The aid industry (or humanitarian industry as this book has it) is an emotive subject. An industry that creates a culture of dependence and stifles development is one of its lesser charges, to the more serious that it can prop up dictatorships by providing what the state won’t. What has been missing from the debate is a book written by humanitarian workers on the ground who tell it as it is. Another Day in Paradise is that book.
The first book to compile accounts and diary entries from humanitarian workers, its editor, Carol Bergman, states the reason we haven’t seen such a book before is because of the major commitment undertaken to compile it. Workers are often posted in remote places without instant access to communications. In the places where email and satellite phone contact was possible it was often monitored by suspicious governments. A story from Sudan was abandoned for fear of jeopardising a clinic. Some agencies simply wouldn’t take part. Others, aware that the text would reach potential donors, wanted to impose rigid controls on the edit.
The resulting book is worth the years of effort. Containing 15 entries spread over three different themes -Natural Disasters, War and Fragile Peace – Another Day in Paradise not only offers a fascinating insight into the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs)but also into the minds of the humanitarian workers; their motives and the unease they often feel about their presence.
One case describes Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Corruption reigned – local staff distributing rations to their friends and selling the rest on the black market – but the hardest moral conundrum for the author and her colleagues was the unavoidable collaboration with the Taliban, whose oppressive regime was meanwhile closing girls’ schools and stoning adulterers to death. This uneasy cooperation is a recurring theme throughout the book.
Another leit motif is the conflict within the individual. Postings often consist of long days, late nights and snatched relationships. In many postings, workers experience fear of physical attack. In Chad, as one worker was overseeing the distribution of US food aid, the Americans bombed two Libyan cities, one close to Chad. Immediately, Americans in the area became potential targets. The author describes the change in mood that followed; the relaxed and easy going relationship she had with city and its inhabitants switched to anxiety. The American NGOs started using armed escorts, nights out were nervous and subdued affairs under the gaze of the French military. The author goes on to chart her physical demise as she succumbs to hepatitis. As a Libyan plane dropped a bomb on the airport dangerously close to her home her fate as a humanitarian worker was sealed. She didn’t renew her contract and returned to the USA.
In what is essentially a book of personal recollections, Another Day in Paradise succeeds in getting behind the headlines; a revealing insight into what happens to the ‘story’ after the cameras have gone.