Book review and commentary: Cross-Border by J

Posted on: April 5, 2019 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

Book review and commentary: Cross-Border by J

This most recent publication by Evil Genius author ‘J’ is a fast read that does what all well told stories do, it leaves you wanting more and raises more questions than it answers, engaging the imagination in very positive ways. J makes the characters three dimensional, and each comes alive for the reader in ways that make them real, relatable, and very human.  Settings are described carefully, providing authentic and nuanced details that allow the reader to easily transport themselves to each location.

I’ll let J himself give you a tease (from the Amazon page):

Larry was the consummate headquarters bureaucrat. As head of World Aid Corps’ (WAC) grant management unit, he lived his life among fluorescent-lit cubicles in Washington D.C., looking at spreadsheets and checking reports, content to let others have the glamor and spotlight of the field. But when Tracy walked out and the WAC’s cross-border programme in southern Syria went into meltdown all in the same week, something had to give.

One important message in this book is that in their own way everyone in a humanitarian organization ‘save’s lives’, and those pouring over spreadsheets and overseeing grants are especially critical players in moving forward any INGO’s central mission.

But let me step back to answer a question some might have, namely who is this mysterious author going by the simple nom de guerre ‘J’?

An industry insider with over 25 years in the sector, he has vast experience both in the ‘field’ and back at his organization’s HQ. Readers of J’s books can easily assume he is from the US since all of his characters are Americans and the fictional INGO “World Aid Corps” that appears in most of his books has headquarters in Washington, DC.  He does give us an ambiguous message about his background, using the British spelling of ‘programme’ in his own description (above).

From my perspective as a professor who teaches about the humanitarian ecosystem, I see Cross-Border as a must read for young undergraduates who want to understand more deeply how the sector works.

J’s protagonist ‘Larry’ is a complex character, and many humanitarians, especially those in mid to upper management positions, will identify with his situation and how he reacts to challenges in both in his personal life and at work to those who question the importance of his job. Larry displays the weaknesses -and strengths- that we all possess.

Set in Washington and Amman, Cross-Border gives the reader a unique glimpse of the inner workings of the bureaucratic and organizational structure of a typical ‘big box’ INGO. Industry insiders will nod and smile as they read, seeing much truth revealed.  Those outside the humanitarian sector -my students, for example, will learn from Cross-Border essential lessons, perhaps most importantly that many -or even most- ‘real’ humanitarians dwell in cubicles, not in the over-romanticized ‘field’.

Cross-Border is vintage ‘J’.  It is a fast, engaging read that could have been written only by a seasoned industry insider with a story-teller’s knack for detail, drama, and hard truths. If this is your first exposure to J’s writing and you want more, you have many treasures before you including Disastrous Passions, Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, Honor Among Thieves, and HUMAN.  Click here for links to all of these books. J’s only non-fiction offering to date, Letters Left Unsent, is a compilation of J’s blog posts over the years and is an excellent overview of issues experienced by humanitarians everywhere.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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