By Tom Colley, Assistant Editor, Strife.
Interview conducted on 21 April 2014.
Kelsey Hoppe has just released her book, ‘Chasing Misery: an anthology of women working in humanitarian responses’. You can find more details about the book here. Hoppe currently works for the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), an organisation of international NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in Pakistan. Previously, she worked in a range of different humanitarian and development roles in a variety of countries, including Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Indonesia, and Ukraine. She was born in California, attended university at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is currently completing her Masters at Cambridge University. She lives in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Tom Colley: First, tell us something about you and your experiences of humanitarian aid?
Kelsey Hope: The term and concept of humanitarian aid is quite tricky. Mostly because we use the word, ‘aid’ to mean a whole bunch of different things. The money we give to foreign governments for budget support or military spending, the money that goes to development work. I use the term ‘humanitarian aid’ quite narrowly meaning the work we do when responding to disasters or conflicts anywhere in the world. My experience in humanitarian aid responses really began with the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia although I had been living and working abroad in development work before that. After Indonesia, I worked in Darfur’s ‘complex emergency’ – the industry’s code word for ‘war’, then in South Sudan and now in Pakistan. In most of these places I’ve either been involved in programme management of aid projects or in coordination of the NGO’s who implement humanitarian programmes.
How did the idea for the book come about and how did it become reality?
When I was working in Darfur I initially had the idea. There were so many fascinating and complex things going on and it wasn’t what you would hear about on the news where everything is portrayed as, ‘here are the goodies, and here are the baddies’. It was difficult to get your mind around what was happening, much less figure out a way to describe it to your friends and family. The same was true in Indonesia and in South Sudan. After I left South Sudan, a friend read some of my blogs and suggested that they would make a good compilation and she mentioned that it would be wonderful to read other people’s experiences too. That’s when I started thinking about it more seriously. I thought about all the amazing stories I’d been told over the years by women friends of mine who work in humanitarian aid so, I asked a few of them to help me and we put out the call for essays.
That was where the real work began – deciding what essays and photos to accept – rounds and rounds of editing, cover design, page design…it went on and on. All told it only took 15 months from conception to publication but it definitely seemed like a lot longer when you’re trying to do that, work, study, and keep up with your life! We are lucky that we were able to self-publish it and even that took some contributions from friends and family but it meant that we got to control the design of the cover, pages, and publication which was absolutely brilliant!
What is the central message of the book?
I don’t know if the book has a central message but I think that some of the themes that run through the book are vulnerability, empathy and compassion. The authors of a number of essays discuss the emotional toll the work takes on them and how they deal with it. Some of them are quite raw. When we see and experience things that are difficult we take those things inside ourselves and we have to process them in some way. You would either have to be incredibly callous or super-human to pretend that you can work with dead and dying people, people who have had their choices in life stripped away by war and disaster, have your friends and colleagues killed, and not have that affect you in some way. To not want to tell that story. Antjie Krog said that ‘we tell stories not to die of life.’ I think that’s true and I think that’s what we’re doing here. We’re telling our stories in order not to die of life.
Chasing Misery focuses specifically on the role of women in humanitarian responses. Why focus specifically on women?
I get asked this question a lot and I do really believe that men have contributed as much as women in humanitarian aid work. I also think, and wish, that more research had been done on the number of women involved in aid work. It’s a huge number. I’m guessing it’s well over half of those doing the work. Everyone brings something unique to what they do and I think women have a particular way of seeing and describing things. That is what I wanted to capture.
What are the unique challenges women face as humanitarian workers? Is being a woman advantageous in some situations?
Being a woman is certainly advantageous in certain circumstances and also a disadvantage in others. There are times and cultures in which a senior tribal elder just doesn’t want to talk to a young, white, woman to make decisions about his community’s future. Fair enough. I think we should respect that and not take it personally. If I was the Mayor of New York and half of the city was underwater and Japan sent me a huge amount of money and some 20-somethings with very little experience to fix it I would probably tell them to go get me some grown-up engineers. That said, it’s an incredible advantage at other times – especially in those same communities where men just can’t, or aren’t able, or don’t want to talk to women to get their perspective and hear their story.
What do you see as the most significant barriers humanitarian agencies face in mitigating the problems in places that they work?
This is a tough one because it’s different in every place. And even in the same location it can vary from organisation to organisation. I would say overall though it’s the politicisation of humanitarian aid. It’s tying politics to alleviating suffering. When almost all the money that aid organisations receive is from a government with specific national interests toward another government it’s very hard to say the money isn’t tied to the interests of that first government or isn’t going to be manipulated by the interests of the recipient government. I think that humanitarian aid has tried very hard to stick to the principles of neutrality and independence in conflict and disaster but, as they say, ‘life is politics’. And politics makes aid dangerous for those who deliver it.
Who are the contributors and how did you recruit them?
We weren’t terribly savvy in how we went about getting the essays. We just tried to put out the call through social media and our own personal networks as broadly as possible. In some ways the stories are limited by that. They’re limited to those who knew us, or heard about this – meaning they have good access to internet and could write in English. That said, I think that most people who work in aid work will read the book and find that it resonates with them…even if it doesn’t capture every perspective that exists on the work.
Are there any lessons that can be learnt from the book from a policy perspective, either for governments or NGO’s themselves?
One of the things which came through very clearly to me is the need for us to consider how we care for the caretakers. It’s one of the reasons why we decided to give 10% of the royalties are going to the Headington Institute. It’s one thing to say that we should be responding in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan and it’s quite another to put resources behind preparing and caring for the people who do that. It’s one thing for a government to give billions in humanitarian response, and for their department for foreign aid to give that to UN Agencies and NGOs to implement programmes; but it’s something else to make sure some of that money goes to taking care of the people who do the work. Some NGOs don’t do it. Some governments won’t pay for it. But, in my opinion, things like insurances, psycho-social support, trauma care should be standard in UN Agencies and NGO – otherwise they shouldn’t get the funding.
What do you see as the future of humanitarian aid? Is there anything that you would change?
Another tricky question! I think that humanitarian aid is evolving. It’s a relatively new concept actually – less than a hundred years old – so it’s actually something which is just finding its feet. It’s also changed a lot since it was originally conceived and a huge number of things have come to be thought of as ‘humanitarian aid’ including a lot of development work and a lot of charity work. I think these things should be separated out a bit more so the parameters of humanitarian aid can remain intact and we can get rid of this idea that humanitarian aid is ‘charity’ – giving to poor people because we have more and they have less. In my view, this is a warped interpretation. We don’t do humanitarian aid work because we want to ease our conscience about our middle class lifestyle. We don’t do aid work because there’s poverty. We do humanitarian aid because a war or disaster has overwhelmed a community’s ability to deal with that and, as fellow human beings, we’re not going to leave them to suffer the consequences alone. We can help and so we will help, just as they would do the same for us if our community was overwhelmed. This might sound simplistic and naive and I don’t think for a moment that it’s that simple but I think this is the basis that humanitarian aid should stick to.
Thank you very much.