I’ve been looking around for a good read for the past several months and finding myself dissatisfied with the airport bookstore. So I was glad to get a review copy of J’s latest: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit.
I read it in one sitting on the plane home from a meeting about disruption, civil society and the capacity of international development/aid organizations to adapt, so it was through that lens that I consumed the book. It pretty much answered the question “can INGOs adapt?” (Spoiler alert: prognosis is not good.)
And make no mistake: These structural issues are universal. It’s not Oxfam or WAC or Save or CARE. You don’t escape this problem by moving to another organization or taking a different job in your current organization, because this is the nature of the aid industry itself.
J’s description of personal agendas, bureaucracy, competition, jostling for position, stressed local government workers, exhausted staff, and unrealistic demands from donors and headquarters is an insider’s view of why INGOs have a hard time adapting and changing. The book describes the complexity of aid and humanitarian work in detail, bringing in the conflicting push and pull of the different stakeholders.
Rather than complexity encouraging adaptation and organizations that are more “fit for purpose,” however, J’s main characters are trapped in complexity that paralyzes, breeds mediocrity, loses sight of the mission and rewards the “wrong” motives and decisions.
Aid is not broken because aid workers are cynical, hedonistic alcoholics. Aid workers are cynical alcoholics because aid is broken, and further, because they have been repeatedly slapped down by their own leaders for trying to make it better.
J does recognize the conflicts, however, and (with only a little bit of blame and harsh judgment), he shows the demands made on people at all levels of the aid machine:
Management and leadership are the easiest things in the world until you actually have to do them.
J does a good job of humanizing the aid worker and his or her personal and professional struggles within this dysfunctional system. He writes about how the passion for aid work conflicts with the personal choices each aid worker makes, most significantly when the addiction to aid work obliterates the possibility of having “normal” and healthy relationships with one’s family and home country society. The book also highlights the internal doubts and fears of self-aggrandizement that any self-reflective aid worker experiences:
…Suddenly Mary-Anne felt overwhelmed with the feeling that her career in the humanitarian world had thus far been built on so much self-important dishonesty….
….“You come here, you and your foreign friends. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to instruct refugees about drinking enough water or where they should shit every day.” He snorted derisively. “These people were mapping the stars and perfecting mathematics while your ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing naked around fires in the forest…. You children come here to patiently explain to Ethiopians about accountability and honesty… You think we need you to help us know right from wrong. You come here to ‘supervise’ people old enough to be your parents. My youngest daughter is your age. ”
Reading the book was like having a long conversation with J over Skype or beers where he offers you career advice and makes you feel better by acknowledging you that you are not the first person to experience internal conflict and self-doubt. There is a fair bit of J bestowing his wisdom on the reader, but I find that J normally has good insights and offers solid advice, so this did not bother me.
I did feel that the book was half-finished. Several of the characters introduced early in the book were not developed out in the rest of it. Given the “to be continued” on the last page, I assume that their stories will be picked up in the next book in the series. I also would have liked more about the setting and history woven in, and more active roles for some of the “local” characters, as well as a chance to get inside their heads and see their perspectives in more depth. This would have rounded the book out and brought it fully from the tongue-in-cheek harlequin romance novel style of J’s first book (Disastrous Passion) to a more solid kind of “historical fiction”.
Some have criticized the book for being aimed solely at those in the aid and development world and making too many “insider” assumptions. I suspect, however, that J purposely wrote it for “Expat Aid Workers,” and I didn’t find that to be a problem. Simplifying things for a mainstream audience would water the book down, making it less “real” for those working in the sector. This choice means that this book will not become a best seller outside of the industry — but I don’t think it is meant to.
I will note that the fact that I didn’t have a problem with the level of detail-that-only-an-aid-or-development-worker-would-appreciate probably means that I am sitting firmly in the category of “Misfit.” Read the book and you’ll understand what I mean!
Disclosures: I was provided with a free copy for review. I have known J for quite some time and consider him a friend, which may color my opinions about the book.