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Rebel Without Borders: Frontline Missions in Africa and the Gulf

by Marc Vachon with François Bugingo; Charles Phillips, trans.

Shunted from one hellish foster home to another, young Montrealer Marc Vachon learned to play fast and dirty in order to survive. In his memoir, Rebel Without Borders, Vachon tells how he transferred those street smarts from the wrong side of the tracks to the other side of the planet, and he provides a unique perspective on the world of humanitarian aid in the process.

As a teen, Vachon found work in construction, but was quickly sidetracked by the easy money to be found in fencing stolen property. Family finally arrived in the form of a biker gang that adopted him – and gave him cocaine to sell. When things got too hot, he fled for Paris, where a chance encounter allowed him to parlay his building experience into what became a life-changing role with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): co-ordinating logistics for the construction of a cholera-treatment camp in Malawi. Vachon spent nearly two decades working with various agencies to get food and medicine to beleaguered people in Rwanda, Serbia, Iraq, and elsewhere, breaking bureaucratic rules along the way in order to save lives.

Rebel Without Borders exposes the reader to the on-the-ground tactical reality of aid missions, and Vachon comes across as intelligent, goodhearted, and likeable. But his prose is often stiff and relies upon cliché, lending a monochromatic tint to this series of snapshots of benevolent projects. As well, toward the end of the book, Vachon muses at length about the shortcomings of humanitarian-aid agencies in a hamfisted, unnecessary way – the details of his story make the same points much more effectively.

Rebel Without Borders evokes admiration for its author’s achievements – and will certainly act as a reality check for anyone who romanticizes foreign-assistance work – but too often reads as a straightforward chronology that lacks an effective narrative arc.