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The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War Paperback – April 3, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (April 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853838799
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853838798
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,530,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


'This is an absorbing book.' Daniel Wolf, writer and producer, The Hunger Business, Channel 4 'Highly informative, often provocative.' Development Policy Review 'A searching self-examination by someone who has been on the front lines of emergency responses.' James Boyce, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts 'Vaux's book is as much an examination of himself as of the agency and industry he worked for.' The Healthy Exchange '[Tony Vaux] discusses very difficult and emotional topics with wonderful clarity and courage.' Oxfam 'The Selfish Altruist highlights the key issues and quandaries that relief staff and policy makers have grappled with over the past 15 years. As someone with personal experience of a wide range of emergency situations, Tony Vaux has not shied away from confronting some awkward truths.' Will Day, director, CARE International 'Most original is the clarity of thought that helps us to understand what it takes to be an aid worker.' The Ecologist 'The book is a 'must' not only for enthusiasts and critics of humanitarian aid, but also for those ambivalent towards it. Whatever the reader's point of view, it is bound to be questioned.' Development Policy Review 'Vaux's work has thrown open questions for discussion.' International Sociology 'This book surveys the emotional well-springs behind the doing of relief work and suggests that they are not determined by our cultural or biological heritage.' Aslib Book Guide 'The strength of the book lies in Vaux's passion and the breadth of his experience which enable him to explore with great insight the urgent developmental questions.' Methodist Recorder

About the Author

After studying English at Oxford, Tony Vaux worked with Oxfam GB from 1972 until 1999. He spent nearly seven years in India developing Oxfam's work with community based projects. From 1984 he was coordinator of Oxfam's global emergency programmes, and became particularly closely involved with Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique and Somalia � all of which feature as chapters in this book. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, he turned to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, building up new Oxfam programmes in response to conflict and poverty. Since writing this book on a sabbatical year in 1999-2000, he has been working as an independent consultant, focusing on areas of conflict.

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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By edward j. santella on February 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Tony Vaux took a job that landed him in Kosovo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Rwanda. He worked for Oxfam, one of the world's premier development and relief organizations. In his work, he helped some of the poorest and hungriest people on this planet. He believed his work vital, but he observed and raised questions. He saw that what needed to be done frequently did not get done. Vaux and his associates, over stressed and under funded, decided sometimes who would live and who would not. Food and medical aid became entangled with politics and military action. Many of the people helped were less than innocent and sometimes guilty of horrific crimes. Helping the vulnerable, the most laudable of tasks, he found, can itself be corrupting.
What saves this book from becoming another "realist" tome about how awful and hopeless we humans are, is Vaux's willingness to probe his own psyche as well as others'. We're often able to make ourselves quite comfortable with the assessment that the human race is, as Vaux states, "a species of exceptional brutality and cruelty" (page iv). We object only when the accusation is made against ourselves. If our accuser presses on and places before us our own behavior, we may admit that, yes, sometimes we have, under certain circumstances, acted brutally. But, we hasten to explain: circumstances forced us to act so. We had our reasons. They made us do it. It's a cruel world. Vaux rejects this sophistry. He admits, "the possibility that I too could be a killer." (184) By "killer" he does not mean that he could serve in a UN peacekeeping force. He means he is fully capable of having been on the wrong side in Somalia, Bosnia or Rwanda.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By S. Alex on July 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
One of Vaux's clear intentions when constructing the questions throughout this work is achieving a personal catharsis. The motivations and decision making apparatus of himself and the aid community come under mercilessly objective evaluation. The graphic nature of the situations may tempt the reader to give in to the hoplessness that front line aid workers experience, though dwelling on the situations descibed in this book would be, in my opinion, missing the point. The point is understanding why we do the things that we do. Can an aid provider ( NGO ) overlook causality and bring aid to the person in need? Will attempts to affect causality do more harm than good? Do underlying motivations exist that influence the manner in which aid is provided? The answers to these questions are not simple or finite.

This book forced me to be introspective in ways that few others have. If you want a true lesson in disciplining your objectivity it's definitely worth the time.
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The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War
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