Sunday, June 07, 2015

Honor Among Thieves: A Review

Third in a series (including one prequel) by blogger and development professional, J., Honor Among Thieves, more than any of the others, delves into the day to day life of the development industry. The protagonist, Mary-Anne, has found her way from the horn of Africa to World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington DC, as director of global programs. She’s left to the wolves of political whimsy as WAC fights to distinguish itself from a sea of bigger development organizations.

The Shangri-La of funding, $500,000 of unrestricted, private money waltzes through their door in the form of Gary, outdoor clothing entrepreneur, with a desire to “do good in Cambodia”. As a result, Mary-Anne gets told by her boss Jillian to hop on a plane and work with the curmudgeonly Cambodian country manager, Patty, to come up with something. But, midway through program design, the donor decides that all the money should go only to water projects. Marie-Anne and Patty have, of course, designed a livelihoods program. Cue drama.  

This might not come off as a nail-biter for non-development readers, but as far as a true-to-life telling of the development rat race, this book nails it. J. does a great job wiggling his finger in the soft grey middle where we most live. Which is better – create a program that speaks to people’s needs, or get the funding that keeps the organization going that can do other impactful programs? Design a water program, but have other initiatives around it? Fight the battle or win the war? There are no simple answers. Explaining this book to a few friends over dinner one night, one of them exploded “That exact same thing happened to me!” So clearly, J. knows his material.

J. does excellent work portraying everyone as rounded out human beings, with families and decisions and motivations far beyond the work of the work. Each character brings with them a new conundrum, a new avenue of exploration into what ‘doing good’ actually means. My favorite is Trevor, fresh out of undergrad and ready to save the world. J., uses him as a vehicle to answer some of the more basic questions about the development industrial machine. (But there’s so much need! Why doesn’t someone just do something?). Starting his own non-profit, he finds, it isn’t as easy as it seems.

While more true to life, this book also loses some of the tittering decadence from the pre-quel (Marie-Ahhne, Jean-Philippe whispered) that made it such an entertaining read.  I wanted someone to hate. I wanted a place to hang my hat and yell with moral superiority: YOU HAVE CHLAMYDIA YOU IDIOT! Mary Anne should’ve told that crappy Todd that if he’d done his job in the beginning, he could’ve wooed the donor away from water, and this story could’ve been written entirely from the arms of Jean-Philippe.

In the end, I’m not sure if the true-to-life mundaneness overshadows the bones of what makes a good story. This first novel was entertaining in a dashing, bold, even corny kind of way. To be a true homerun, this third novel needs bolder statements, darker lines, bigger dichotomies and a stronger narrative arc than just “Mary-Anne grows up in development”.

This may be exactly the point: development is one big grey area. It’s still a great book, but the big reveal comes in such a non-exciting way that it feels buried, ambiguous, almost after-the-fact. Even if it might not ever happen in real life, I wanted Patty and Mary-Anne to gloat, for Jillian to get her public come-uppance and for Todd to become addicted to opium and fall into a river of crocodiles. 

That is, perhaps, for next time. 

 Views are my own and I was not compensated for this review.

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