Orbinski: ‘Just live your questions’

Former president of Médecins Sans Frontières speaks about aid action and inaction, winning the Nobel Prize and his new life challenges

Dr. James Orbinski, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières and veteran of numerous humanitarian aid missions, addresses the crowd in Dupuis Hall on Wednesday night at the behest of the AMS Speakers Committee.
Dr. James Orbinski, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières and veteran of numerous humanitarian aid missions, addresses the crowd in Dupuis Hall on Wednesday night at the behest of the AMS Speakers Committee.

While perched on a crate in a food centre in Baidoa, Somalia in 1992, Dr. James Orbinski looked out at the three white tents designated as morgues. Although the day’s dead were piled up inside, the former president of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said he noticed a movement made by a body lying at the top of one heap.

“When I saw that movement, I didn’t think about ethics or politics ... I picked up the man and brought him to the medical tent,” Orbinski said. His action angered an aid worker in the tent, he said, and she argued the man was dying anyway and their resources could be better used elsewhere.

“At that moment, I felt a rage in the pit of my stomach, one that I still feel today—and a despair for him, for her and for me,” he said.

Orbinski said he felt a strong identification with the dying man, a sentiment he called recognition of “the sameness of self in the other.” He said this sort of emotion is central to humanitarian practices and to living a more humane life.

A veteran of humanitarian aid missions all over the world, Orbinski has vivid memories of the moment when he arrived in Somalia to take up his position as the medical co-ordinator of the MSF mission.

He looked around the food centre at the heart of all the death and crisis, and his mind boggled.

“I was so overwhelmed that I literally staggered, and I had to sit down on a crate,” Orbinski told a crowd of about 50 people, mostly students, in the Dupuis Hall auditorium on Wednesday night. “I looked out over five to six thousand people, mostly mothers and children, all sitting in rows and waiting for food to be handed out. ... And they were so hungry that the children wouldn’t even cry.

“That’s a very serious sign for physicians, a profound and despairing condition of ill health.” And that, he said, was the situation at every one of the 32 food centres MSF was operating in Somalia to help the desperate civilians victimized by the brutal civil war that wracked the country in the early 1990s.

After co-founding MSF Canada, Orbinski took on the role of MSF international president from 1998 to 2000, and the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize under his guidance. He himself received a Governor General’s Commemorative Medal in 1993 for his work with MSF in Somalia.

Orbinski has worked on humanitarian aid projects and global health issues all over the world, including the MSF missions he led in Rwanda during the critical months of the war in 1994, and in Zaire during the refugee crisis of 1996-97.

After leaving MSF in 2000, Orbinski went on to complete a Master of Arts in international relations at the University of Toronto, where he now teaches, and to found Dignitas International, a medical humanitarian organization dedicated to addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Unstinting in his diction and level in the tone of his voice, Orbinski delivered a heartfelt speech about citizenship, humanitarianism and those two concepts in relation to global health. With the rapt audience hanging on his every word, Orbinski advocated the paramount importance of creating humanitarian spaces and authentic sympathy for one’s fellow human beings.

“Humanitarianism is a very strong idea. ... [And] ideas can be very powerful forces, sometimes more powerful than armies,” Orbinski said. “Too many people find themselves caught in war, in extraordinarily precarious situations. ... They are suffering from the failings of human systems, and they must plead simply for the right to be human.”

He mentioned some of the staggering statistics of the world’s pain and poverty: 2.8 billion people live on less than two dollars per day, 15 per cent of the world’s population goes to bed hungry every night and the imbalances in spending that ensure millions of people in developing countries continue to suffer and die from preventable diseases.

“I don’t know if there is such a thing as a God, as an ethic, as a humanitarian imperative ... if we look at the world today, the vast majority of preventable human suffering goes completely unaddressed,” Orbinski said.

Before launching into the heavy part of his talk, Orbinski displayed a dry sense of humour, apologizing for his air of abstraction. He said he has a ten-month-old son who is teething, and a two-year-old son jealous of the attention his younger brother is receiving—so Orbinski himself isn’t getting much sleep.

This, then, is Dr. James Orbinski: a man who is passionate about so many things, from the importance of humanity, sympathy and relationships to immunology, but also, his young family.

“My greatest joy and challenge in life right now are those two little boys,” he said, adding that he is also currently enjoying his teaching position at the University of Toronto, and the research project he is running in Malawi. “I’m pursuing those goals, and I’m very happy.” In accepting the Nobel Prize on behalf of MSF on Dec. 10, 1999 in Oslo, Orbinski proved he has long spoken with the same frankness he used Wednesday night. In his Nobel speech, the first thing he did was call on the Russians to stop their bombing of Chechnya, saying that “for [the people of Grozny and Chechnya] humanitarian assistance is virtually unknown.”

“Humanitarian action is more than simple generosity, simple charity,” Orbinski told the dignified audience in Oslo that night.

“It aims to build spaces of normalcy in the midst of what is abnormal. ... Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to that assumption.”

More than six years later, in front of a much less glittering crowd, Orbinski proved he still feels strongly about the value of plain speech.

“There is no such thing as humanitarian intervention, that’s an oxymoron,” he said in explaining his belief that military actions should not be tied to or covered by humanitarian principles.

“[When] aid is tied and linked explicitly to military campaigns, that is wrong,” Orbinski said, citing the recent American military interventions.

He condemned the dropping of cluster bombs that resembled food packages into Afghanistan, and “the illegal and unjust invasion of Iraq by American and British forces,” after explicitly stating he was speaking for himself, and not on behalf of MSF.

“American forces in Iraq ... are insisting that any non-governmental organization that takes money from the American government must openly say they support the American government, [and] you can imagine what that does to their safety and security,” he said. “MSF doesn’t take money from [the U.S.], and hasn’t for a long time, but [MSF] workers were targeted, so they had to leave the country.”

Orbinski’s candor even extended to discussing one of the world’s most prestigious awards.

“To be honest, it was a great party,” he said when asked about the value of the Nobel Prize for his organization, “but MSF wasn’t set up to win a Nobel Prize. [The award] has in some circumstances given MSF more access and more respect, but the danger is in becoming respectable.” MSF’s power lies in its frankness, he said, and he advised the audience to seek out groups with similar policies of forthrightness.

“Choose an organization ... of that genuine quality, and if you can’t find one, start one,” he said.

Quoting the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, he urged the assembled crowd to seek not answers, but questions, in order to give direction to their lives.

“[Rilke] said to the young man [he was corresponding with in letters], ‘the most important thing you can do is not to pursue the right answer ... but to clearly define your questions, and to [pursue] them, and if you look back you will find you have your answers,’” Orbinski said. “That’s how I live my life. ... Get rid of the idea of balances and goals and personal lives, that’s all bullshit—just live your questions.

“Bringing beauty, bringing love into the world ... that’s life, and if you do that, that’s a life well-lived.”

—With files from nobelprize.org and ucalgary.ca

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