Chasing Misery (a book review)

If you’ve been following my other projects over the past year/months, you know that I’m very much about gaining better understanding of and then explaining to those who apparently matter, this group of people we call “aid workers.” We’re understudied, usually mis-represented, too-frequently both lauded and also blamed for the wrong things. Beyond a few, frequently cringe-inducing memoirs, the voices of aid workers themselves are largely absent from the majority of current writing, analysis, critique, and other representation of the aid industry.

Depending on which numbers you choose to read and how you choose to read them, females–women–account for anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the aid industry workforce. This means that if we are to understand the global community of people we call aid workers, we inevitably need to look specifically at the experiences of the women who go out to the front lines (including the front lines of Geneva, Brussels, DC, and NYC) to carry out relief and development work.

Chasing Misery: an anthology of essays by women in humanitarian responses is the first book that I’m aware of which shares the experience of aid work from a uniquely female perspective. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of essays and photographs, of and about aid work, by women who are aid workers.

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This is not some dry 35,000 ft. theory debate, or boring digression into the weeds of statistical regressions. No, Chasing Misery is an engaging read that keeps you turning pages.  The chapters are short and readable, the writing is visceral and emotive. The images are strong, sometimes gritty.

I knew many of the official answers as to why it was broken—
lack of budget allocation at the national and provincial levels,
poor incentives for female doctors to stay in this remote area,
abysmal management, supervision and recognition of health staff,
low education and nutritional status of pregnant women—but
I couldn’t get my heart to understand why, with a multi-million
dollar healthcare project, there wasn’t more care for those babies,
more options for those mothers.

p. 107

Chasing Misery is not a book to read if you need a happy ending where all the grateful beneficiaries bow slightly and say ‘thank you’ before returning home, content with their bag of CSB and bottle of vegetable oil. Chasing Misery summarily dispatches the myth that aid is some romantic, soft-focus international adventure. It’s not the end-all-be-all, of course, but then it’s obvious that it’s not intended to be. Chasing Misery is an invaluable early addition to the much too small, but thankfully growing, body of writing and perspective out there by actual aid workers.

It has been years now since I last set foot in the sands of Darfur,
but the condition remains with me still. In books, in friends, in the
far corners of life, I have continued my search for the ‘why’. And I
have yet to find it.
The condition is hard to shake. Surely, there must be some
explanation. So I continue to go around and around in the
maddening cycle of my humanitarian hamster wheel of questioning,
and of all the countless sources.

p. 239


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You can find Chasing Misery online at the following places:

 Chasing Misery is available for purchase as a paperback (,, or as an ebook (


Surviving the life

This is a re-post, with some revisions, of a post that originally appeared here.

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One thing that’s too-rarely mentioned in the heated debate about how to fix aid is how to fix or at least take care of us, the humanitarian workers. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe we feel guilty worrying about ourselves while surrounded by those who we perceive to have things far worse than us. Maybe we don’t feel that we deserve help ourselves when that help is paid for by donor resources. Maybe we revel in our own personal fables of strength and stamina. Maybe we think we have to figure it all out on our own. Or maybe we’re just too busy to stop for a minute and just think about what we’re doing (with our lives). 

For what it’s worth, here are three survival tips. I don’t claim that these are the end-all, be-all. There is plenty of good advice out there. But here are three things that you can do or begin immediately to increase your chances of survival in the crazy aid world:

Be yourself: It sounds really basic, but as you probably know already, aid workers can be some of the biggest poseurs on the planet. You know how it is: whether you’re preparing your CV for another job interview or sitting in the teamhouse quaffing beers with a bunch of aid workers who don’t know you at all, there’s always the temptation to Botox your own narrative. We all succumb at different times to the temptation to make it seem like we’ve had experience that we haven’t really had. An eleven-week deployment becomes 3 months, becomes “half a year” (including prep before and detox after…). Admin assistant to the VP who led the life-saving workshop becomes “executive assistant”, becomes “I co-facilitated the workshop…” And before you know it you’ve become someone you’re not, trying to live up to a manufactured past, and hoping no one blows your cover.

Take the easy way out of this situation by never getting into it. Be yourself. Don’t front. Don’t B.S. your colleagues. Don’t try to make yourself out to be more than you are. You don’t have to self-deprecate or affect a lack of confidence.

But just be yourself. You’ll live longer.

Stay healthy: You know what to do. Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Don’t drink too much. Don’t smoke. We know how it is: things get crazy in the field (and at HQ, too). When you’re on lock-down you can’t exactly go running out around the neighborhood for fitness. And using the one treadmill in the teamhouse isn’t really an attractive option when it’s in the room where everyone else sits and watches TV while smoking. Maybe you’re in a country where it’s all but impossible to find something to eat other than simple carbohydrates cooked in deep fat. Or maybe it’s just that between the grants that have to be written and the evaluation reports that have to be submitted and the field visits that have to be conducted, combined with spouse/partner/child/parent drama sucking you in from a thousand miles away, you’re too emotionally exhausted for much more than a bottle of something and a few cigarettes before crashing for the night.

Find ways to stay healthy. If you have to spend extra per diem on healthy food, do it. If you have to learn yoga and practice it in your room in order to stay fit, do it. If you need join a 12-step program in order to quit drinking or smoking, do it. If you need to declare yourself “sick” for the weekend to just sleep, do it. This is your life you’re talking about here. Save it.

Have an exit strategy: There’s a growing body of information out there (including some in this blog) about how to get in to the aid industry. But almost no one talks to aid workers about leaving. So here you go: decide now how you want your career in aid or development to end. If you plan to do this through retirement, that’s fine. Just decide now, because otherwise you will wake up one day wondering where the hell the last 12 years went…

I don’t mean to sound harsh or negative, but it has to be said: the aid world will take as much of you as you’re willing to part with, and give you precious little in return beyond a career-worth of awesome Facebook status updates. The aid world will cheerfully give you another contract and send you on another hardship deployment, all the while watching you crash and burn financially, professionally, personally. If you let it, that is.

Think now about what kinds of things would cause you to up and walk away so that you don’t spend half of your career disillusioned but unable to articulate why you’re still here/there. Think now about when, in the seasons of life cycle, you plan to hand in your aid worker credentials and switch over to running your own coffee shop (or whatever). After a life of sacrifice on behalf of the poor it may feel crass to do so, but plan now for your financial post-aid-work future and take steps to ensure it.

Aid work can be extremely rewarding and even (dare I say it?) fun. But you need to know how you plan to leave. Have an exit strategy.