Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma

April 28, 2008

Paul here: I just saw Patrick Reed’s Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma and thought I should make some note of the effects it had on me before (like too too many other feelings of value) it faded in the din of the weekly rush.

Having met and worked with Dr. Orbinski during the course of Kickstart we were well aware of what an insightful and inspiring figure he is. We were also aware that he was in the process of writing a book on the difficulties and future of humanitarianism (mainly because, after our interview, he immediately asked for a transcript, thinking, perhaps, that he might have said something of value – he most certainly did). All that aside, I wasn’t fully prepared for the power of watching Orbinski return to the sites of his most challenging humanitarian dilemmas (Somalia, Rwanda, the DRC).

As commentator Gerald Caplan (author of the new book, The Betrayal of Africa) says of Orbinski in Reed’s film, the former President of MSF and current head of Dignitas International is simultaneously a pessimist and an optimist, well aware of just how horrible humanity often looks when it peers at itself in the mirror but remains fervent in his belief that change is possible. This, Caplan points out, makes Orbinski’s life rather difficult, especially now that he has taken it upon himself to write a memoir that will reclaim the meaning of “humanitarianism.”

But Orbinski relishes the difficulty. Not because it’s jolly good fun, but because to do otherwise would be to abstain from his responsibility to his fellow human beings. Growing up in Montreal during the nineteen seventies and working at a hotel that doubled as a holding facility for incoming immigrants, Orbinski learned from an early age that the world of pressing political questions realities did not exist “out there,” in the world beyond his suburban borough. No, as a human being blessed with a life, he was responsible. Thus, he needed to remain response-able: able to respond.

He didn’t always know what he wanted to do. But, even as he ran away from CEGEP to work on the west coast or help start a hotel with friends in the Laurentians, even as he took every course imaginable at Trent University and flirted with a variety of disciplines, philosophical questions, and potential careers, Orbinski was “exploring with intent”. As he told me in our interview, a person’s responsibility in their early years is to discover “their question,” the struggle with which they are to wage. Orbinski finally found his question when, after finally deciding to attent medical school, he went to Rwanda to do immunology work. In the beginning, the trip was motivated by a desire for adventure. But what Orbinski found there was a passion – he found his question.

The path Orbinski took to find his question, and the horrifying experiences he has lived through since, make him of one the most philosophically compelling characters I have ever seen on film. He doesn’t want the movie to be about him. It’s clear he isn’t entirely comfortable in front of the camera, but when he speaks about doing what is right, you know he’s given a great number of wrenching hours to the meaning of the word.

Today, many of us expect things to come easily. We demand comforts, including the comfort of ignorance. James Orbinski has refused these in the name of being a responsible human being. It’s just a bloody shame there aren’t more like him.

The cliffhanger Reed’s film leaves us with is ‘what will Orbinski’s book conclude?’ Struggling to reconcile his pessimism and his optimism, the failures of Somalia, Rwanda, the Darfur and many more with his belief that things can be different, can Orbinski emerge with a new direction to and approach for 21st century humanitariansim. Only one way to find out: read his new book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century.

More those who don’t know, here’s Orbinski on what his present organization, Dignitas Internation, does, and why.


One Response to “Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma”

  1. […] of him, the material for the book was collected. We wouldn’t have been able to learn from Dr. James Orbinski, head of Dignitas International, or Normie Kwong, CFL star and Lieutenant Governor of […]

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