Synopsis: An American law grad, a New York Secretary and a Kiwi doctor sign up for field work with the UN that takes them to conflicts in Cambodia, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans. Stress, love and disillusionment follow.
My Take: Oh dear. I’m sure everyone has a book like this on their bookshelves. A good friend of mine lent me this book some years ago now raving that it perfectly encapsulated her experiences doing aid work in seriously unsafe and highly stressful locales. Unfortunately, she moved on from Melbourne to a life of saving the world in ‘the field’ before I had a chance to read, and return the book. Such bad behaviour! It’s even worse given that it really irritates me when people borrow and don’t return my books. I promise, if we ever live in the same country again, I’ll be sure to return it to its rightful owner.
As for the book itself, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The tension and the exoticism of the locations gives the book a natural urgency that keeps you turning the pages. But I have to say, I found the American woman who signed up for a field placing with the UN for a change of scenery after an existential crisis brought on by a failed marriage was more than a little self-indulgent. Similarly, the naivete of the law graduate who signs up for aid work only to become disillusioned at the impotence of the UN was irritating after a while – I mean really, what did he expect ? That being said, the characters did go through quite a bit during their time in the field and in general it’s compelling and rewarding reading.
It did make me wonder about the motivations of people doing this work though. Not many people know, but just before I took my first job in politics, I had been accepted for an Youth Ambassador role for the Papua New Guinea government working in the PNG highlands. I ended up knocking it back when my dream of becoming a Labor hack came true, but while reading this book I did look back on my motivations for applying for this role at the time. Thinking honestly about it, I can’t really say my motivations were purely altruistic. The overwhelming motivation was wanting to do something different and exciting with my life – more working adventure holiday than aid work. So I can easily imagine someone rightly questioning the frivolity of my motivations for being interested in this work too.
As a postscript, I later read in the papers that the guy who had actually taken the role in PNG had been attacked by local Raskols while working in the highlands. So a life of comparative domestication in the ALP probably worked out for the best.
One day someone at UNHQ will commission an official report about this disaster, replete with mea culpas and lessons learned. But for me there’s only one lesson and it’s staring right at me every day as I eat lunch: If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs. I learned that the day we were evacuated from Haiti.