Aid Stories: Memoirs & Blogs

Do aid-workers’ blogs, poems and memoirs have value as a resource for research?  


Writing as catharsis

A picture of human life, such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment (George Elliot)

Non-academic literature has power: it can effectively convey extremely complex ideas to a variety of people. Fictional writing, poems and blogs are engaging and they can reach out to a large audience and express elaborate questions in every day language that invokes compassion.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog by Quinn Zimmerman who is an American 30 year-old-man who lived in Haiti for a year and six months to work with an aid organisation. Zimmerman discusses the way his feelings change throughout his time spent there, something that resonated with me from my experiences living abroad. But also, after living in Haiti for over a year, he reaches his own conclusion on foreign aid that is similar to the arguments we are encountering on our development degree at the University of Sussex. It was nice to hear it from someone who isn’t an academic, to read it from a very personal, diary-style account. His main point is that when you first arrive in a new country you see all the beauty and appreciate all the differences, but after a few months you become more cynical and start to see the challenges and annoyances.

His honesty and humility is inspiring…

“I helped people in Haiti in the immediate sense of the word… But in the long view, I have a hard time believing I accomplished anything akin to real change, because I was part of a system designed to combat the symptoms of Haiti’s illness, not the root causes.”

“Aid is not charismatic, but it is compelling, because it represents a desire to manifest the best of ourselves: a powerful, affirming, awakened engagement with one another that comes from the marriage of human ingenuity to human compassion” (Zimmerman, 2012)

Reading an informal account of development was refreshing. Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock wrote an article called “The Fiction of Development: literary representation as a source of authoritative knowledge” (2008) which argues that literary fiction can help development practitioners ‘glean new insights and novel perspectives’. They claim that policy documents should be understood as narratives that decide which development problems are discussed by powerful actors. Non-academic publications shouldn’t be considered to have less authority, there is a fine line between what is fiction and what is not. Story telling happens in news journalism too, its all about the way you present the facts.

One of the most useful aspects of this publication by Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock was the list of books it recommended to development students. It includes The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, insisting that books like this one educate western readers about the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan. Their assertion is that literature can paint a more nuanced view of life and helps the reader understand foreign values and ideas from a different society.

Here is the list of over 60 books on development:

Achebe, C. (1958) Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann).
Ali, M. (2003) Brick Lane (London: Doubleday).
Amado, J. (1965 [1943]) The Violent Land (New York: Knopf).
Ballard, J.G. (1994) Rushing to Paradise (London: Harper Collins).
Ballard, J.G. (1987) The Day of Creation (London: Victor Gollancz).
Borges, J.L. (2000 [1964]) Labyrinths: Selected Short Stories and Other Writings (London: Penguin Books).
Boyd, W. (1982) A Good Man in Africa (London: Penguin).
Boyd, W. (1991) Brazzaville Beach (London: Penguin).
Brunner, J. (1968) Stand on Zanzibar (New York: Ballantine).
Buck, P.S. (2004 [1931]) The Good Earth (New York: Simon and Schuster).
Camus, A. (1994 [1948]) The Plague (New York: First Vintage International).
Carpentier, A. (1989 [1957]) The Kingdom of This World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Cohen, A. (1996 [1968]) Belle du Seigneur: A Novel (New York: Viking).
Condé, M. (1996 [1984]) Segu (New York: Penguin).
Conrad, J. (1990 [1902]) Heart of Darkness (New York: Dover Publications).
Conrad, J. (1983 [1904]Nostromo (London: Penguin).
Darko, A. (1995) Beyond the Horizon (London: Heinemann).
de Bernières, L. (1990) The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (London: Secker and Warburg).
Desai, A. (2000) Diamond Dust and Other Stories (London: Chatto and Windus).
Farrell, J.G. (1973) The Siege of Krishnapur (London: George Weidenfeld and Nicholson).
Fielding, H. (1994) Cause Celeb (London: Picador).
Forster, E.M. (2000 [1924]) A Passage to India (London: Penguin).
Frisch, M. (1959 [1957]) Homo Faber (New York: Harcourt).
Fuentes, C. (1989 [1987]) Christopher Unborn (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Galgut, D. (2004) The Good Doctor (London: Atlantic Books).
Genet, J. (1988 [1958]) The Blacks: A Clown Show (New York: Grove Press).
Gordimer, N. (1978) The Conservationist (London: Penguin).
Green, G. (1991 [1955]) The Quiet American (London: Penguin).
Kadaré, I. (2005 [1981]) The Palace of Dreams (London: Harvill Press).
Kingsolver, B. (1998) The Poisonwood Bible (New York: Harper Collins).
Kipling, R. (1987 [1901]) Kim (London: Penguin).
Kourouma, A. (1997 [1970]) The Suns of Independence (Teaneck: Holmes and Meier Publishers).
Kourouma, A. (2001 [1998]) Waiting for the Vote of the Wild Animals (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press).
Kourouma, A. (2005 [2000]) Allah is not obliged (London: Heinemann).
Lahiri, J. (1999) Interpreter of Maladies (New York: Houghton Mifflin).
Lapierre, D. (1985) The City of Joy (New York: Warner Books).
Le Carré, J. (2000) The Constant Gardener (New York: Scribner).
Maalouf, A. (1983) The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (London: Saqi Books).
Mahfouz, N. (1993 [1966]) Adrift on the Nile (New York: Anchor Books).
Mahjoub, J. (1989) Navigation of a Rainmaker (London: Heinemann).
Mahjoub, J. (1994) Wings of Dust (London: Heinemann).
Marquez, G. Garcia (1997 [1985[) Love in the Time of Cholera (New York: Knopf).
Marquez, G. Garcia (1995 [1967]) One Hundred Years of Solitude (New York: Knopf).
Mistry, R. (1996) A Fine Balance (London: Faber and Faber).
Molteno, M. (1992) A Shield of Coolest Air (London: Shola Books).
Mwangi, M. (1976) Going Down River Road (London: Heinemann).
Naipaul, V.S. (2001 [1961]) A House for Mr. Biswas (New York: First Vintage International).
Narayan, R.K. (1993 [1976]) The Painter of Signs (London: Penguin).
Neruda, P. (2003 [1947]) Residence on Earth (London: Souvenir Press).
Neruda, P. (1993 [1950]) Canto General (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Okri, B. ([1991]) The Famished Road (New York: Anchor Books).
Ondaatje, M. (2000) Anil’s Ghost (London: Bloomsbury).
Ousmane, S. (1972) The Money Order (London: Heinemann).
Rush, N. (1992) Mating (New York: Vintage).
Rushdie, S. (1981) Midnight’s Children (London: Picador).
Saith, V. (1993) A Suitable Boy (London: Phoenix).
Sepulveda, L. (1993 [1989]) The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (New York: Harcourt).
Shukla, S. (1992 [1968]) Raag Darbari (New Delhi: Penguin India).
Soueif, A. (1999) The Map of Love (London: Bloomsbury).
Soyinka, W. (1963) A Dance of the Forests (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Tweedie, J. (1987) Internal Affairs (London: Penguin).
Vargas Llosa, M. (1975 [1969]) Conversations in the Cathedral (New York: Harper and Row).
Walcott, D. (1990) Omeros (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
wa Thiong’o, Ngugi (1977) Petals of Blood (London: Penguin).
wa Thiong’o, Ngugi (1989) Matigari (London: Heinemann).
Xingjian, G. (2000 [1990]) Soul Mountain (New York: Harper Collins).

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