Are books relevant to humanitarians? Part II

As pointed out in the previous post, there is a healthy amount of aid literature. Though often insightful and interesting, these works are pretty inaccessible to the general public and not exactly the sort of thing you would relax to on your sofa with a cup of tea.

So what about aid fiction? Or, in fact, anything creative produced about the aid world?

‘Emergency Sex’ by Kenneth Cain et. al. is perhaps the first that springs to mind – though as fictionalised memoirs, I’m not sure this entirely counts. There is a forest of aid blogs scattered throughout the internet (yours truly included) – though again, most are first-person reflections and none fictional or purely creative. Some films and books do address aid work, but most incidental to the main narrative – such as Hotel Rwanda or Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’. The only purely fictional creative works that I can think of off the top of my head are the recent book ‘Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit’ by blogger J of SEAL, the beautiful graphic novel ‘The Photographer’ about photographer Dider Lefevre’s journey with MSF in Afghanistan, and Jane Bussmann’s comedy show ‘Bono and Geldof are C***ts’. All fantastic, but three is still a rather sad total. If I’ve missed anything blindingly obvious then please do send suggestions through and lets boost this meagre selection – but I still suspect it will not be enough to establish a full-blown genre.


Isn’t this completely baffling? For anyone who has spent any length of time in ‘the field’, it must be apparent that the creative material open to us is extraordinarily rich. You meet characters that even David Lynch would struggle to invent and government systems so positively Kafkaesque, they would be hilarious if they weren’t so terrifying. Some of the stories I’ve heard booted around bars and in compounds over a few beers defy the wildest imaginations and occasionally the laws of physics, and are so totally mad you just couldn’t make them up – such as the character (lets call him Mad Greg) who, back in the day, was in charge of a Sudanese hospital and formed a local paramilitary to blow a couple of his staff out of jail, and later holed up under siege in the hospital. Wouldn’t it be great if someone was writing this down?

The stage that we all perform on – the situations of war and violence where aid is made necessary should force powerful questions about the nature of being human in our modern world. As aid workers we peddle in the trade of death and life, bearing a dual blessing of being privy to the best and the absolute worst of humanity. And yet the acute frustration borne of impotence and insufficiency in the face of awful suffering, seems, for the moment, only to be expressed through blogs or formalised introspection. For centuries, the savage brutality of war has inspired legions of soldiers to write, draw, paint and put to music their experiences. So why are we so quiet?

Perhaps the sheer trove of possibility is simply too overwhelming, or too outrageous. Or perhaps everyone is just too busy.

Which is a shame, because a vibrant and critical artistic lens is, I think, a sign of maturity. A way of being able to question, poke fun at and expose an imperfect system to a public audience, in a way that isn’t clouded with impenetrable industry jargon.

So I reckon what the aid sector really needs is a proper, explosive call to arms. No more dry academic discourse, no more roundtable navel-gazing…

Frustrated with head office requesting the millionth round of corrections on a proposal? Screw them! Write a poem! Being forced to quietly toe the line as you watch a government abuse its citizens with impunity – just so you can keep that health clinic running? Pull out a paintbrush, create something epic! Felt that catch in your throat when you spoke with a mother and she told you quietly, proudly, that her child lives because of your emergency feeding programme – and you remembered why it is you do this job and that it is never enough but it is something. You, why are you so silent?

And if we aren’t honest about our failures, our struggles, then how on earth can we celebrate our successes?

So yeah, why not try and move beyond this narrow box of policy reports, blog posts and ironic Twitter updates that has become the only channel for frustration, discontent and joy.

Let’s see the initial weeks of a first phase response played out as a full-scale opera. Wagnerian overtures as helicopters chopper in emergency medical supplies … and then have to dump the load because someone screwed up the cold chain (whilst a chorus of chattering media/comms types gleefully exclaim the events in falsetto). Or perhaps a Sopranos-style sitcom set in the backwaters of some field base, where coordination meetings are ruled by OCHA’s answer to James Gandolfini…

You get the picture. Let’s do it!


Why are we so quick to use an index? I’ve been told before that without an index a new publication, piece of research or institution won’t get any coverage. The media certainly love them, but I’m also surprised by the intrigue that researchers and academics sometimes show.

Over a pint recently, a colleague of mine was telling me about a recent field trip that was going to provide the evidence for country X’s ranking in the 2013 version of a well known index. She had been shocked firstly by the length of the questionnaire that participants were faced with and secondly by the speed that said questionnaire was undertaken. The results, she felt, were a list of tick box answers to rather complex and perception based queries.

Foreign Policy’s July/August edition was dubbed the ‘annual failed states issue’. 32 of the magazine’s 112 pages were dedicated to the issue, of which 11 were photographs. The 2013 Failed States Index placed Somalia at the top (though its score was lower than last year), closely followed by DRC, Sudan, South Sudan and Chad. The DRC was pulled out as a case study – alongside Greece and Egypt – and renamed ‘The Invisible State’. Rather apt really. Is the Congo a state? More importantly, as the authors state ‘It’s as if the world wishes to believe in the idea of Congo rather than engage with the actual place that exists’. DRC must be vying for the winner of ‘top five in the greatest number of depressing indices’ award. It’s also received a lot of high profile (read celebrity) visits, and yet, we still seem to be treating it in a similar way to other conflict ridden nations. Yes, we’ve just seen a new ‘offensive’ mandate for the UN. But can we help a failed state by continuing to work through the ‘state’?

I digress – the question at hand is: what impact do indices have?

If the Failed States Index aims to raise awareness of troubled nations or incentivise new action then I’m not convinced that objective has been reached. Those reading Foreign Policy are already interested in foreign affairs and are likely to know that the Sudans, Somalia and DRC are all troubled – basket case – nations. The fact that DRC is ranked 2nd most failed state in the world may reach the briefing packs of senior officials in foreign ministries, donor organisations or multi-laterals: and in so doing, increase the impact of the point. It is always good, as a policy official, to include a statistic or binary number. Those pushed for time often skim read till they reach numbers.

The power of an index should be derived from the rigor of its methodology.

One of the problems is the subjectivity of weightings used in composed indices. Unless the weightings are 100% equal, then the composer’s bias is inadvertently (or consciously) woven on to the final results. Most indices are composed by numerous components and each component can therefore be given a different weight depending on its perceived significance. Unless the index is entirely independent – meaning that it’s not funded or undertaken by one or a group of organisations with specific goals in mind – then the weightings on each component can be played with until they represent the existing beliefs of the author rather than the unbiased reality on the ground. And this needn’t be malicious but your opinion of what is important may be different from my opinion, but if I’m creating the index then I get to choose and the results of the index will reflect that.

The politically safest methodology, therefore, would be to equally weigh each component. Though some would argue that this requires each component to be of equal significance for the outset otherwise you are creating equals out of unequal values. In 2010, the UN’s Human Development Index was republished as the IHDI or Inequality-Adjusted HDI. The IHDI intends to show how much inequality affects human development, by comparing its values with the more common HDI values.

In comparison, ECHO’s Vulnerability and Crises Indices does in fact directly impact on policy as ECHO (one of the world’s largest humanitarian donors) determines its priority countries depending on the results of the indices. As the Commission states: ‘They are intended to be a common alternative reference framework to ensure consistency in the allocation of resources among the various geographical zones according to their respective needs’.

Indices are always going to be subjective. They are interesting to see which country is better at x or which sector is better at y. But they are less useful in driving or forming policy. They are good for rankings but not absolute values. Therefore, their greatest asset is the comparability of one year’s rankings with the next, and the next, and the next.

For more on weighting and development related indices see Chowdhury and Squire (2006). If you want to look further in to this issue, here are a few (randomly selected) others:

Do add others . . .

Are books relevant to humanitarians? Part I

AL2I’ve been reading a lot of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) books recently. It’s interesting to see how a sub-genre of this nature is emerging as part of humanitarian reading matter. In the gender there is already the critical memoirs that aren’t textbooks or philosophical tombs but must reads for all inspiring humanitarians, such as Linda Polman, Fiona Terry, Conor Foley. There are the philosophical or ethical debates, such as The Selfish Altruist or Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the contradictions. And most recently we’ve seen an attempt at humanitarian fiction with #MMMM.

Following a bit of research, it became apparent that writing, and hence books, is an important thread running through the organisation’s history. These MSF books always try to explain or philosophise around the work that the organisation does. This includes both the historical accounts, such as Medical Innovations in Humanitarian Situations, and the more fictional stories like Band-Aid for a Broken Leg and Six Months in Sudan. I wonder whether it’s the calibre of volunteers that MSF attracts or a result of organisational design or objective setting?

The most recent of the MSF books that I read was Life in Crisis: The ethical journey of doctors without borders by Peter Redfield. My brief qualification in philosophy has meant that I’m drawn to the ethical debates around humanitarian aid and I was very much looking forward to this book. Sadly, I have to say I was disappointed. The sentences are at times unnecessarily long and there is a sense that a phrase or word has been left out. Most of the evidence is derived from the author’s experience of one African country, Uganda. One entire chapter (8) is dedicated to the history of this country.

Redfield poses some interesting questions and draws out appealing conclusions, though the connection between these is not always logical or clear. Nonetheless, I love his reference to the SitRep (Situation Report) as the humanitarian’s Lonely Planet!

For a more efficient means to learn about and reflect on the ethical journey of MSF and particularly the ethical dilemmas their volunteers face, I must recommend the 2010 film/documentary, Living In Emergency. Perhaps, its time for MSF to focus more on these new methods of communication? After all, it’s just as easy to travel with a harddrive as it is a book, and we are all forced to carry laptops, which the harddrive can be plugged in to?

An Imperfect Offering follows James Orbinski’s personal journey as a man and as a humanitarian. Orbinski’s first mission with MSF was to Peru in 1992 and he was President of MSF’s International Council between 1998 and 2001. Simply written, it captivates the reader on a journey through Orbinski’s missions with MSF to places like Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Zaire, Kosovo, and Sudan. Powerful and compelling, the book is at the same time a very personal autobiography as well as an exploration of humanitarianism and what it means to be a humanitarian.

He shares with the readers his struggles as he tries to apply the principles of humanitarianism in the real world with all its complex political realities. Grown men have been known to cry whilst reading it. It’s a book that really teaches about humanitarianism, both the theory and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling. The only bone I have to pick with Orbinski’s text is his contribution to the representation of humanitarians as chain-smoking drunks…

Another most read for aspiring humanitarian philosophers and practitioners alike is Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The humanitarian experience. The honesty of MSF in publishing the details of difficult decisions regarding operations in insecure, political ‘dodgy’ and ethically questionable situations must be congratulated. Following the recent decision to withdraw from Somalia, this would be my recommendation for your September read. Not a bedtime story but yet again central to gaining an understanding of the MSF brand and organisation.AL1

Other books in the MSF sub-genre:

Bortolotti, Dan, 2004. Hope in Hell: Inside the world of MSF

Abu-Sada, Caroline, ed. 2012. In the Eyes of Others: How people in crises perceive humanitarian aid

Abu-Sada, Caroline, ed. 2012. Dilemmas, Challenges, and Ethics of Humanitarian Action: Reflections on MSF’s perception project

Weissmann, Fabrice, ed. 2004. In the Shadow of Just Wars: Violence, politics and humanitarian action

Let us know if any are missing . . .