Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

November 20, 2013

Lessons from 10 years of working with humanitarian aid agencies

Jessica Alexander at a book reading at Quail Ridge
Books in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Brenda Summers
“Humanitarian aid is about helping people rebuild their lives,” Jessica Alexander states in reflecting on her 10 years of working with agencies in Rwanda, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Haiti and other countries.
Alexander is now traveling the United States discussing her work and promoting her book, Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid.  During a book reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina, she said that, after 10 years, she felt it was time to reflect on her experiences going back and forth between emergency areas. 

The author started her journey with an internship in Rwanda during graduate school. After completing her master’s degree, she worked with agencies in Darfur, managing a 24,000-camp of internally displaced people. After completing her research for a Fulbright Grant on child soldiers in Sierra Leone, she was able to provide evidence which was used in the prosecution and conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes. Alexander was also a relief worker in Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami and later in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
Jessica Alexander signs books at
Quail Ridge Books in
Raleigh, North Carolina.
Alexander notes that countries around the world have many silent emergencies right now, but they don’t receive media attention that draws needed support from donors. In these contexts, there may be as many people in need, but with limited resources, agencies struggle to prove relief.  

She wants people to learn several lessons from the book and her experiences, including how best to help after an emergency. She also wants to change some misconceptions about humanitarian aid and to provide insights into the people impacted by disasters who are not looking for handouts but are working with resilience and strength to rebuild their lives after a disaster. 

While Alexander finds the work rewarding, she admits that it can be very difficult and after a while can lead to burnout.  Today, she continues to make short trips to emergency areas, but most of her work now is with humanitarian agencies headquartered in New York. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia, New York and Fordham universities. She is working on her Ph.D. at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, focusing her research on accountability in humanitarian aid.

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