“I. Love. This. Job. Oooh-rah!” Letters Left Unsent. My humble review

And I finally did it! A long time ago I promised J. I’d write a review about his latest book. But I took my time to read carefully each Letter in his book: Letters Left Unsent. And I don’t regret it.

For all those who don’t know the author, J. is a full-time professional humanitarian worker with more than twenty years of experience in the aid industry. J. has written two humanitarian novels: Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel and Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. This is his first non-fiction book.

While I was reading through the pages of Letters, it helped me think of my own journey and experiences. I think it’s a great book for anyone who works in the aid and development industry. And also for those who want to know more about the life of aid workers. This doesn’t mean that every point or idea put forward resonated with me (for example a simplistic explanation of Menage o Trois) or will do with you. But overall I felt it’s a good and fair representation of some of the core issues aid workers face.

As I was slowly making my way through the pages, I stopped in certain ‘nuggets’ of wisdom, funny aspects and letters not to be missed. I noted them down for my personal use. So here I’m sharing them with you as a taster of what you’ll find in the book.


10 Nuggets of wisdom

(In order of preference)

  1. I am continually amazed at how regularly I have to reiterate this very basic principle, and how frequently it comes across a surprise to local counterparts and colleagues alike: you should consult the actual people for whom an aid project or program is intended during the planning process.
  2. Know who you’re talking to. Nobody is just one thing. People almost always have more complex roles in communities than is immediately obvious to an outsider. Things are almost never what they seem at first to be.
  3. It’s been one of those moments when I see with great precision what aid is, when I get how it works, and that it does Or at least can. It’s a good moment.
  4. It doesn’t make me better than anyone, but it means there is a great deal of my experience that it is just easier to keep to myself when I am not around those who have not had similar experiences.
  5. It’s important to understand that the ways we think about aid and development matter. The ways we think about aid and development have an effect on the way we do it. Bad thinking (wrong thinking, incorrect thinking) about aid, begets bad aid itself. And in exactly the same way, bad fundraising and bad awareness-raising also beget bad aid. It’s not enough to simply raise awareness. Awareness has to be raised properly. Why? Because if you raise awareness wrong, then you understand the problem wrong; and if you understand the problem wrong, then you’ll inevitably envision the solutions wrong. If you’re a potential donor who’s awareness has been raised wrong—that is, if you were made aware of the issues in the wrong way—then it makes sense that you’ll support organizations that go about addressing the issue wrong, thus perpetuating more bad aid.
  6. It seems unfair and also a bit sad that the future of a large number of refugees in part comes down to our internal debates about staffing structures and budget categories. In the wee hours, with a deadline looming, it is easy for the work to become primarily about a document and about getting the money—and at least temporarily less so much about helping refugees.
  7. Aid work is Often in ways you don’t expect. And it’s not for everyone.
  8. You should receive fair and adequate compensation for the work that you do, even when doing work that is supposed to make the world better, help the poor, and all of that.
  9. Ever eaten a high-energy biscuit? How about CSB porridge? Ever drunk water that used to be nearly raw sewage but has had the contents of a PUR sachet swished around in it? No? I didn’t think so. Try some of that before handing it out to disaster or famine survivors with the attitude of Michael the Archangel.
  10. Don’t get me wrong. I love aid work, and I get that it—almost by definition—includes NGOs. But as I look at how hard it is for aid organizations to stay on track, or by contrast, how easily we get distracted, entangled, and muddled, it becomes tougher to fight a growing sense of despair with the system (punctuating moments of brilliance, obvious good that gets accomplished, notwithstanding).

Funniest aspect of the book

The Aid Work Suitability Self-Test. It’s just hilarious. Don’t miss it. I’d say, first do this and then start reading the book! My favourite question: Which of the following do you envision yourself doing when you daydream about your future aid career? And I went for option f: Getting carpal tunnel syndrome from the amount of typing/writing you do.

3 Letters you can’t miss!

  1. Things I’ve Learned
  2. What do the poor deserve
  3. Sacrifice

And to conclude, I’ll leave you with this wonderful reflection:

“The hardest part of this job is not seeing awful things in the field. It’s not repeatedly witnessing the suffering of others and being able to offer little as a remedy, dealing with corrupt district officials, getting sick, or spending too long away from one’s family too often, hard as those things truly can be. No, the hardest part of this job is simply dealing day after day with the crushing weight of a system that fundamentally lacks real incentives for getting right what it claims as its core purpose. And by the same token, the most dangerous part of this job is not armed militants, or bad drivers, or blood parasites. No, the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself. It will eat your soul if you let it.

Some days it is about just getting through the day. Some days it comes down to a conscious decision to invoke—almost as an act of faith—the “what is possible,” in order to cope with the “what is.” Some days it’s about identifying spheres of influence, focusing my efforts in those places where I know I can make a difference, and letting the others go. Some days I have to consciously reassess where I fit into the big picture and adjust accordingly my expectations of what I can feasibly contribute. Some days it’s about finding that Zen place. Some days it takes a conscious act of dogged will to stay.”

I can’t agree more.

Thanks J. for your writing. Keep it coming!

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