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Book Review – Something Bigger Than Ourselves

July 15, 2013


Want the short story? I love this book – you should buy it – preferably through this Amazon link!

Something Bigger than Ourselves is at once an introduction to the organizations of the humanitarian aid business, an anthropology of the personalities, and a diagnostic of it’s ills and complaints. It’s also a manual for how to navigate and survive them, and a prescription for how to address them. It’s more than that though – because if you read carefully, and between the lines, you’ll find hints of a very personal story, if not exactly an autobiography, then at least a frank and honest guide through the subject matter.

In a field of literature dominated either by grand geopolitical theories or disgruntled and critical rants about the aid business, this is a rare book. It focusses on the human story, but in a disciplined and thoughtful way – practical without being callous, compassionate but never sentimental. I come away from it feeling more that I have had a chat with an old friend in a bar in Nairobi than read a treatise on development. It is rigorously sourced and thoughtfully arranged (and I mean that in a good way).

It’s conclusions are modest, at the scale of the human being, and most of its recommendations pragmatic rather than sweeping. Not for her radical restructuring of the UN, rather a call to us all to be more thoughtful and ethical practitioners. If I have a criticism it is that it tends to dwell on the downsides of the work, and does not show some of the more exciting movements at the edge of mainstream humanitarianism. Her slight tendency towards pessimism lends a feeling of melancholy to some of the book, although I am not certain she isn’t right in some of her analysis…

As a teacher and a development practitioner I often get questions through my website and class about what aid work is like, and how to ‘get into it’. This book starts with a thorough overview of the sector, the work, and the life that answers many of those, but goes far beyond that, grappling with issues of how to thrive as a human being within the system.

I intend to recommend ‘Something Bigger than Ourselves’ to all my students, it’s a great introduction to the world and issues of humanitarian aid. I also recommend it to every aid worker – her thoughtful call to self-knowledge and introspection about our practice is a useful reminder of the need to hold the course, stay true to our principles, and strive to do the best work that we’re able to do. Perhaps we shouldn’t need that reminder, but I think in the frantic melee of the day-to-day chaos and urgency that we do. We really do.

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