13 March 2012

Book Review: Damned Nations

The timing of the Kony 2012 campaign is quite apt in light of the recent release of Dr Samantha Nutt's memoir-cum-aid commentary Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies & Aid. Dr Nutt, a physician and the founder and Executive Director of War Child Canada, shares her experiences as an aid worker in conflict zones for the past 15 years.

Dr. Nutt's first exposure to conflict was while working as a UNICEF field volunteer in Somalia in 1995. There, she made the mistake of surveying a resettlement camp alone. Little did she know that the landowner was watching over her movements. He was charging the people money to access the UNICEF-built water source in the camp. Dr. Nutt was not aware of this when she took a picture of a child taking water from the reservoir.

Security guards were dispatched when the landowner thought Dr. Nutt was recording evidence of his fee for water access. In this experience, Dr. Nutt was exposed to the many layers that are at work when there is a humanitarian response to a conflict. People in the camp were traveling further to gather water because of the fees. The book continues to cover a career path in conflict zones like eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her writing is most compelling when describing her first-hand experiences. Writers who have worked in aid, and especially in conflict zones, have to establish some level of credibility by narrating a particularly dangerous event. Striking a balance is often hard and can come across like an exercise in saying "look at how bad ass I am."

The strength of Dr. Nutt's book is her restraint in telling these stories. She has experienced attacks and lost friends to assassinations. The focus largely tends to be away from herself. Her inclusion in the stories is a matter of being the witness, not the central player. It is a subtle, but important mechanism that appears to be deliberately employed. In doing so, Dr. Nutt profiles the accomplishments of individuals in their own right, rather than through her help or benevolence.

Mariam, a Somali midwife who worked with UNICEF to curb female genital mutilation, is one example. Dr Nutt narrates a section where she observed Mariam take the lead during a meeting with village elders to explain why ending FGM is important to women's health. Mariam convinced the men to allow her to speak with the village women.

Dr Nutt follows up the story saying, "To be present for these conversations - these moments of education, revelation, and sisterhood - is to confront our assumptions. The entire humanitarian movement and cacophony of NGOs it has spawned are, to melancholic effect, anchored to the myth of the poor nebulous "Other" (in deference to Ryszard Kapuscinski): Hurry, we must save them."

The book progresses in this manner. A self-reflection or personal event is connected to aid - how it is operated and how it is perceived. The final section sheds the stories, transitioning to criticism and ultimately advice. She touches on the challenges and shortcomings of voluntourism, NGO communication tactics to elicit donations, and the myth of low overheads.

For aid workers and people already working in the humanitarian space, these conversations are not groundbreaking. Some may disagree on her points, but have already been exposed to these views. For young people and anyone with little understanding of aid, Dr. Nutt begins to shed light on the many competing ideas that impact aid and development.

The lesson she imparts is that aid is imperfect and has the potential to reduce suffering. As an introduction to international aid, Damned Nations is excellent. The writing style is free from NGO jargon and Dr Nutt's storytelling is engaging. Given the rise in popularity of conflict in aid over the past two weeks, this is a good place for people who are just starting to learn about the subjects.

If Kony 2012 was an introduction to the impact conflict has on the lives of people in Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic, this is a book that will illuminate the continuity of conflict and poverty. It will describe the many contributing factors to conflict and its both direct and indirect consequences.

Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the author. The opinion of this book is entirely my own. I was not provided compensation or any gifts in exchange for this review.