November 12, 2013

After spending the last decade working amid some of the biggest humanitarian crises around the world, Jessica Alexander MIA ’04 recently published Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, a memoir that recounts her experiences abroad and at home. She sat down with SIPA News to talk about the realities of working in the field and why SIPA was an important stepping stone. (She’s also giving readings in NYC on November 14 and 15 – see details below.)

How did you come to write this book?

I had been working on the book  for a number of years;  keeping journals, and writing e-mails home, so I had  a good record of the details and little stories which  I probably would have otherwise forgotten. And then it was coming back from some of these assignments overseas — and I write about this in the book — this “in-and-out” concept of humanitarian aid [got me thinking].

A lot of the book takes place back in the U.S. and I wrote it that way because I found there to be a lot of misconceptions about aid work amongst well-informed, well-educated friends of mine who weren’t in the business. So I wanted to portray more accurately what the aid industry is about, and who aid workers are.

How did you begin working in humanitarian aid?

When I was growing up I really had no clue that this kind of work even existed. Later, I was always interested in social affairs, but I worked on them domestically. In college, I worked in the Department of Health and Human Services, did some work at the Child Care Bureau... focusing on underprivileged youth in our country. Then, after I graduated college, I started work in the private sector, and after my mom died I re-evaluated what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I shifted to a more international focus, combining some of my interest in social affairs with a more worldly, global perspective.

A lot of people think, hey, [humanitarian aid] is just about helping people — what skills do you need? People don’t really think of it as a profession, they think of it as volunteering for charity. But when I entered this field, I was humbled. I quickly realized that this is a profession that requires master’s degrees, field experience, and professional skills to get in.

So how did SIPA fit into all of this?

SIPA was where the humanitarian world kind of exploded for me. I started meeting people from all over the world, people who had just come back from amazing field postings in Africa, Asia, Latin America. It opened my worldview to the possibilities of this career.

Classes were also invaluable in preparing me for what I would experience [later on]. I did a dual master’s with the Mailman School of Public Health. [At SIPA] I studied humanitarian affairs, under Professor Dirk Salomons. I studied human rights law, which was the first time I was exposed to that academic discipline, and it was fascinating. I loved it.

And I think, too, it’s the connections you make. I would never have gotten my first internship if it hadn’t been for the connections at SIPA. And the internship itself was also invaluable, because there’s only so much you can learn in the classroom. It becomes a different thing when you step outside of it, and work in the field.

In the book, you express frustration about the bureaucracy in the field.

Well, I started in Rwanda, very hopeful, idealistic and naive, and I was working for a big bureaucracy. Big bureaucracies, by definition, are slow. So we couldn’t immediately help the people who were coming through the door. And that was a sad reality that I encountered early on but felt over and over and over again.

The next posting in Darfur was where I faced a lot of bureaucracy-speak — you know, “it’s not in our mandate.” It exposed me to the reality that we’re working on a very large scale, and helping individuals is not really what we do. [Rather than focus on individuals,] you have to have a more clinical mentality because you’re trying to help 24,000 displaced people in a camp.

What are some lessons to take away regarding humanitarian work?

I went from Darfur to the tsunami in southeast Asia in December 2004, where there was a massive response from the humanitarian community. There were so many actors working on the ground, and people were sending a lot of stuff that wasn’t necessarily appropriate for the context, though it was from very well-intentioned people. [See Alexander’s recent piece in Slate on responding to Typhoon Haiyan.]

One of the other lessons from there is that we’re pulling the best and brightest out of the [local] civil sector to work for us, because our salaries were higher than what they would make in government, what they would make as a teacher, in local clinics… They came  to work as drivers, translators and administrative staff in the NGO world, in the international humanitarian system, instead of at their respective jobs.

This happened in Haiti, too. You advertise for a position, and you get the most qualified person, but usually that most qualified person is already working for a school or a Ministry. And what can you really do about it? [Ideally] you create sustainable mechanisms so that you both build their capacity while they’re working for you, but then they also have a job to return to. Because we’re not going to be around forever, and you know, we may be paying more in the short-term, but that job is going to go away at some point when our funding runs out.

Any advice for people going into this field?

For SIPA students, I think it really is important to get your field internship and be exposed to the field if that’s what you think you want to go into. Not only for connections but also to get that dose of reality. It’s not only the work but also the personal side of it as well. You know, Rwanda was wonderful, but there were really some lonely, hard times in the beginning. And you need to have that exposure to what it’s like professionally and personally, before you can say, “this is what I want to do.”

There were many times during that internship when I was like, “What am I doing? Where am I?” But in the end, it was really a fantastic experience. At that point in my career, I don’t know how much I was able to contribute. I felt like I was doing a very small thing in a much larger system in the organization. But it was quite transformative in that I was able to come home and say, “OK, this is definitely what I want to be doing.”

— Doyeun Kim MIA ‘14

Jessica Alexander will read from her book on Thursday, November 14, at McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street) and on Friday, November 15, at Barnes & Noble (150 E. 86th Street).Both events are at 7 p.m.

"Please Don’t Send Your Old Shoes to the Philippines," Slate, November 11