Book Review: The World is Elsewhere

Local voices save this flawed memoir by Chris McIvor, writes Rebecca Cooney

Upon becoming director of Save the Children in a country they know nothing about, most might consider doing a spot of research. Not Chris McIvor. Halfway through this memoir of his days as an aid worker in Morocco, Haiti and Cuba, he describes flying into Haiti to take up a job while learning the basics from the Haitian priest sitting next to him.

The book's cover carries McIvor's favourite travel advice - "discard whatever baggage you are carrying and leave your preconceptions behind" - and, to be fair, he is at his best when he follows this advice.

Much of his description of Morocco, though engagingly written, is marred by comparisons with his previous experiences in Sudan, but when he moves to the Caribbean he displays a knack of capturing evocative and vivid vignettes.

One of the underlying themes of the book - which otherwise contains scant detail of his charity work - is the need for local voices to be heard in aid decisions, as he repeatedly encounters charities that fail to listen to the wishes of local people.

At times, McIvor comes across as irritating and pompous: he reacts with indignation, for example, to the Moroccan villagers who sell their village as a film set, exchanging "authenticity" for stable employment. His infatuations with local women, despite being married, also make uncomfortable reading.

But his self-confessed ignorance and awareness of his own flaws do prompt him to include voices with different interpretations. These are the saving grace of the book - whether it's a Haitian priest explaining how his country's history relates to its present plight or Selma, a Moroccan disability rights campaigner, who tells McIvor: "Unless people with disabilities are at the forefront of telling you what we need, you will continue to make mistakes."

The World is Elsewhere by Chris McIvor is published by Sandstone Press, £8.99, paperback

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