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Damned If You Do

A thought-provoking memoir that explores difficult questions about doing right as democracies teeter and the rule of law erodes.

Would you give aid to a government that kills its own people?


Ellen Goldstein’s thought-provoking memoir explores difficult questions about doing right as democracies teeter and the rule of law erodes. Goldstein goes to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to lead one of the world’s fastest-growing aid programs amid great optimism for the country’s future. Within weeks of her arrival, the military razes villages, killing the Rohingya minority, and sending three-quarters of a million refugees fleeing.

As Goldstein searches for ways to help the Rohingya, she is caught in the crosshairs of an indifferent government, a risk-averse bureaucracy, and outraged activists. With her career in jeopardy, and haunted by the Holocaust lessons of her childhood, she strives to do right even as her hopes for democracy in Myanmar are dimmed and then brutally crushed.

Damned If You Do is a cautionary tale for aid workers, diplomats, and everyone committed to making our world a better place.

What The Experts Are Saying

A revealing insider account of international aid in Myanmar at a time of enormous dynamism, upheaval, hope, and violence. International aid was a big part of both the country's historic success as well as catastrophic failures from 2011 to 2021, with many lessons to be learned not just for Myanmar but for all of our increasingly fragile world.”

—Thant Myint U

Renowned Burmese historian and award winning author, including the New York Times Critics Top Book of 2019

“In this honest account, Goldstein brilliantly describes her efforts to use foreign aid to promote better treatment for the Rohingya. Public opinion, political paralysis, and enormous pressure from within the World Bank conspired against her. Damned If You Do is essential reading for everyone interested in Myanmar, the role of foreign aid, and the moral dilemmas we face in dealing with an imperfect world." 

—Scot Marciel

Former US Ambassador to Myanmar

“A must-read for students and practitioners of international development. Goldstein documents in heartbreaking detail how the best of intentions falls short within an obsolete aid paradigm. Damned If You Do is a clarion call for change in foreign aid to grapple simultaneously with global threats and localized conflicts."

—Mary P. Callahan

Professor at University of Washington, expert in civilian-military affairs in Asia

“Damned If You Do is a long-overdue perspective on foreign aid in Myanmar. Ellen has written a story no one else could write: a raw and unabashed narrative about the unwinnable position in which we find ourselves as foreign and national aid workers in Myanmar.”

—Shwe Kyar

Senior Specialist at World Bank Myanmar

Ellen Goldstein is a former senior executive at the World Bank, and a renowned author and speaker on foreign aid policy and fragile states. Would you like her to speak at your event?

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