Ten Books to Read Before Becoming a Humanitarian

There are hundreds of academic texts on humanitarian aid, several memoirs and numerous books criticising the sector. For those considering a career in the sector, and those still new to the sector, here is our list of ten books that together represent a good introduction to the challenges, criticisms, adventures and hope that together provide an insight.6mnths

In no particular order, are:
1. Dr Marcel Junod ‘Warrior Without Weapons’ 1982 – the memoir of an ICRC delegate from 1935 to 1945. Talks through the role of the ICRC, the Geneva Conventions, and about what being a humanitarian was like back in the early days.
2. Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire’s ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ 2003 – there are so many books on Rwanda but this one is heartfelt, harsh and highlights the problems faced by UN workers, particularly peacekeepers, in the field. Long.
3. Mark Duffield’s ‘Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security’ 2001 – excellent, academic but searing critique of humanitarian aid. Essential explanation of the merging of the development and security agendas, pretty key if you want to understand contemporary ‘coherences’ or ‘stabilisation’ approaches.
4. George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ 1933 – a fascinating counterpoint as it covers Orwell’s first contact with poverty during the pre-WW1 period and describes the ‘aid’ efforts by the then charitable institutions – churches etc. These organisations are basically providing early cash transfers / grants, which provides a degree of historical perspective to the sector.
5. Samantha Power’s ‘Chasing the Flame: One man’s fight to save the world’ 2008 – partly because it’s such a romantic story, partly because it talks about increasing violence towards aid workers, partly because it’s a bit visionary, and it also covers crises not covered in some of the others above such as East Timor.
6. Michael Newman’s ‘Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradictions’ 2009 – an in-depth but logical discussion of the problems surrounding humanitarian intervention.
7. Linda Polman’s ‘War Games: The story of aid and war in modern times’ 2009 – a critical perspective of the sector. Harsh but true.
8. David Rieff’s ‘Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in crisis’ 2002 – a critical perspective of the sector. Harsh but true.
9. Fiona Terry’s ‘Condemned to Repeat?: The paradox of humanitarian action’ 2002 – academic polemic on the dangers of humanitarian aid.
10. Dr James Maskaylk’s ‘Six Months in Sudan: A young doctor in a wartorn village’ 2010 – easy read. Field level memoir by expat aid worker.

… and three you really shouldn’t:
BB1. Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Andrew Thomson’s ‘Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone’ 2006 – self indulgent ‘must read’ that doesn’t live up to the hype.
2. Corinne Hofmann’s ‘The White Masai’ 2001 – too appalling to even merit a write up.
3. Beyond Borders 2003 – a film starring Angelina Jolie as an aid worker.

For advice on getting in to the sector see our ‘How to get in to the international aid sector‘ or ‘Comment integrer le secteur humanitaire‘ and ‘Aid Industry Career Advice‘ by @TalesfromtheHood

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22 thoughts on “Ten Books to Read Before Becoming a Humanitarian

  1. I was really surprised you didn’t include:
    Conor Foley, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, Verso, 2010

    There’s also an English-language book by a woman from the last decade, the details unfortunately escape me, that systematically discuss the mental health dangers of doing supposed humanitarian work.

    I can’t believe these are excluded at the expense of the likes of Ms Power.

    But thanx for doing this list. Hopefully it will provoke some debate, & be informative.

    • Thanks Jara. We were going to say Polman or Foley but in the end it made the blog very long. Though totally agree that’s another important read.
      We would be very interested in hearing about the mental health book if you manage to find the title.
      The objective of this blog was to get a range that covered criticism of the sector, the principles of humanitarian aid, some realistic description of field work and then some hope to ensure people weren’t completely put off! But similarly, we do love to provoke debate.
      Let us know if you have any suggestions for our tep ten books ever – these will be aimed at those with a greater knowledge of the sector rather than an introduction.
      Thanks for your feedback

  2. Thank you for the interesting list and I certainly agree with including Mark Duffield and David Rieff.

    I think anybody considering a career in humanitarian aid should read:
    Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees, by Barbara Harrell-Bond (1986).

    Another ‘eye-opener’ for me was:
    The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism, by David Kennedy (2004)

    Another book that I feel should not be omitted from a list of compulsory reading material for humanitarians is:
    Poverty and Famines, by Amartya Sen (1981)

    Finally, although I often disagree with the author, I would add to my top ten:
    Famine that Kills : Darfur, Sudan, by Alex de Waal (1989)

    Let me know what you think

    @jjnetherlands

  3. With all due respect to various books I’ve always thought the great humanitarian novel is waiting to be written – you’d want a combination of Graham Greene for the atmosphere, Orwell for the searing honesty and Tom Sharpe for the absurdity

  4. More from Twitter:
    ‘Zen under Fire’ suggested by @jeneambrose and @bjrigby
    ‘The Quiet American’ and ‘Burmese Days’ suggested by @ paulharvey72
    ‘Chasing Chaos’ suggested by @Jessalex811 and supported by @bjrigby @viewfromthecave ‏@intldogooder @zenpeacekeeper
    ‘The Golden Fleece’ suggested by @bjrigby
    ‘Backstabbing for Beginners’ suggested by @nonodevrookie
    ‘A Complicated War’ and @PGourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You …” suggested by @KatzOnEarth
    ‘A Problem from Hell’ suggested by @hypersbole
    ‘Road to Hell’ suggested by @PGourevitch
    ‘Desire for Development’ suggested by @jeneambrose
    ‘Disastrous Passion’ and @TalesfromtheHood’s ‘MMMM’ suggested by @chasingcarly
    ‘The Brother’s War: Biafra and Nigeria’ suggested by @MushamukaD

  5. “Famine Crimes” by Alex de Waal
    “The Missionary Position” by Firoze Manji
    http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/media/9672
    “The Silences in NGO discourse” by Issa Shivji
    http://www.pambazuka.org/en/publications/pz_sr_14.pdf
    “NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects ” eds. Aziz Choudry, Dip Kapoor
    “Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs” by Mark Schuller
    “Microfinance and Its Discontents” by Lamia Karim
    “Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work?” by Milford Bateman
    “The Aid Chain” by Tina Wallace
    “Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America” by James Petras
    “Development Hegemony: NGOs and the State in India” by Sangeeta Kamat
    “Planet of Slums” by Mike Davis (contains a searing critique of NGOs …)

    and, I would humbly submit …

    “Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism” by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay

  6. Pingback: Ten Books to Read Before Becoming a Humanitarian | martinplaut

  7. Pingback: #readaidworkerwomen2014 | Women in Aid

  8. On a lighter note, I really liked Helen Fielding’s “Cause Celeb” – I wish that had been made into a movie instead of Bridget Jones Part Deux. Though a little dated now, I totally recognized the German UNHCR rep, the Irish nurse-gone-native, etc – she did a great job of capturing camp life.

  9. “Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. The MSF Experience”. An inside story taking us through some of the biggest humanitarian crises of the last decades. Self-critical and examining, full of examples of humanitarian interventions entailing profound ethical dilemmas where no choice is right.

  10. You might want to check this book out. “Living and Dying with Dogs” is a totally different take on emergency relief and NGO’s. I’d be interested to see what you thought of book. Thanks. Duke http://amzn.to/MgMXIh @duketoearth

  11. Pingback: All the International Development Books (Vote) | The Development Book Club

  12. Pingback: How to get in to the international aid sector | AID LEAP

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