Get Reading This Summer: The Books That Inspired Today’s Top Humanitarians

Wherever you see the blue and white WFP logo around the world, these are some of the people nearby making our work happen. The group of WFP staffers featured in this story come to their work with different points of view and life experiences, but they all share this: along the way, a book inspired them to do what they’re doing. 

School’s out and summer’s here. You have three glorious months until you have to open another textbook. It's time to delve into your passions and discover new ones. There’s no better way to begin than with a new book. That’s why in lieu of a traditional summer reading list with the expected top ten titles for students interested in international relations, we thought we’d do something a little different – something a bit more personal and distinctly WFP. We asked a selection of WFP staffers about the books that inspired them to become humanitarians. Here are the results.  In these works, they found the courage to make a difference – and to keep at it in their unique way every day.

Because behind every WFP humanitarian is a story: what will your story be?

 A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby
“This travel memoir is the book that got me to Afghanistan. It’s the story of Eric and a friend who decide to go climbing in the mountains of Nuristan (eastern Afghanistan), in a rather blasé and haphazard manner, and get into all kinds of scrapes on the way. It’s not exactly humanitarian reading, but a jolly good story.”
- Silke Buhr (WFP Public Information Officer, Afghanistan)

Frogs in a Well. Indian Women in Purdah, Patricia Jeffrey
“This is the book that really sticks in my mind – I read it at university. What really stuck with me is the meaning of the title – how we see things from one narrow perspective. The book itself is fascinating – a study of Indian Women in Purdah – and was one of the works that really pushed me to look at humanitarian and development issues from women’s perspective.”
- Denise Brown (WFP Sahel Regional Director)

Yvon holding plaque

Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard
“We all want to believe our work is making a difference. Working with WFP is a great responsibility.  Done right, we can positively impact millions of lives in some of the most isolated places on earth.   If that doesn't inspire everyone to arrive on the balls of your feet, nothing will. Patagonia's pioneering approach to corporate social responsibility is now today's standard, but Chouinard's management practices are, in my opinion, even more groundbreaking.  Reading about Patagonia's "flexible working hours" policy was a EUREKA moment for me.  In my 15 years as a leader in the World Food Programme, I've adopted his approach.  Chouinard writes, ‘Work has to be enjoyable, we need to arrive on the balls of our feet, and take the stairs two at time.’  He adds that people need flexibility in their jobs, ‘to surf when the waves are big, to ski when powder is on the mountain, or to take care of a sick kid.’ When I explain this method to my colleagues, scepticism is the normal response.  Conventional wisdom is that in large bureaucracies like WFP this philosophy simply can't work.  Yet, I find giving people the space to do the things they are passionate about, or consider important, motivates them to commit even more -- 110% -- when they're back on the job.
-Richard Ragan (WFP Country Director, Tanzania)

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, Connor Grennan
“This book gave me a very real picture of how your first experience in the field feels. It is such a mix of powerful emotions: being  lost, wanting to save the world but not knowing how, frustration, helplessness, anger, and then happiness for even the smallest details and gestures -- someone’s smile, a sincere thanks, tears of happiness. The writer/protagonist is a normal guy who decided to have an ‘alternative’ vacation at a Nepalese orphanage to look cool to his friends. He went to Nepal without any clear idea of what would be expected of him and without knowing how to interact with the orphans or deal with real life in Nepal. It started as a vacation, but it ended up with the creation of an NGO.”
-Veronica Moretti (WFP Cash and Voucher Officer, Philippines)

Memoirs of Hadrian, Margerite Yourcenar
“Not only is this one of my favourite books of all time for its creativity and elegance of writing, but it is a celebration of respect for different people, respect for different cultures, the value of the other and the continuous search for peace, stability and respect.”
-Laura Melo (WFP Country Director, Cuba)

Personal Stories
“Growing up in Albania, I saw the only hometown library we had being burnt to the ground during the fall of communist regime. I remember saving all the books I could with my younger brother and taking the half-burnt books home with me. A decade later, those same half-burnt books were lost again as my family immigrated to the USA (again, another chapter.) Yet, what made me want to join WFP and the humanitarian world was not the books I saved from the fire and later read. After living through a civil war (’97) and Kosovo war (‘98-‘99), I realized that being a humanitarian is often written within us. The work with WFP keeps adding even more unpublished chapters; giving more shape and character to what I was; to what I had always been and to what I hope to become. The greatest book I ever read was my family’s sacrifices; the stories along the road I did not fail to listen to; the deep longing to become part of a changing world, no matter how big or small that change might be. Now, I am part of one of the worlds’ greatest challenges: that of solving hunger and finishing a chapter, long overdue.  In December 2012, the southern Philippines was devastated by super typhoon Bopha (“Pablo”), thus experiencing the deadliest disaster of the year.  Being in the midst of it, I was once more reminded of the true inspiration behind what humanitarians do: it is the people, the faces, the stories. They do not have to be in faraway lands to inspire you. They can be around the corner.  Look around you and ‘read the unpublished books’; the ones that speak louder and reach deeper than any written words. “
-Irena Loloci (Programme Officer, Philippines)

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
“This book has lingered because as a child it made me dream and aspire to do something different, to challenge the status quo and not simply respect authority for the sake of it. It made me understand what fairness meant and how the world had so much to offer that I didn't know about.”
-Laura Melo (WFP Country Director, Cuba)

The Map That Came To Life, Ronald Lampitt
“This book was produced in 1948 by the United Kingdom’s Ordinance Survey, which is the national mapping agency. You can see it here.  It teaches children how to read a map by describing the symbols used and the notion of scale. It shows how two youngsters use a map to cross an area to get to their destination; they even end up using the map to solve a small emergency when they meet two small children who have lost their parents. I have read this book to both of my kids. Nowadays, there are no products comparable to this. I don't want it to become forgotten.”
-George Muammar (Food Security and Vulnerability Analyst, WFP’s Vulnerability and Assessment Mapping Unit)

Man reading a report at a table

The Tree Where Man was Born, Peter Matthiessen
“Although a US national, I was born and raised in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and southern Sudan.) My parents had a copy of Peter Matthiessen’s book -- the coffee table edition with beautiful pictures – and when I read it I felt he brought East Africa to life. He described not only the wildlife vividly but more importantly the people of East Africa, how they live and how their traditional food chain needed to adapt to the environmental impact of increasing population pressure. This made me realise that the world was changing and that new approaches to addressing hunger were needed.”
-Stephen Anderson (WFP Liaison Office Director, Tokyo, Japan)

What is the What, Dave Eggers
“What is the What made me laugh (sometimes), made my cry (a lot) and made me believe in humanitarian work. How could you not want to help when the ‘Lost Boys’ like Valentino, the same age as my tiny son, had to march for months, sleep among lions, and watch their friends or parents get shot? I don’t remember any book that moved me more. This became especially true when I visited Kakuma myself, the Kenyan refugee camp where Valentino lived as a little boy for years all on his own. At the end of the book when Valentino is safe in the U.S., he says that he will never dare to go home to South Sudan before it gets independent from the North. A few years later, so independence comes. An extremely inspiring true story.”  
-Ralf Südhoff (WFP Liaison Office Director, Berlin, Germany)