Aid workers in fiction – new ABC show in January

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.



  • 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.”

6 thoughts on “Aid workers in fiction – new ABC show in January

  1. Anonymous

    So, what did you think? I watched the first episode and thought it was pretty stupid. Aside from the absurdity, as you’ve pointed out, of a remote jungle hospital getting six international medical volunteers, did you see that equipment? An ultrasound?! Seriously? Running away from their own demons back home sounds like a lot of people in the field, though (unfortunately).

  2. Anonymous

    I couldn’t do it, Ann. I knew it would just get my blood boiling. There were some episodes of ER that actually did a brilliant job of showing what it’s like to work in a post-conflict situation – someone recorded it for me while I was living in Germany and sent it to me with the message, "You are not going to believe how well they did with this." And I couldn’t! It was frighteningly accurate. "Running away from their own demons back home sounds like a lot of people in the field, though" True. I met a lot of people working abroad because they were too socially inept to work locally, IMO – at least what they did on the job, in the work place, would NEVER have been tolerated in a work environment "back home." Okay, back to responding to people who want to volunteer in Japan. "Hi, my family and I wanted to spend our Spring Break in Japan helping out. How can we do for that, and will they pay for our plane tickets and hotel?" Sigh….

  3. jcravens Post author

    “They sacrificed everything for the poor… but was there enough left for their love?”

    “And what will become of Jean-Philippe? Will prolonged separation cause their hearts to grow fonder? Or will she find comfort in the arms of the mysterious, brooding Jonathon Langstrom? Will she take a job at HQ? Or will she continue to answer the humanitarian call from a dusty refugee camp on the border of Somalia? ”

    Oh sweet mother of the Gods this is just… I need a drink.

    1. J.

      Better make it a Barbancourt 5-star and tonic.

      Tell you what: I’ll provide you with PDF versions of each, totally free, in exchange for your promise to read. Then tell me if you still need that drink. Others have taken them seriously…

      You’ve got my email address. Drop me a line if you’re game 🙂

  4. Manuel Acevedo

    I have often wondered why, in the new golden age of TV, with the amazing dramatic TV-series which normally surpasses anything we can see in cinemas, there hasn´t been a decent series with international development cooperation (ok, ‘Aid’, I happen not to like the term…) as the background. And I agree with Jayne, it was probably because it would hard to do justice to the complexities it involves. But presently, with such amazing scripts (West Wing, True Detective, Mad Men, or yes, Northern Exposure) I believe it could be possible to produce an intelligent and entertaining treatment of this topic.

    Just think: in a realistic Aid setting (certainly not 6 foreign doctors in a South American village, unless they’re Cuban and in Venezuela…), you could get:
    – a group of aid workers from various nationalities (imagine the next young Aussie Mel Gibson…!). Some experienced, some naive, some cynical, some plain idiots – like in real live anywhere…
    – the national counterparts of the above (and the colleagues of the aid workers back home, i.e. in Geneva)
    – involvement at national government level (with its doses of power, corruption, decency, etc.)
    – a pinch of UN action (don´t tell the General Assembly or the corridors at the UN Secretariat are not good filming locations); e.g. in September, good excuse for an episode covering the gathering of dignitaries at the G.A. ordinary sessions.
    – steady character-script lines, with ample room for growth (think of how Dr. Fleischman changed over the years in Northern Exposure…).
    – Threads of (natural) continuity in the action (eg. an overseas computer expert working on all kind so tech-related tasks), upstaged at times by spurts of unexpected, high-voltage stuff: an earthquake, an epidemic of a poorly known disease, civil conflict, etc.
    – Tons of available stories (just have to ask the development community), all rather real, some even saucy.
    – Combination of global politics with human interaction (West Wingish, Newsroomish…)
    – Easy to bring in and get rid of characters – few aid workers stay for more than a few years in the field.
    – Possibilities for characters of all ages, but predominantly young.
    – Appealing to an international audience – not just from one or two countries. I think it’d attract viewers in the US, Spain or Italy alike.

    So where else would you find a mix of (i) personal stories under intense circumstances, (ii) international politics and drama, (iii) unknown territories (with some familiar settings too); (iv) an all-too-real human landspace combining the sublime with the comedic, where reality (or our perception of it) can often surpass fictions.

    Mr. Sorkin, what are you waiting for? I’ll happily participate with a small part in one episode 😉

    P.D. I also loooveeeed Northern Exposure!


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