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Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid Paperback – October 15, 2013

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (October 15, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0770436919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0770436919
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (115 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,100 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“In Chasing Chaos, Jessica Alexander serves up a sharp critique of the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, wrapped in a tender coming-of-age story. Her quietly evocative prose recreates the painful, poignant, and sometimes hilarious experience of marching into 'the field' of armed conflict and disaster to relieve suffering, supported by donations from those who expect heroism. With remarkable honesty and empathy, Alexander reveals how absurd and presumptuous it is to imagine we can fix the world and, even more profoundly, why we must continue to try. An important book.” —Sheri Fink, New York Times bestselling author of Five Days at Memorial

“Terrific new memoir...It's Wild in Sudan.” —Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist

“In her new book Chasing Chaos, Jessica Alexander offers a poignant, clear-eyed look at the world of international disaster relief and her own addiction to aid work…Chasing Chaos is a reminder that happiness is an act of delicate and ever-evolving inner compromise. The book makes you simultaneously want to pack your bags and never leave home.” —The Daily Beast

“Enlightening...eye-opening...Chasing Chaos is a solid contribution to what is hopefully a growing genre of writing about a sector that deserves more attention and oversight.”Associated Press
“Jessica Alexander's book, Chasing Chaos, is not only a candid portrait of the life of a humanitarian aid worker, but a wonderful coming-of-age story that will resonate with any woman who has questioned how to have a more meaningful life.”
—Mia Farrow

“Refreshingly absent in Chasing Chaos are any declarations of grandeur or of superior moral fiber. Rather, Alexander’s honesty about her own ignorance on the true severity of the conditions in the places she visits is precisely what makes her remarkable story so accessible. Even now, after a decade working with multiple humanitarian organizations, the author still makes plain how much she has to learn. Alexander is proud of her achievements, and certainly should be, but it is in her detailing of the vast room for improvement in the system that she focuses, with a dry wit and healthy dose of honest self-evaluation, that we are able to connect with her experiences on a more personal level. We are all the more fortunate for it.”

“I think that is what Jessica does so well: puts a human face on aid work. And not just her face, but the faces of her international and national colleagues…Jessica reveals the inconsistencies, the ambivalence of aid work as she takes us to Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, New York, and Haiti. But, she also offers valuable lessons for the next generation.” —Brendan Rigby,

“What Mary Roach does for the alimentary canal in Gulp and Robin Nagle does for garbage collecting in Picking Up, Jessica Alexander does for global catastrophe in Chasing Chaos...An entertaining memoir of life on the front lines of global catastrophe reveals as much about its author as the world of humanitarian aid.”
—Shelf Awareness

“A no-holds-barred description of what it is like to travel to world disaster sites and engage in the complex, challenging, nitty-gritty work of making a difference across lines of culture, class, age, gender, and perspective. In telling the story of her decade as a young and passionate humanitarian aid worker, Jessica Alexander also manages to tell us the best and the worst of what this work is like and to speculate on the aid establishment—how it has changed, where it works and what its limits are. A must read for anyone with global interests—and that should be all of us.” —Ruth Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service

Chasing Chaos examines the lives that aid workers lead and the work which aid workers do with honesty, clarity, and warmth. While the book is peppered with hilarious anecdotes—it is also salted with tears. Honest, genuine, heartfelt tears. This life and this work that aid and development workers embark upon so often oscillates wildly between stomach bursting laughter and shoulder seizing weeping—Chasing Chaos captures these oscillations, and the doldrums in between the ends of the spectrum, perfectly.” —Casey Kuhlman, New York Times bestselling author of Shooter
“During ten years of working with the sick, the hungry, and the injured, Jessica Alexander touches and is touched by victims of genocide, earthquakes, tsunamis, and bombs. The compelling quality of this book is Alexander’s honesty, sharp observations, and conversational prose. With humor and insight, she shares the intimate details of her everyday life. Even if you’re a seasoned traveler, this entry into the world of humanitarian aid organizations—the good, the bad, and the frustrating—is fascinating.” —Rita Golden Gelman, author of Tales of a Female Nomad 

“In Chasing Chaos, Alexander takes us to a place where few outsiders can go, cracking open the rarefied world of humanitarianism to bare its contradictions—and her own—with boldness and humor. The result is an immensely valuable field guide to the mind of that uniquely powerful and vulnerable of beasts: the international aid worker.” —Jonathan M. Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

“Not only is Jessica Alexander a wonderful writer—her clear, evocative prose transported me into refugee camps in Darfur, war-trials in Sierra Leone and post-earthquake Haiti—but she is honest about the complexity of 'doing good,' without being defeatist. Funny, touching, and impossible to put down, this book should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in aid, and for all of us who wonder how we can make a useful contribution to a better world, wherever we are.” —Marianne Elliott, author of Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War 

“A fresh, very readable, highly personal account of the trials and tribulations of a young aid worker as she confronts the daily realities— the good, the bad and the very uncomfortable—of life dealing with some of the most important humanitarian challenges of the last decade.” —Ross Mountain, Former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator, United Nations

“You'll start Chasing Chaos because you are interested in humanitarian aid. You'll finish because of Jessica Alexander's irresistible storytelling: her honesty, her humanity, her wackadoodle colleagues, her dad. I loved it.” —Kenneth Cain, author of Emergency Sex: and Other Desperate Measures

“A hardened idealist's challenging look at the contradictions, complications, and enduring importance of humanitarian aid.” —Robert Calderisi, author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working

"Jessica Alexander’s Chasing Chaos is a must read for anyone concerned with helping those in need. Americans are some of the most generous people on Earth in reaching out to those coping with disasters, both natural and man-made, but how we give and what we give can make the difference between saving lives and only making a bad situation even worse. The path to hell really can be paved with good intentions, as Ms. Alexander perceptively describes and as I have seen during my own twenty plus years working in Africa and the Middle East, including many tours dealing with the same countries Alexander portrays. She knows of what she speaks.” —Christopher Datta, Former American Foreign Service Officer and author of Touched with Fire: Based on the True Story of Ellen Craft

About the Author

JESSICA ALEXANDER spent much of the last decade responding to humanitarian crises across the globe. A former Fulbright scholar, she has worked for various NGOs as well as UN agencies. She has a dual masters degree from Columbia and is currently working toward her PhD.

Customer Reviews

Jessica Alexander gives readers a warts-and-all picture of international aid work.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and was captivated by the personal stories, opinions and insights.
Susan Hoover
This is a truly wonderful book that will open up the eyes of the reader to a whole new world.
Lauren Young

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By John Standiford VINE VOICE on September 28, 2013
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've often wondered what draws people to save the world by traveling around the globe and offering aid to those in other countries. While it sounds xenophobic, I've often thought that with all the needs in our own nation, why go somewhere else and why would you think you can make a difference.

That's what led me to Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander. While I can't say that the book answers all of my questions, it does an excellent job in providing information and a personal experience that I found informative, thought-provoking and important. Ms. Alexander has spent considerable time in places in Africa, Haiti and other locales and has provided an excellent account and analysis of foreign aid and the world of NGOs, the U.N. and disaster recovery efforts.

Her description and re-telling of her time in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Haiti were excellent and I feel much better informed after reading it.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly. Ms. Alexander walks the lines between autobiographer, journalist and scholar in this book and the end product is exceptional.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By PushkinLover on October 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
If you've ever wanted to save the world and wondered how (and how not) to do it, Chasing Chaos is the book to read. Chasing Chaos is neither an academic treatise nor a muckraking expose, and readers should not expect to find either prescriptions for or blanket condemnations of the current aid effort. The book is an extremely readable and engaging personal memoir that charts one young woman's education in the challenging, maddening, and ultimately heartbreaking world of humanitarian aid.

The reader will learn a great deal about the ways that valiant aid workers like Jessica Alexander strive to confront some of the most difficult humanitarian situations of our time. In her years of work in the field, Alexander experienced a wide range of different aid scenarios and the book does an excellent job of revealing the particular complexities and challenges of each, giving the reader a compelling and thought-stimulating overview of the significant challenges that "doing good" poses for everyone concerned, and it does so in a way that is engrossing, sympathetic, and often quite funny.

Readers will be drawn in by Alexander's personality and the way she vividly writes about her own development in the developing world, from wide-eyed ingénue to someone who is critical of many aspects of the aid effort, but also deeply hopeful about the difference that coordinated aid can make in people's lives. There will always be disasters, both natural and man-made, so you can read this book and be thankful that people like Jessica Alexander are willing to go to places that most of us would not want to visit, much less live, and marshal their intelligence, financial resources, and empathy in humanitarian service to some of the most dispossessed people on our fraught planet.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amy Mcfarland on November 18, 2013
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I read A Thousand Hills to Heaven first, then this book, thinking they would dovetail nicely. I wish I had read them the other way around, this one first, because I kept comparing Chasing Chaos with the other book, and liking the other so much more. Chasing Chaos is a very frank expose on the aid/volunteer world, cataloging her experiences both good and bad. She quite easily describes the stress, the pressure, the battle fatigue, the misappropriation and the burn out, and at times it wasn't necessarily balanced with her humbling, positive experiences. A Thousand Hills to Heaven went through much the same material and volunteer experiences, but I left that book with a much more positive outlook on volunteering in third world countries. I was also at times put off by Ms. Alexander's descriptions of her motivations - 'I needed to escape.' 'I did not do this to escape.'
Perhaps hers is a more realistic book. It is a solid tale about her volunteer experiences, how she settled into the field and the pros and cons along the way, but if I were only to read one, I'd side with Thousand Hills to Heaven hands down.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By wjb VINE VOICE on September 20, 2013
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This well-written account of the world-wide business of aid to countries in trouble during and after war or a natural disaster was an eye opener. It takes a person of incredible courage and resolve to be willing to go out of their comfort zone and travel without all of the modern amenities to manage everything from food distribution to building latrines. At times I could almost understand the frustration and most certainly the burnout one must suffer. Ms. Alexander's riveting account of her years as an aid worker is absorbing reading and in spite of the seriousness of her missions, it was not always without humor. Her prose caused me to laugh out loud at times. I salute her and the thousands all over the world that do what they do. Highly recommended.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By R S Cobblestone VINE VOICE on December 22, 2013
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, by Jessica Alexander, is a mixed bag. A good part of the book (not THE good part), rightly so for a memoir, is about her friendships, shack ups, fears, vacations, assignments, complaints, and victories. There's a bit too much narcissism here for me, caused perhaps by Alexander's privileged upbringing. Fundamentally, as she was learning the ropes, did she really help her clients? As I remember, she didn't learn the ropes domestically, so she was green when she started doing international work. And she wrote as if she was the least cynical of the other aid volunteers and staff, the most sensitive regarding local customs, and at the same time the most competent. This can't be true, of course.

Okay, what DID I like? I really liked her experienced analysis of concerns regarding donations of time, material goods, and cash. I plan to use this section in a project to get college students to pay closer attention to what they are really doing when they have their book, shoe, or clothing drives for "Africans." I liked her interest in evaluating the effectiveness of aid programs. And I did like her descriptions of how hard some assignments are, to make sure others know what they are getting into.

A mixed bag, for sure. "Good Intentions are Not Enough."
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More About the Author

Over the past 12 years, Jessica Alexander has worked in humanitarian operations for the United Nations and various NGOs. She has been part of operations in Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Pakistan, Haiti and the Horn of Africa. Alexander is a Fulbright Scholar who received the award to research child soldiers in Sierra Leone in 2006. Her research there was used as expert evidence in the case against Charles Taylor, former President of Libera.

Alexander is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, and the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University. She received a Masters of Public Health and Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University in 2005. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, focusing her research on accountability in humanitarian action.

She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and works for the United Nations.

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Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid
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