Waylaid Dialectic

June 5, 2013

The Game of Aid

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:00 am
game of thrones

Everyone says Paul Collier looks different when you meet him in person…

When asked what he was trying to achieve in writing his fantasy mega-hit ‘The Game of Thrones’, George Martin said (as paraphrased by John Lanchester) his ambition “was to create an imaginary world with the atmosphere of the Wars of the Roses.” A different type of heroic fiction. Gone are noble Elves and evil monsters. Instead we’re given a realm without saints, where some people are truly vile, but most people are at least a little bit good. A world where problems, fiendish undead aside, are born of normal human failings and complexity.

‘Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit’ (MMMM), is the second novel from J., the more or less pseudonymous blogger behind the humanitarian blog Tales from the Hood, and it is not a book about a magical kingdom, it’s set right here in the distinctly non-magical world within which we live. And set, for the most part, in one of its least magical bits: a refugee camp in Ethiopia, somewhere near the border with Somalia. Which is where we become reacquainted Mary-Anne, the aid worker star of J’s first aid book, currently the employee of a small upstart NGO.

Crisply written, with a plot that pulls you over the pages, it is a very good read. And as I read it I was reminded of the Game of Thrones books. There are no dragons of course. Murder is less frequent. And castles are replaced by aid agency tents. There aren’t any dodgy sex scenes either, and aid sceptics will be disappointed to discover that none of the major characters, not even the UN staff!, are engaged in incest. And yet the genius of the books is similar: people get to be people. Neither villains, nor heroes, just ordinary folk, with ordinary faults.

Actually, that’s not quite correct: in Game of Thrones we find hulking horse lords, kings and princesses, and their failings, while ordinary, are writ large. Whereas in MMMM we have to be content with aid workers, with failings about the size of your failings, or mine. But the main thing, the thing that makes both works interesting, is the reality and ambiguity. Especially in MMMM the characters are just like you or I. Which is a major strength, given that you and I both work in (or are interested in) the world of aid.

And aid is so many people’s fantasy kingdom. It’s the place where they dream of taking their fantastic ideas and saving the world, redeeming themselves in the process. Or it’s a place they gaze at resentfully from their Econ101 classes, outraged that people might have the temerity to IGNORE THE MARKET’S WILL. A place they can disdain while reading the latest author de jure decrying the vested interests that corrupt it. But the thing is, the world of aid is none of that, or — if it’s any of that — it’s all of it. People, with mixed motivations, working hard, occasionally corrupting, amongst corruption, doing good, and f#$king up. People who don’t save the world. Who can’t save the world. But who do quite often, in spite of their failings, in spite of our failings!, make it a better place.

Like Game of Thrones, MMMM also uses the narrative trick of short chapters that hop between different character’s points of view, this not only keeps the pages turning, but also does an excellent job of conveying the coordination problems of humanitarian work. MMMM isn’t a perfect book, and I have a review of it coming up later in the month on Dev-Policy where I’ll point out some of its faults, but for now let me just suggest you read it. Read it especially if you think the problems and solutions of aid are simple ones — you’ll be educated. But read it too if you’re interested in, or work in, the world of aid: you’ll be informed, and entertained.

Highly recommended.

M4 Version 5

[Update: you can read other reviews here and…more to come]
The author’s page on GoodReads.com: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6485147.J
The book’s blog home: http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/2013/06/03/213-missionary-mercenary-mystic-misfit/
The book’s facebook home: https://www.facebook.com/MisMercMysMis

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