Living Peace Series Presents Dr. James Orbinski on Humanitarianism

By Ricardo T. Light

Wednesday, January 11, 2017The Living Peace Foundation, in partnership with the Blum Center at UC Irvine, presented an intimate discussion between Dr. James Orbinski and filmmaker Bobby Bailey at the Barclay Theater at UC Irvine. The event was part of the foundation’s Living Peace Series, which features international leaders committed to making the world a healthy, sustainable and compassionate place. According to founder Kelly Hallman, the foundation, formerly the Center for Living Peace, has brought communities and internationally recognized speakers together for over 7 years to discuss what inner peace means to them.

Join physician, humanitarian, and author Dr. James Orbinski for an intimate discussion on responding and growing through crisis. Event Jan. 11 - Read more in the events section.

Dr. Matthew commenced the evening’s discussion by describing the University of California as a magical place where young people arrive with potential, not sure what to do with their lives, but leave a few years later with great potential to influence the world as doctors, entrepreneurs, writers, researchers, engineers, and more.

“Great universities”, stated Dr. Matthew, “bring remarkable people onto the campus to share their stories and what they’ve done, to show future generations what is possible to do.” Dr. Matthew acknowledged both the difficulty in moving people from awareness to action and the evening’s special guests’ ability to inspire students to acquire skills and a purpose to do something in their lives.

Dr. Matthew warmly welcomed Bobby Bailey, filmmaker and founder of Invisible Children, along with the evening’s distinguished guest, Dr. James Orbinski to the stage.

Dr. James Orbinski has an impressive array of accomplishments to his name, including leading the Doctors Without Borders (or Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) operations during the Rwandan genocide and the humanitarian crisis in Congo. Dr. Orbinski has also had the honor of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF during his time as president of the foundation from 1998 to 2001 and founded Dignitas International shortly after.


The following is a highlight of the evening’s conversation between Bobby Bailey and Dr. Orbinski. Some sections have been edited for flow and brevity. Find a video of the full event here.

Bobby Bailey – As someone who has constructed their life around humanitarianism and is also a promoter of it, how important is it now, today?

James Orbinski – It’s often difficult to understand how incredibly precious the environment in which you live in is when it’s the only thing you’ve ever known. For many students, the only thing they’ve ever known is the environment they grew up in. Like a goldfish in a fishbowl, they may not know what it’s like out in the world because they haven’t been out there. They have yet to be in another bowl. So, it’s a genuine privilege to have spent as much time as I have here at UCI. It is one of the few places in the world where you can bring together various perspectives in an interdisciplinary manner.

You asked, what is humanitarianism? For me, it’s a perspective on how you engage with the world. It’s seeing the dignity of another person and, in a way, seeing your own dignity as well. Seeing yourself, and being aware of yourself, is a core element of humanitarian relationships. Humanitarianism isn’t seeing another as an object, but rather seeing another human being as worthy in themselves, just as one sees themselves as worthy. Humanitarianism is not an idea, it is an experience.


BB – Does that require one to get out of oneself? Do you feel like your life had a calling? You have been in situations where you face your own mortality, how has that challenged your humanitarian work?

JO – To do humanitarian work is to become vulnerable, but it also involved recognizing the fundamental vulnerability of another. If one acts as a human being first, not as scientist or politician, etc., then the other’s vulnerability is actually something that can be felt. Humanitarianism is really about helping a person overcoming their circumstances, so that they can shape their own life, future, and society. One can have individual acts of charity or humanitarianism, but that is different than an organized humanitarian effort.

For example, when I was working for MSF in Somalia, we were working in a particular place, with particular people, and in a particular circumstance. There were many instances where I was afraid, but because I knew I was with MSF, an international organization, and knew the capability of the organization, I felt protected. I even felt privileged because I had the protection of international law and high levels of political authority. There were situations where things got out of control, however, and although your organization has the responsibility to manage the risk, there are times you get to the edge and you’re at the mercy of the events that surround you.


BB – With your work serving people in conflict zones [Rwanda], how much anger or rage did you feel because the cause of so much pain was due to a political decision?

JO – Well, Rwanda was an intentional political crime. What happened there was a planned systematic extermination of people. MSF was trying to provide protection and aid for people at risk, but if one doesn’t respect the fundamental dignity of another, even for the enemy, then humanitarianism cannot happen. At the time, President Clinton actively used language to impede the United Nations from intervening in Rwanda, and that made me feel a profound rage. Yet, together with MSF, we channeled our frustration into effectively speaking out to the world through campaigns. We used the global political network to inform influential governments and demand appropriate action.


BB – Did it work?

JO – No, the genocide continued. It was the rebel actions of the Tutsi army that finally stopped it. Our efforts were not lost, however, the result of which was the raising of a collective consciousness and understanding of citizens around the world to be engaged in both politics and their governments actions. That process led to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). None of us could have imagined that 7 years later an international court would come out of our efforts. So in the end, we applied our desire to create a better world to that problem and created a meaningful organization [the ICC].


BB – How do we stay politically engaged when things are seemingly a circus [referring to the US political climate]? How do you become a global citizen? There’s an agency where  maybe [students] who stand up will be more powerful than us [Dr. Orbinski & Bobby Bailey]. We need leaders in this time, how do we promote that, what is the avenue to catalyze that movement?

JO – We are currently in a profoundly transformative moment. Many question the validity of Trump’s ability to lead. What happens to America happens to the rest of the world. No other country has as much global influence as the United States.

The United States is the founder of numerous post-World War II global organizations and set the stage for the liberal international order – an order which has defined the world since the mid-20th century. Trump has specifically said that the core elements of that order are in question for him. If he decides to defund or disable those organizations, it would be profoundly destabilizing. It would trigger massive polarization across the globe instead of unipolar power and authority – it would discourage international cooperation. As a global society, we can afford to lose that given our growing population and urbanization, and massive increases in energy use and carbon release.

Fanning the flame of change, there isn’t just one answer or solution. The issue is too complex for that. We must start with local action. The relationship between you and me, working at the community level. Local engagement, creating alternatives and encouraging alternatives to what we know to be a very wrong approach to our nation and our communities.


BB – Let’s discuss medicine for a moment. Tell us about your work with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) and non-profit drug production?

JO – There’s about 1 billion people who suffer from a neglected disease or diseases that have no treatment. And because there is no return on investment for pharmaceutical companies,  treatments for diseases affecting predominantly impoverished populations and communities with little means aren’t developed by big drug companies. So, we held conferences bringing together great minds and we asked ourselves, why is there no research in development for these diseases?

For us, this issue was seen as a local and practical problem that we experienced in our own daily work. We started to create real alternatives by applying our minds and energy in a very specific way. Finally, after 3 years, we brought in public research institutions and formed the DNDI. The organization has since developed treatments for countless diseases and has kept patents and intellectual property rights so that they can be manufactured and distributed at an affordable price. Often less than $1 per dose.

We had very clear intentionality and commitment, but we also collaborated with the right partners, including some private pharmaceutical companies. This is a good example for students as to why their knowledge matters. Your particular area of expertise or interest matters! You can make a difference – it depends how you apply your skills and knowledge and with what intention.

So, again, what is humanitarianism for me? I think its solidarity, not charity. Solidarity with human beings who are vulnerable in some way. It’s initiative, concrete initiative, not simply protest. Humanitarianism today has to incorporate those elements: solidarity, initiative, and protest. It takes a willingness to try to engage and participate in our world.


BB – We’re the stewards here…

JO – Yes, and I’m incredibly optimistic because of modern connectedness. In my lifetime, we have learned through the evolution of the internet and other forms of global interactions. We’ve learned more about each other in the last 25 years than we have in all of human history – and we’re still learning how to communicate with each other. I remember when MSF started using the internet to organize itself. The prior structure of traditional hierarchy disappeared, and we had relearn how to be in relationship with each other.

Communication among people is our greatest opportunity because storytelling really matters. We know now that, as a planet, we need a new story. We need a new relationship with each other. We need a new narrative where we can be our best selves in. That’s a communication challenge. If we can learn to communicate our felt experience and our felt dignity, then I’m convinced, by evidence, that we can construct the kind of story and world that encourages health, more sustainability, and equitability. How we choose to be in relationship to each other matters along with how we choose to communicate with each other and how we construct our future story.

This concluded the conversation between Bailey and Dr. Orbinski. Dr. Matthew closed the evening’s discussion by addressing the students in attendance, “You have powerful tools in your hands and greater stakes than any other generation. You have the greatest power that any generation has ever had – everything you do matters.”

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