Assumptions and revelations – a book review of Letters Left Unsent
There’s an activity I did once at an applied improvisation conference about the assumptions we make about other nationalities. We were a large, mixed group from a dozen or so different countries. The Dutch amongst the group sat out and watched as the rest of us mimed and charaded our interpretations of Dutch culture. There was the inevitable bicycle riding, cheese eating, and tall, loud men shouting. The Dutch then responded with what they thought we had got right and what was wrong, or left out. Inevitably, there was a LOT left out. Despite our cumulative knowledge of Dutch culture, our views were narrow and stereotypical.
This came to mind as I was reading “Letters Left Unsent” – a compilation of essays drawn from blog posts written over the years by J, a career humanitarian. Ask anyone outside of the aid industry what aid workers do and there will be the inevitable responses of providing emergency assistance after disasters, building schools and health clinics, working with the poor and disenfranchised, and travelling to places most of us have never heard of. All of this is true, of course, and also narrow and stereotypical, just as our interpretation of our friends’ Dutch culture.
Aid, development work, humanitarian work, disaster response are all a part of it – and so is sitting in front of a computer screen, drafting grant applications, entering data into spreadsheets, answering emails, and having Skype meetings with colleagues at all times of the day and night. And, working out of Geneva, or Washington, or Nairobi. Humanitarians also struggle with conflicting demands – the demands of the job, the demands of friends, and of family, as J. writes in one of the more personal essays: Never Here.
J. also touches on some of the everyday dilemmas of doing humanitarian work as perceived by others: the glamour of travel (versus the reality of dingy airports, dodgy planes, and inevitable queues) and the wide-eyed interest in your latest deployment, that is soon replaced by glazed looks as you try and explain where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing, especially when that work and those places are far removed from the everyday reality of suburban life in a high-income country.
As interesting as these stories and insights are, it’s the description of the differences between good and bad aid that, I think, is the power of this book, especially for any readers outside of the aid industry. Or for anyone contemplating an aid project, or starting their own NGO, or even considering a career in aid. These insights are invaluable, especially in understanding why it’s not good aid to collect used bicycles and ship them off to a poor community somewhere in the world.
The essays in this book will enlighten, they will make you cringe, sometimes cry, laugh out loud, wish for a career in aid, and be thankful you don’t have a career in aid. That’s quite an accomplishment. It is testament to J’s writing and storytelling skills, and deep understanding of the aid industry and what it means to be a humanitarian.
Disclosure: I once had a beer with the author and asked many of the dumb questions he mentions in the book. He graciously answered my questions, without making me feel at all dumb, or stupid for asking what, for him, must have felt like, “Oh, not again!”
Disclosure 2: I once subjected the author to my facilitation in one of the many Very Important Meetings that he has to attend.