Monday, 1 April 2013

An Imperfect Offering: reviewed by Kayla Strickland

Photo of us weaving our way through Medina market on our way to a primary school.
An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty- First Century is a novel written by Dr. James Orbinski which explored the author’s personal experiences working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF/ Doctors without Borders). Established in 1971, MSF is one of the world’s leading independent international medical relief organizations providing emergency relief to populations in distress, victims of natural or manmade disasters and to victims of armed conflict (MSF, n.d). Dr. Orbinski was drawn to working in developing countries to provide humanitarian aid after completing research on Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in Rwanda in the mid 1980’s. He began volunteering with MSF in 1991 as one of the founding members of MSF Canada working in Peru, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The book begins by outlining his experiences in these countries and the many different health problems he encountered in these areas. By 1994, Orbinski was appointed Chef de Mission for a mission in Rwanda. At the time, the country was in civil war between the predominantly Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Forces (RPF) and the predominantly Hutu Rwanda Government Forces (RGF). Throughout Rwanda, Tutsi and moderate Hutus were systematically butchered in the genocide. During Orbinski’s time in Rwanda he was confronted with many patients who were affected by the brutality of the war. The author described the horrific scene of suffering among the men, women and children of Rwanda and the cruelty they faced. He recounts his memories of the struggles he encountered trying to provide care to refugees while struggling against the political powers and various rebel groups. After many years providing humanitarian aid Orbinski was elected the international president of MSF. In the final chapters of the book Orbinski discussed the influence of politics on the organization. Throughout the book he highlighted the political contributions to war as well as the failure of many political bodies to act during humanitarian crisis. Emphasis was placed on MSF’s desire to directly focus on medical needs and humanitarian principles while maintaining independent neutrality. The strong humanitarian values maintained by MSF over years of service earned the organization a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. In conclusion, Orbinski encourages readers to become global citizens and actively engage in humanitarian action by becoming involved in an organization of choice and to bring new ideas to the organization as well as challenge current practices in order to continue to strive for global equality.
The connection the author makes between humanitarian aid and the political obstacles faced during crisis helped me realize of how interconnected the two are but how important it is to keep them separated. Even during the most dangerous periods of war MSF proved that remaining politically neutral allowed them better access to the patients who desperately needed their help. The author explained that other aid organizations who received government assistance and protection were often rejected by the opposing groups which often restricted their ability to provide vital medical care. I was surprised to read about the lack of action taken by many powerful countries to intervene during the Rwanda genocide. The author talks about the effects of the media and how the refusal to use the term “genocide” prevented countries from being obligated to take action against the crimes occurring in Rwanda. My naivety has allowed me to believe that the governing bodies of developed countries are striving to do what is best for the people and it was a rude awakening to realize that there is corruption in almost every system. While reading I was also ashamed of how little I actually knew about the most devastating genocide of the twentieth century. The stories told and the experiences described will encourage me to continue to become a more globally aware citizen. The devastation that the author described were experiences that no person should have to endure and by becoming more aware I feel there is hope these kinds of crimes will be prevented in the future. I feel it is important to continue to read and learn about global issues because it creates an understanding of the world and how we are interconnected as people.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (n.d). MSF charter. Retrieved on March 24, 2013 from
Orbinski, J. (2008). An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian action in the twenty- first century. Toronto: Anchor Canada.

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