: Jessica Alexander's new memoir is called "Chasing Chaos". Jessica, great to meet you. Thanks so much for your time.

Alexander: Thank you.