There’s nonfiction books and documentaries about humanitarian workers, but not many dramatizations. I suspect the lack of novels, movie dramas and TV show dramatizations about aid workers, both paid and volunteer, is not because audiences wouldn’t enjoy reading or seeing such; rather, it’s probably because of the difficultly of writing a story that isn’t stereotypical, formulaic, or patronizing: person from North America, Europe or Australia goes to a poor part of the world and helps poor people and experiences wacky cultural differences while learning from local people and growing personally as well. Roll credits. There’s also the big fear of insulting people in developing countries, showing them as needy, ignorant, ineffectual, childlike, etc. while the aid worker is always benevolent and knowledgeable.
Not that such fictionalizations aren’t tried, sometimes with success:
- I think Northern Exposure did probably the best job of any work of fiction of showing an outsider coming into a ‘foreign” place to help: Dr. Fleischman wasn’t an international aid worker, but going from New York City to rural Alaska comes about as close as you can get, and the local people, including the indigenous people, were presented in a very respectful light, each character allowed to be quite individual, interesting and, yet, less-than-perfect (human!).
- The Constant Gardener does a decent job showing just how powerless aid workers are amid the chaos of extreme poverty and the influence of much better funded entities and armed groups. I thought the episodes of ER in Season 9 and 10 when a few characters worked in the Congo did a similarly good job of showing such.
- I adored the VISTA volunteer in the novel in The Milagro Beanfield War, for being so utterly naive and unprepared and finding his situation completely surreal – I’ve so been that person at various times over the years (and, for the record, VISTAs are much better prepared for their placements these days!).
- The Poisonwood Bible does a fantastic job of showing the very bad (and a bit of the good) by missionaries who are in a poor country to preach and do a little development work as well. While most aid workers are not missionaries, there’s some excellent do NOT do this moments in the book humanitarian workers can learn from.
I write all this in anticipation of Off the Map, which will premier in January on USA-based television network ABC and will probably get shown in other countries as well eventually. The series takes place in “la Ciudad de las Estrellas,” a village in the South American jungle. “Six doctors, all of whom are running away from some sort of emotional issues and personal demons back home, arrive at the clinic and soon realize their new path is much different than anything they’ve ever dealt with as they battle the elements in this challenging and dangerous environment.” Sounds like there’s great potential for it to be stereotypical, formulaic and/or patronizing. But I’ll give it a try. I already see a big story problem: a poor village wouldn’t get SIX doctors. They’d get ONE doctor, if they were lucky, and that doctor would be the only one in a 500 mile radius.
If any executives are looking for stories to adapt to fiction, look no further than Peace Corps Worldwide, “where returned volunteers share their expertise and experiences.”