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The Humanitarian Impulse & Its Costs

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Posted by Mary Ann

Larry Brilliant has had a long and interesting life. I was struck by how much exuberance and energy he has brought to everything he has done, from his days as a hippie doctor in San Francisco to his campaign to wipe out smallpox.

I am fascinated by what makes humanitarians like Brilliant tick and their will to help the world’s oppressed, whether oppression takes the form of poor health care, lack of economic opportunity or religious discrimination. That brings up my first book, a fascinating analysis of human altruism.

strangersdrowiningThe book is Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar. The author is a New Yorker writer who embarked on a study of the motives of people who turn their lives over to helping others, even if it means the neglect of their own families. She alternates profiles of her subjecs with chapters on the philosophical, moral and religious underpinnings of altruism. Her profiles include a couple who adopted 22 kids, even though they began to realize that adopting more children might damage the kids they already had. She writes about people who live on a fraction of their earned income and donate everything else to worthy causes; they believe the slightest self-indulgence inadvertently harms others.

I like this book because MacFarquhar is an unsentimental writer; her subjects are not saints. Her book does what books do best – it goes deep into a topic that would be oversimplified by any other kind of treatment.

gandhiNext up is a biography of a man cited by Brilliant as one of his inspirations. Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha is a fascinating portrait of a man who was born into India’s comfortable middle class but became a near-religious figure who galvanized millions to take up the cause of rights for Indians.

Gandhi, trained as a lawyer in London, moved to South Africa and built a practice defending his fellow Indians in disputes over business and property. In the British colony of Natal, white colonists greatly feared immigrants from India for their business acumen and their sheer numbers. So Gandhi, the only Indian lawyer in Natal, became the head of a political movement as well, battling laws that disenfranchised Indians and restricted their ownership of property. He endured ridicule, racial hatred and, as the movement swelled, violence.

Gandhi wasn’t perfect. Though he fought for the rights of Indians in Africa, he ignored the plight of native Africans. His long absences and risk taking activities were very hard on his wife, homesick for India, who largely raised their children. Is that the price of devotion to a cause? It’s a very interesting question.

cesarchavezAnother person who rose from obscurity to lead a great social movement is Caesar Chavez, who fought for the rights of farmworkers in California. Miriam Pawel’s The Crusades of Caesar Chavez tells his fascinating story.

Chavez came to his work through an interesting door: Two progressive Catholic priests involved in recruiting farmworkers to the cause recognized that Chavez had a gift for reaching out to people. He paid dearly for his activism – his hunger strikes during the struggles may have contributed to his death.

Next up is a book about a man not so many people have heard of, but a legend in disaster relief circles. Fred Cuny was a 6-foot- three Texan and a disaster relief veteran – he supplied aid to victims of earthquakes, famines and war in the world’s hot spots, including Iraq and Bosnia.

mansavedScott Anderson’s book about Cuny, The Man Who Tried to Save the World, is a portrait of a driven maverick. In 1995 Cuny’s risk taking caught up with him – he disappeared into the brutal war between Russia and Chechnya and was never heard from directly again. This superbly written book is both a mystery and a biography, and it works on both levels, as Anderson does justice to a larger-than-life personality and tries to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

halfskyFinally, I have to mention a great book by a Well Read guest, Nick Kristof.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide was written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, both Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists. The book is divided into two parts. In the first, the authors tell the story of the worldwide oppression of women, mostly in developing countries. The second part is a call to action, laying out both concrete steps to take and a record of what has already been done.

Kristof and Wu Dunn are journalists who made a major pivot mid-career; they married their gifts for writing and reporting to a determination to make a difference. This book has influenced millions of readers worldwide.

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