Book review: Letters Left Unsent

Have you every wondered what it takes to become an aid worker, and more importantly, what to expect from the daily routine of this highly sought after career path? Seasoned humanitarian J. wrote Letters Left Unsent specifically to shed light on the reality of the profession, and in the main he’s succeeded, says Kontantinos Chatzigeorgiou.


Letters Left Unsent - eCover

Cover artwork courtesy of J.

Humanitarian aid is work just like any other, but, at the same time, it is vastly different. While it requires advanced education, professionalism, and the right motivation, it also manages to ‘colour’ each and every aspect of your life so that you will not be able to ‘leave [it] at the office’. Or, at least, this is what J., a professional humanitarian worker, explains in Letters Left Unsent, a book comprised of several of his reflections from a career spanning more than two decades in the field.

This is an interesting book that begs to be read by aspiring humanitarians, though I suspect that its conversational, if sometimes aphoristic and confrontational, tone will help attract a much wider audience. Part of its strength is that most of it is based on the author’s old blog, giving it a level of directness that makes it an easy and often captivating read. On the other hand, it is precisely this character that can make some chapters feel underdeveloped. For example, the chapter on ethnocentrism could have delved deeper into the most controversial ethical norms, but did not. Similarly, the chapter ‘Quiet Anger’ could certainly use a few more pages to achieve the disturbing effect it wishes to produce.

Another negative is that certain discussions are repeated. One chapter follows the next with little sense of flow and even though the author seems to have tried to connect these blog posts by providing additional material, I cannot say that he has succeeded in giving the book the cohesion that it needed. Understandably, these are not minor objections, but I would argue that they are overcome by the many positives that one can find here.

This is a collection of short stories that seems to successfully depict the intricacies of humanitarian aid work. Some are descriptive of the actual work, others are self-reflective and personal, and a few are analytical. The first chapter falls into the second category, a depressing and personal tale in which the complex moral psychology of human beings is brought to the forefront. Discussions of value, ethical principles, and business ethics are evident throughout the book. Humanitarian aid encompasses all of those, and it is often messy.

The author emphasizes that the industry is not perfect. Nor is it entirely flawed either, however. It is an industry comprised of people who are capable of performing both good and bad actions, and who operate within a framework of power relations. In short, it is just like any other industry out there but with a twist: if it functions properly, meaningful change for the better can be achieved.

European Commission aid workers in Cambodia, one country where J. suggests aspiring humanitarians search for a job. © European Commission DG ECHO / Creative Commons license

But how can the aid industry function properly? J. suggests that humanitarian work requires a level of seriousness that cannot (and should not) be undermined by good intentions alone. His advice is that we ought not to be actively involved in humanitarian aid without a master’s degree in a relevant discipline. This does sound quite elitist at first, though further examination proves his arguments convincing. Professionalism is necessary to overcome the demands and difficulties of the job and J. makes a devastating case for those who think otherwise. In his own words ‘what we do affects not just a single individual, but entire communities, regions, in some instances maybe even nations’. Aspiring humanitarians workers should strive for a good understanding of the underlying issues prior to further engagement, and that is a lesson that is persistently emphasised.

Being a humanitarian worker also affects important aspects of one’s personal life. While it does offer excitement (though not as much as some would expect), travel, and the psychological satisfaction of doing the right thing, it often conflicts with conventional but sought-after personal goals such as marriage, watching your kids grow, or worse, avoiding unhappiness. In a latter chapter called ‘Trauma’, J. discusses a case where one of his co-workers thought of leaving the industry after having lost too many friends ‘in the line of duty’. His advice to young people eager for similar experiences is to be careful of what they wish for. Humanitarian workers are normal people, just like everyone else. And as normal people, traumatic experiences have a negative effect on their lives.

This may all sound too gloomy for some people and I suppose the author will not object to this description. He apparently wanted to write a book that sets the record straight and avoids idealising a field that could attract those who have not thought things through – there is a humorous chapter in the form of a quiz that does exactly that. Conversely, those determined enough who understand the realities of the job can proceed. After all, there are many things that will still make it worth being a humanitarian worker. And while no great emphasis is given on those, they do make an appearance in subtler form. It is a combination of duty and satisfaction that explains J.’s more-than-twenty-years career and that is what probably makes a career in the humanitarian world a career worth having.

J.’s Letters Left Unsent is available as an ebook on Amazon. More from J. can be found at his blog, Aidspeak.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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