An Imperfect Offering Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century


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Walker & Company


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0802717624

9780802717627

448 Pages

$20.00

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Having served as a caregiver and former head of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) when it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, Obrinski uses his decades of personal experiences to open the eyes of the public to humanitarian efforts throughout the world.  This enthralling memoir, comprised of personal thoughts and testimonies, diary entries, and correspondences with friends of various humanitarian organizations, recounts Obrinski’s time spent as a doctor on the front lines in Peru, Somalia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Russia, and Zaire. Through reflections—personal and political—he hopes to inject humanitarian activity into our daily lives.  In the past, humanitarianism has been viewed as apolitical, but Obrinski, with his stories and his investigation into both his and his organization’s motives forces it out of this sphere and into a political realm, admitting imperfection is essential to compassion.  Embodied in An Imperfect Offering, are warnings, hopes, and lessons on how to convert transform concerns into powerful, global humanitarian efforts, shaping the world in which we live.

REVIEWS

Praise for An Imperfect Offering

“The cataclysm of butchery that engulfed far too many places and took far too many lives began after the fall of communism . . . Orbinski reminds us of exactly what our victory in the Cold War wrought.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“With vivid personal anecdote, Orbinski chronicles the struggle around humanitarian intervention in one hotspot after another across the planet. In a narrative of grace and power, he displays the intense components of his remarkable life: integrity, compassion and principle. He is undaunted in the face of the worst the world has to offer. He is determined to salve the wounds of humankind. He is a truly committed man, mind and soul throbbing with incandescent decency.”— Stephen Lewis, Former UN Special Envoy

“James Orbinski has lived for years in the middle of the worst that humans can be, and somehow emerged with both his compassion and his desire to understand us intact. He is a marvellous storyteller, and the stories he has to tell are some of the most powerful I have ever read.”— Stephanie Nolen, author of 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa

“In this complex era of massive abuses to human rights by governments in too many countries, it is suprising to read such a poignant book that describes, without fanfare, the constant ethical, moral, and even legal dilemmas that those in the field must confront hundreds of times a day. Clarity, compassion and commitment are presented in spades in this book about those who are fighting the lack of political will that too often fails to prevent man's inhumanity to man.”—L.Gen. Roméo Dallaire, author of Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

"An essential text for our dire times. Orbinski plunges into the heartbreak, the maelstrom, the moral dilemmas of the genocide territories of the world—Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan—and finds there enough courage and redemption for us all to feel that there is hope for our sad humanity."—Ariel Dorfman

"A doctor who has witnessed the worst forms of inhumanity in hot spots around the globe takes an unflinching look at the political and economic forces that provoke human suffering and offers a moving meditation on the nature of humanitarianism. Orbinski was president of Doctors Without Borders when it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, and this book echoes and expands on his acceptance speech. He argues that humanitarian action must be free of political influence, must not become a tool of war and must not be silent in the face of human-rights violations. Its goal is the relief of human suffering, and though imperfect, it is essential. In 1994, the author was chief of mission for DWB in Kigali, Rwanda, when a million men, women and children, 85 percent of all the Tutsis, were exterminated. By withdrawing its forces from Rwanda, the United Nations 'became little more than a cowering paper lion,' Orbinski charges, 'offering earnest resolutions and fine humanitarian rhetoric while the superpowers pursued their national interests.' The genocide in Rwanda provides some of the most horrific scenes of human brutality and suffering, but the author also takes the reader to the sites of a cholera epidemic in Peru, a minefield-surrounded refugee camp in Afghanistan, civil wars and famine in Somalia and Sudan and to Kosovo, where humanitarian action became a justification for military and political intervention. He tells powerful stories of individual courage and suffering, but equally important, he offers lucid accounts of the complicated political alignments and realignments shaping events. After completing his term as president of DWB, the author took up a new battle, spelled out in his penultimate chapter: the fight for access in the developing world to essential medicines against infectious diseases and the setting up of community-based care centers in developing countries for people with HIV/AIDS. Readers spurred to action by Orbinski's example will find organizations worthy of support in an appendix. An important, consciousness-raising work."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"As both a frontline caregiver and past president of Doctors Without Borders, Orbinski has led humanitarian efforts to aid and treat victims of some of the most harrowing events of the last few decades. Here he recounts his time as a doctor in famine-stricken Somalia and the seemingly futile medical aid attempts during the Rwandan genocide. Rounding out these accounts of humanitarianism in the face of insurmountable suffering are stories of his work in Peru, Afghanistan, and Russia and of his efforts to bring humanitarian concerns to the global political scene. On its surface, Orbinski's personal narrative is a chronicle of humanitarian efforts at the turn of the 21st century. Yet in retelling his life's work, Orbinski asks two much larger questions: 'How am I to be?' and 'How are we to be in relation to the suffering of others?' It is an underlying but persistent call to action that makes this work more than just a memoir. Orbinski seamlessly blends the personal with the political, offering his own experiences within the context of the more powerful global forces at work. In this revealing personal narrative, he has taken humanitarianism from its apolitical, reactive sphere to one in which it is an active enterprise where individuals and organizations shape the world we live in."—Library Journal

"In this captivating look at humanitarian intervention in the 20th century, Orbinski, former head of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), uses stories from his decades of service with the group to examine 'how to be in relation with the suffering of others.' The author describes his time on the front lines of suffering in Russia, Somalia and Afghanistan. When Orbinski recounts his second term in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, the book reaches an emotional peak: it was his 'undoing,' and struggling with the horror he has seen, he drifts into a 'netherworld of confusion,' fighting to regain his 'footing as a man, as a doctor and as a putative humanitarian.' His ensuing reflections on humanitarianism are as riveting as his personal thoughts, which include diary entries, recollections and correspondence with friends in the humanitarian and diplomatic corps. The book manages to be both personal enough to construe the human toll of political and social disasters without falling into the trap of maudlin, patronizing depictions of human suffering. Orbinski, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for Médecins Sans Frontières in 1999 does credit to his organization and his humanitarian credo."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads

BACK

BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

James Orbinski is past international president of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for MSF in 1999. I n 2004, he left MSF to found Dignitas International, an organization for people living with HIV/AIDS in the developing world. He lives in Canada.

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BACK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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  • James Orbinski is past international president of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for MSF in 1999.  Prior to joining MSF, he was a medical researcher in Rwanda in the late 1980s, and a family doctor in small town Canada.  With MSF, he worked in Peru, in Somalia during its famine and civil war, in Afghanistan during its civil war, in Rwanda through the genocide and in Zaire during the slaughter that followed.  In 1999, he helped launch MSF’s Access to Essential Medicines Campaign, and he has spoken on behalf of MSF before the United Nations Security Council, the leaders of the World Health Organization, the United Nations High Commission for Relief, the World Bank, and at the White House and before government ministers and heads of state the world over.  When his term as president of MSF ended in 2001, he worked as chair of MSF’s Neglected Diseases Working Group.  In 2004, he left MSF to found Dignitas International, an organization committed to community-based care for people living with HIV/AIDS in the developing world.  He lives in Canada.

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