2004 was a terrible year for humanity. I remember the Beslen school massacre—children shot in the back by Chechen guerillas as they escaped. And just as it was about to end, the Boxing Day Tsunami hit southern Asia. This was to become a pivotal moment in author Sue Liu’s life. Accidental Aid Worker is her story of how wanting to help a community became life-changing. It is also an exploration of the complexities of aid, both moral and logistical.
On a trip to Sri Lanka in 2004, Liu is taken with the enthusiasm and spirit of her tour guide, Bruno, a Tamil. His local tour company aims to empower people, especially women, who live and work in the tea plantations. ‘His vision is to create a society where young people have access and opportunity for education, regardless of caste, class, religion and ethnicity – with a particular mission to assist the children of poor plantation workers.’ She promises to stay in touch.
Then the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hits. In its reach, its horror, the devastation is beyond belief. We see images of bodies lined up on beaches, faces bloated past identification; a woman holding her dead baby, shaking with grief. Liu gives us the numbers. ‘Indonesia’s death toll is in excess of 130,000, the missing in the vicinity of 37,000 and displaced at half a million people, Sri Lanka reports over 35,000 dead, 21,400 injured and 516,000 now homeless.’
Her affection for Bruno and the people of Sri Lanka galvanises her into organising an aid shipment: the Sri Lanka Appeal for Bruno. When she sends an email to her friends and family, she finds she has tapped into a vast outpouring of support from people desperate to help. Liu’s organising prowess is extraordinary. Single-handedly, she manages information on her website and through emails, she posts lists and guidelines for what is most needed, organises collections, sorts rigorously, accepts cash donations (gratefully, in the knowledge that shipping costs have to be covered) and is beset with fears the whole time that she will be getting something wrong.
She packs 75 boxes: tents, tarpaulins, wash basins, shoes, thongs, new and used clothing, toys, school stationery, toiletries, babies’ needs, and other essential items such as batteries, candles, rope, tools and laundry supplies. They go into a shipping container and she entrusts Sri Lankan logistics to sort it out at the other end.
While her intention was to bypass the big NGOs and deal directly with individuals, politics interferes. People want to know why her aid is for the Tamil regions. Is she supporting terrorism? Finding out who to trust, and who trusts her becomes fraught. The whispering in her head is relentless: ‘Are you just another well-intentioned ‘do-gooder’ taking risks, working outside the structure and making problems for the sanctioned and approved organisations?’ When she is moved to buy fans for children in desperately hot orphanages, she is asked by a local priest, ‘Why are you here and what do you want from Sri Lankan people?’ It is a question that stumps her.
Liu asks us to think about the conundrum of aid and its impact on the local economy: in one sense, it is a flood of ‘free stuff.’ ‘Would it be better to give money so that local traders can provide the goods?’ She doesn’t have an answer. The graft and corruption of developing economies makes administering cash difficult but she has her own heart-breaking discovery when her boxes eventually arrive. Is one person, operating independently, more agile than a large bureaucracy? Or is the security provided by the big NGOs necessary, in the end?
Liu doesn’t shy away from other hard questions—there is never enough aid. From her position on the ground, from following up and going into the crisis zones, she can see desperately poor and vulnerable people everywhere but her aid was intended for displaced coastal communities. How do we justify giving to one community over another?
And she asks us to think about travel and tourism. How do we travel about the world, respectfully? The curious phenomenon of visiting another country, another culture, to see and do things differently could be seen as an open and innocent experience, or one that is voyeuristic, even parasitic. ‘It is certainly hard to gauge the times you should listen to your gut and heed the warnings of your paranoia, or surrender to chance and opportunity. That’s what travel is supposed to teach you, how to hone your instincts to make better judgement calls but it doesn’t always work that way.’
For her provocative questioning alone, Accidental Aid Worker is worth reading but Liu also lays bare her thoughts on the big issues of love, family, friendship, grief and her own mental health. Its forays into the joys, or otherwise, of living in share housing, travel, self-employment and dealing with mid-life lighten the read.
Liu donates to community projects a percentage of each book sold and, as we approach another anniversary of the boxing day tsunami, think about copies for Christmas presents this year.
Sue Liu (2015), Accidental Aid Worker, Zulu Communications Pty Ltd, Rozelle