Top Ten Books on Humanitarian Aid

It’s difficult to imagine that there is someone out there who has read all the books about humanitarian aid ever written – perhaps Slim, Randy K or P Walker? Therefore we have to start with the caveat that this list is our list and not scientifically drawn up based on a detailed methodology or algorithm.

In fact we settled on nine books and one documentary. In chronological order, our top ten are:

1. Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation’ 1983
2. Mary Anderson’s ‘Do No Harm: How aid can support peace – or war’ 1999
3. Tony Vaux’s ‘The Selfish Altruist: Relief work in famine and war’ 2001
4. David Kennedy’s ‘The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism’ 2005
5. Samantha Power’s ‘A Problem From Hell: America and the age of genocide’ 2010
6. Peter Gill’s ‘Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since live aid’ 2010
7. Claire Magone, Michael Neuman and Fabrice Weissman’s ‘Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF experience’ 2011
8. Hugo Slim’s ‘Essays in Humanitarian Action’ 2012
9. Ben Ramalingam’s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos: Rethinking international cooperation in a complex world’ 2013
10. MSF’s ‘Living in An Emergency: Stories of doctors without borders’ 2008

Thank you to everyone who sent us tweets or comments to add to the list. A full list of the books sent us can be downloaded here and we of course welcome further suggestions in the comments below.

Al Jazeera’s ‘The Stream’ interviews Aid Leap for ‘Samaritans Gone Wrong’

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to start your blog? And why is it anonymous?

Aid Leap: We’re a group of ex colleagues who regularly sent each other rants or criticism of the aid sector via email. These would include tongue in cheek commentary of the latest situation we found ourselves in; analysis of the latest blog or article; diatribes about how x person or y organisation was doing it ‘all wrong’! One day we ended up joking about the things we wished we’d known about before getting in to the sector. Someone said ‘if only future aid workers knew some of these things’ and voila Aid Leap was born.

We want to encourage the sector to take a leap forward by continuing to evaluate, criticise and share ideas amongst peers. Our aim is not to destroy the sector but rather to strengthen it.

Anonymity allows us to write in a more relaxed style. As a group, our beliefs and ideas are not homogeneous. Aid Leap doesn’t have one policy approach like a campaign organisation would have. Anonymity allows Aid Leap to play devil’s advocate on a whole range of topics. Finally, it allows our ideas to be judged separately from the prejudice of who we are, where we are from or what organisation we are working for. It gives our thoughts and comments a degree of impartiality.

Al Jazeera: In regards to the power dynamics between the foreigner and local NGO worker, what is the most troubling thing you’ve experienced working in a developing county?

Aid Leap: There are a range of behaviours that foreigners or expats sometimes take on when abroad or ‘in the field’ which we assume they wouldn’t use normally. Here are some examples from the Aid Leap crew:

  • Derogatory and demeaning tones and languages are more regularly used. A staff member with lower capacity does not have a lower standard of personal dignity or deserve less respect.
  • One Aid Leap member worked with and ex-Army general who had been honoured for their service to their nation, but was completely rude and disrespectful to the team of drivers and mechanics that he led. Somehow it was accepted that he could shout, swear and insult his local staff in the workplace. And he openly and incessantly talked about their failings. If he’d have exhibited that behaviour in HQ, there would have been disciplinary action or at least the suggestion of counselling.
  • “In several countries that I have worked in, foreign aid workers receive double the monthly medical allowance despite everyone living and working in the same country.”
  • “Many times, I’ve sat in a lengthy staff meeting and realised that the only people talking are the three foreigners: typically the Country Director, a Senior Manager and the intern”
  • Often the expat community is intensely distrustful of local services and people. Although a natural part of any change curve, it seems to persist rather than wane in many situations.
  • “Sundays by the pool were known as ‘our time’ because that was the place that only expats could afford to hang out”

Al Jazeera: Do you think the expat aid culture needs major change? If so, what could be the first step?

Aid Leap: Staff are rewarded for being expats and encouraged to move abroad, rather than to stay in their home country where they have the added skill of understanding the culture, language and context of the crises. An experienced senior manager from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo moved abroad to work in order to get a salary befitting his experience and seniority. This equates to pulling capacity away from where it’s most needed!

Expats are often housed together and almost always separately from local or national staff. In one refugee camp national staff from a different region of the country with a different language, religion and culture to the beneficiaries and majority of the staff were housed separately to the handful of western expats.

At lunchtime in an NGO office you will regularly see the national staff in the kitchen eating together and the international staff at the restaurant across the road. Part of this may be due to the discrepancy in per diems – for example, in Country X national staff receive $6 per day whilst international staff receive $20.

Tokenistic inclusion of national staff is not the answer.

High international turnover means that those in charge often have little grasp of the situation or history. For example, one aid worker after being in the country for 5 months asked ‘who is that?’ when a national member of staff mentioned the (particularly notorious) President!

Aid Leap has seen several occasions when pairing expats with national staff can help raise the quality of the work, share the burden and build the ability of national staff to manage the work themselves.

To watch the full programme, go to:

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!