Are books relevant to humanitarians? Part I

AL2I’ve been reading a lot of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) books recently. It’s interesting to see how a sub-genre of this nature is emerging as part of humanitarian reading matter. In the gender there is already the critical memoirs that aren’t textbooks or philosophical tombs but must reads for all inspiring humanitarians, such as Linda Polman, Fiona Terry, Conor Foley. There are the philosophical or ethical debates, such as The Selfish Altruist or Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the contradictions. And most recently we’ve seen an attempt at humanitarian fiction with #MMMM.

Following a bit of research, it became apparent that writing, and hence books, is an important thread running through the organisation’s history. These MSF books always try to explain or philosophise around the work that the organisation does. This includes both the historical accounts, such as Medical Innovations in Humanitarian Situations, and the more fictional stories like Band-Aid for a Broken Leg and Six Months in Sudan. I wonder whether it’s the calibre of volunteers that MSF attracts or a result of organisational design or objective setting?

The most recent of the MSF books that I read was Life in Crisis: The ethical journey of doctors without borders by Peter Redfield. My brief qualification in philosophy has meant that I’m drawn to the ethical debates around humanitarian aid and I was very much looking forward to this book. Sadly, I have to say I was disappointed. The sentences are at times unnecessarily long and there is a sense that a phrase or word has been left out. Most of the evidence is derived from the author’s experience of one African country, Uganda. One entire chapter (8) is dedicated to the history of this country.

Redfield poses some interesting questions and draws out appealing conclusions, though the connection between these is not always logical or clear. Nonetheless, I love his reference to the SitRep (Situation Report) as the humanitarian’s Lonely Planet!

For a more efficient means to learn about and reflect on the ethical journey of MSF and particularly the ethical dilemmas their volunteers face, I must recommend the 2010 film/documentary, Living In Emergency. Perhaps, its time for MSF to focus more on these new methods of communication? After all, it’s just as easy to travel with a harddrive as it is a book, and we are all forced to carry laptops, which the harddrive can be plugged in to?

An Imperfect Offering follows James Orbinski’s personal journey as a man and as a humanitarian. Orbinski’s first mission with MSF was to Peru in 1992 and he was President of MSF’s International Council between 1998 and 2001. Simply written, it captivates the reader on a journey through Orbinski’s missions with MSF to places like Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Zaire, Kosovo, and Sudan. Powerful and compelling, the book is at the same time a very personal autobiography as well as an exploration of humanitarianism and what it means to be a humanitarian.

He shares with the readers his struggles as he tries to apply the principles of humanitarianism in the real world with all its complex political realities. Grown men have been known to cry whilst reading it. It’s a book that really teaches about humanitarianism, both the theory and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling. The only bone I have to pick with Orbinski’s text is his contribution to the representation of humanitarians as chain-smoking drunks…

Another most read for aspiring humanitarian philosophers and practitioners alike is Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The humanitarian experience. The honesty of MSF in publishing the details of difficult decisions regarding operations in insecure, political ‘dodgy’ and ethically questionable situations must be congratulated. Following the recent decision to withdraw from Somalia, this would be my recommendation for your September read. Not a bedtime story but yet again central to gaining an understanding of the MSF brand and organisation.AL1

Other books in the MSF sub-genre:

Bortolotti, Dan, 2004. Hope in Hell: Inside the world of MSF

Abu-Sada, Caroline, ed. 2012. In the Eyes of Others: How people in crises perceive humanitarian aid

Abu-Sada, Caroline, ed. 2012. Dilemmas, Challenges, and Ethics of Humanitarian Action: Reflections on MSF’s perception project

Weissmann, Fabrice, ed. 2004. In the Shadow of Just Wars: Violence, politics and humanitarian action

Let us know if any are missing . . .

One thought on “Are books relevant to humanitarians? Part I

  1. What’s missing…I wouldn’t categorise it as an MSF sub anything but have just read the Pulitzer-prize winning Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder (2010). It’s about a Burundi man, Deo who survived the 1993 massacres and then New York, to become a doctor and then return to Burundi to build a clinic in his parents’ new home town. I am deeply touched by this book, most of all because the pith of the story is in what drives Deo and his journey to come to terms with the horror of it all. I like also that the author acknowledges his own voice in the telling, which makes the story seem more authentic to me – like the admission at points that the author can’t follow Deo emotionally because Deo needs to go places that the author cannot. A work of very great courage. Also some great anecdotes about what effective aid looks like, when the village gets behind the clinic Deo wants to build. Would love to hear anyone else’s impressions of this book.

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