Dr. James Orbinski on “An Imperfect Offering”

Now, I do a fair number of book interviews for a guy that essentially does radio as a hobby. I won’t lie, there is a certain giddy thrill when you get to casually name drop authors you’ve met and things they’ve told you about their experiences, thoughts, and so forth that don’t get recorded on the interview. Perhaps that changes when you do it more often and it becomes rote, but I hope not: for me, anyway, the novelty makes me pay extra attention to what I’m reading, trying to figure out what it a book is actually saying and to get the author to move past their stock answers.

But, in any case, part way through this interview I realized that I was talking with a guy that has accepted a Nobel Peace prize. Now, I’ve talked to lots of people that have won awards that I consider important, but the Nobel Peace prize is kind of a big deal. You can actually hear my moment of realization part way through the interview, where I garble a question about “humanitarian space.”
But I digress, as this post is verging too far into “gonzo” territory.

Dr. James Orbinski’s book melds a memoir and treatise on the state of modern civil society humanitarianism. A book on either would probably be worth reading: he has, after all, a first hand perspective about some of the more notable Human tragedies of the last quarter century, including the Rwandan genocide, Somalia during its civil war, and as Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo. His involvement with MSF as it sorted out how it was supposed to operate in the vacuum following the Cold War, and what the role of civil society should be therein, would be similarly authoritative. Instead, the former is used to explore the latter. The two parts play off well against each other, as anecdotes alone can often seem hollow and devoid of context, theory and practice can feel detached from the real world. Instead, the former is used to explore the latter, making his point without ever really saying it outright.

And the point? Orbinski focuses on the need to protect “humanitarian space” and makes the case that humanitarian organizations almost by necessity must become political organizations. This is not to say that they must pick sides (indeed staying above the fray of the conflict is emphasized as important), but that it is important that such organizations call a spade a spade and talk openly and publicly about when they face challenges.

“Humanitarian space” is a concept that emerges as the goals and purposes of military or political interests within a country run into conflict with the independence of humanitarian organizations (in the interview, he talks a bit about how this has played out in Iraq, but in the book the theme can be found in pretty much every discussion about his experiences in Africa.) This is again a situation where the personal and the theoretical mesh well: it’s one thing to talk about how civil society is occasionally exploited by governmental actors in the abstract, it’s another to look at how it has affected you or your colleagues ability to do your job and why this led you in a certain direction.

Ultimately, if humanitarian organizations must speak out when they face particular challenges in particular places, it is logically necessary that they speak out publicly about such pressures generally. An Imperfect Offering does just that, accessibly bringing an important (and perhaps overlooked) perspective to the public discussion about conflict and humanitarianism.

(Like this? Listen to more of my book interviews.)