Top 10 Books Every Humanitarian Aid Worker Should Read

As you embark on a career within humanitarian aid or international development, it is important to feel well prepared and educated on global issues, humanitarian ethics, and more. Here are the top 10 books every humanitarian aid worker/international aid worker should read:

1. When Helping Hurts

By Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

Churches and individual Christians typically have faulty assumptions about the causes of poverty, resulting in the use of strategies that do considerable harm to poor people and themselves. Don’t let this happen to you, your ministry or ministries you help fund! A must read for anyone who works with the poor or in missions, When Helping Hurts provides foundational concepts, clearly articulated general principles and relevant applications. The result is an effective and holistic ministry to the poor, not a truncated gospel.

2. Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid

By Jessica Alexander

Jessica Alexander arrived in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide as an idealistic intern, eager to contribute to the work of the international humanitarian aid community. But the world that she encountered in the field was dramatically different than anything she could have imagined. It was messy, chaotic, and difficult — but she was hooked.
In this honest and irreverent memoir, she introduces readers to the realities of life as an aid worker. We watch as she manages a 24,000-person camp in Darfur, collects evidence for the Charles Taylor trial in Sierra Leone, and contributes to the massive aid effort to clean up a shattered Haiti. But we also see the alcohol-fueled parties and fleeting romances, the burnouts and self-doubt, and the struggle to do good in places that have long endured suffering.
Tracing her personal journey from wide-eyed and naïve newcomer to hardened cynic and, ultimately, to hopeful but critical realist, Alexander transports readers to some of the most troubled locations around the world and shows us not only the seemingly impossible challenges, but also the moments of resilience and recovery.

3. The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 simple ways to avoid burnout

By Alessandra Pigni

Heal from over-exhaustion, prevent burnout, and regain your motivation with these short readings from a psychologist who has spent many years in the field working in conflict and disaster areas. Gathered from Alessandra Pigni’s interaction with humanitarian professionals and backed up by cutting–edge research, these concrete tools offer new perspectives and inspiration to anyone whose work is focused on helping others.

4. The End of Poverty

By Jeffrey Sachs

Hailed by Time as one of the world’s hundred most influential people, Jeffrey D. Sachs is renowned for his work around the globe advising economies in crisis. Now a classic of its genre, The End of Poverty distills more than thirty years of experience to offer a uniquely informed vision of the steps that can transform impoverished countries into prosperous ones. Marrying vivid storytelling with rigorous analysis, Sachs lays out a clear conceptual map of the world economy. Explaining his own work in Bolivia, Russia, India, China, and Africa, he offers an integrated set of solutions to the interwoven economic, political, environmental, and social problems that challenge the world’s poorest countries.

5. Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures)

By Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain, & Andrew Thomson

In the early 1990s three young people attracted to the ambitious global peacekeeping work of the UN cross paths in Cambodia. Andrew strives for a better world through his life-saving work as a doctor. Heidi, a social worker, is in need of a challenge and a paycheck, and Ken is fresh from Harvard and brimful of idealism. As their stories interweave through the years, from Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia to Haiti, the trio reveal a world of witnessed atrocities, primal fear, desperate loneliness and base desires. They fend off terror and futility with revelry, humour and sex; ask hard questions about the world order America has created, the true power of the UN, and whether there is any possibility for change. This is a startling celebration of the power of humour and friendship, of the limits of human compassion, and the need for a warm body and a cold beer during a Condition Echo lockdown. A book that shows the human cost of global politics and the tragic truth that wars are much more avoidable than our governments would ever admit. A brilliant, provocatively funny and fast moving book.

6. An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-first Century

By James Orbinski

An Imperfect Offering is a deeply personal, deeply political book. With unstinting candor, Orbinski explores the nature of humanitarian action in the twenty-first century, and asserts the fundamental imperative of seeing as human those whose political systems have most brutally failed. He insists that in responding to the suffering of others, we must never lose sight of the dignity of those being helped or deny them the right to act as agents in their own lives. He takes readers on a journey to some of the darkest places of our history but finds there unimaginable acts of courage and empathy. Here he is doctor as witness, recording voices that must be heard around the world; calling on others to meet their responsibility.

7. Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

By Dambisa Moyo & Niall Ferguson

8. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

By William Easterly

In his previous book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, William Easterly criticized the utter ineffectiveness of Western organizations to mitigate global poverty, and he was promptly fired by his then-employer, the World Bank. The White Man’s Burden is his widely anticipated counterpunch–a brilliant and blistering indictment of the West’s economic policies for the world’s poor. Sometimes angry, sometimes irreverent, but always clear-eyed and rigorous, Easterly argues that we in the West need to face our own history of ineptitude and draw the proper conclusions, especially at a time when the question of our ability to transplant Western institutions has become one of the most pressing issues we face.

9. Band-Aid for a Broken Leg

By Damien Brown

Damien Brown, a young doctor, thinks he’s ready when he arrives for his first posting with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Africa. But the town he’s sent to is an isolated outpost of mud huts, surrounded by landmines; the hospital, for which he’s to be the only doctor, is filled with malnourished children and conditions he’s never seen; and the health workers — Angolan war veterans twice his age who speak no English — walk out on him following an altercation on his first shift. In the months that follow, Damien confronts these challenges all the while dealing with the social absurdities of living with only three other volunteers for company. The medical calamities pile up — including a leopard attack, a landmine explosion, and having to perform surgery using tools cleaned on the fire — but it’s through Damien’s evolving friendships with the local people that his passion for the work grows. This heartbreaking and honest account of life on the medical front line in Angola, Mozambique, and South Sudan is a moving testimony of the work done by medical humanitarian groups and the extraordinary and sometimes eccentric people who work for them.

10. Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster

By Hugo Slim

Humanitarians are required to be impartial, independent, professionally competent and focused only on preventing and alleviating human suffering. It can be hard living up to these principles when others do not share them, while persuading political and military authorities and non-state actors to let an agency assist on the ground requires savvy ethical skills. Getting first to a conflict or natural catastrophe is only the beginning, as aid workers are usually and immediately presented with practical and moral questions about what to do next. For example, when does working closely with a warring party or an immoral regime move from practical cooperation to complicity in human rights violations? Should one operate in camps for displaced people and refugees if they are effectively places of internment? Do humanitarian agencies inadvertently encourage ethnic cleansing by always being ready to ‘mop-up’ the consequences of scorched earth warfare? This book has been written to help humanitarians assess and respond to these and other ethical dilemmas.

There you have it. The ten best books for humanitarian aid workers and international aid workers.

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