Books

Review: An Imperfect Offering

James Orbinski’s life as a humanitarian doctor

An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-first Century
by James Orbinski
Doubleday Canada (2008), 431 pp.

“Many crawled along the roadside beneath their last remnants of clothing, too weak to walk,” writes former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières James Orbinski in his moving memoir. “Many had given up and simply lay still. As we drew nearer to the feeding centre, I watched people’s faces. They were drawn, emaciated and covered in a fine dust blown into their skin from days of walking in the desert wind.” This description of Orbinski’s arrival at a clinic in war-ravaged Somalia in 1992 aptly illustrates both the almost unimaginable suffering he encountered and sought to assuage, and the compassion, reserve, and skill with which he writes about it.

An Imperfect Offering recounts the principal events in Orbinski’s life that led him to commit himself to serving as a humanitarian doctor: his childhood in a poor working-class neighbourhood in Montreal, his first exposure to the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors at a shoe store, his decision to go to medical school rather than join a monastery, his conversations with a wise Benedictine monk. The book goes on to describe his often-harrowing missions in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Zaire, Kosovo, and Sudan. Among the book’s many remarkable elements is the degree to which, despite the staggering cruelty he has witnessed, Orbinski keeps his faith in humanity and the possibility of effecting change.

In addition to being a highly personal and wrenching memoir, An Imperfect Offering contains philosophical meditations on the nature of humanitarianism. “Humanitarianism is about more than medical efficiency or technical competence,” Orbinski writes. “In its first moment, in its sacred present, humanitarianism seeks to relieve the immediacy of suffering, and most especially of suffering alone.” One of the challenges he attempts to come to terms with is that humanitarianism’s sacred present is never that simple: to relieve suffering, such organizations as msf must negotiate the dangerous politics of failing states.

Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.