Friday, June 12, 2009

Sarah Chayes: Indiana Jones' Modern Day Girlfriend

Gotta love a woman with messy hair

Okay. This woman will kick your butt.  If she were a milspouse she'd be my best friend. And probably anyone's who reads this blog.

I'm reading a fascinating book by Sarah Chayes, who I've featured in an interview with Charlie Rose a short while back. Her book, "The Punishment Of Virtue" is about her leap from NPR correspondent to an NPO founder, military adivsor and a local Afghani tribal observer, and post-Taliban reconstructionist. Chayse writes in an unpretentious, cards-on-the table kind of way. This book is the missing conversational link that helps people understand the generations-old system of tribal structures in a region we've heard little about. It helps us understand what we're facing. She illustrates why Afghanis put more faith in individuals than they do institutions, which is why the American approach of creating them is met with difficulty.

Two of Chayes's traits are her articulate manner and candor. She doesn't hesistate to describe the mendacity of the tribes in her surroundings, the sloth and self-isolation of reporters, the frustration of Marines who want to build a road. Chayes admits how in the early days, much of the reportage wrong because of the collective journalists's lack of understanding of both history and culture. We learn how her editor's biases at NPR killed reports on the subtleties (Marines wanting to be part of the solution and build a road), instead opting standard, humanitarian-in-a-can stories instead. While these are stories we like, they overlook other nuances that complete our understanding of the aforementioned history and culture. (Coincidentally, it's also the reason why milblogs are so great to follow).

When her assignment ended, Chayes quit NPR. She founded Afghans for Civil Society, the monies of which were raised in a very American way. She went home to Masachusettes, held a series of town hall meetings, talked about the work to be done, and got pledges from individuals. With this she founded her NPO:
"Afghans for Civil Society (ACS) seeks to bring about a democratic alternative for Afghanistan that opposes violence and extremism and encourages a nascent civil society."
In other words, ACS isn't mute when it comes to the political reconstruction of an area receiving heavy subsidies. ACS would, through practical efforts, work to influence a society away from the cycle of corruption and violence entrenched in its system of continual wars, governors and war lords. This deviates from the standard NGO, which subcontracts powerful lords to distribute the goods. The money they give often goes to line their pockets, while millions are left in poverty. There's little leverage used to demand better governance.

Crazy? Yes. Impossible? At times. Yet Chayes takes us along on the bumpy ride from Kabul to Kandahar and points north, south, east and west. We go with her to buy rock, only to discover that she can't, see her finagling her way to get it, only to have to bail people out of jail. She shows us how the locals duped the Army Civil Affairs Team into drilling two wells, when the team had just told Chayes they wouldn't give her a $1k subsidy to help ACS drill a well in the same village. How did the locals get the civil affairs team to do it? They changed the name of the town when they were pitching the project to the two visiting CA team members. We're with her as she discovers the entire region has collective PTSD. A society living amid war and destruction for generations, and one that when it comes to subsidies knows how to best milk the system for the benefit of the few.

Substitute Sarah Chayes For Marian
We meet the cast of characters: the proud, the noble, the charmingly corrupt, and the all out vicious. Through it all is the unflappable American, Sarah Chayes, who by all accounts would be Indiana Jones's Marian Ravenwood had Marian sold Stilton in a cheese store, leapt into reporting on food in Paris, covered the war in Kosovo, and had showdowns with Afghans like Abdullah, the Karzai family's engineer (who is now her de-facto deputy). All in all, this is a woman to be watched and a book that deserves to be read.

Note: As with my day-to-day blog, Easy-Writer I'll be doing book reviews. If you're an author, please ask your agent or publicist to request to send me an ARC. I'll read the synopsis and see if it's something I want to read. If so, I'll accept it via US Mail. All book reviews will be archived over on the sidebar. If you seem truly interesting, I might even interview you via the phone (or in person) as I did on my literary writers blog, The Writerly Pause.