This weekend, as six of Random House’s authors deeply embedded within humanitarian issues in Africa spoke during what was an epic (9 hour) seminar on the subject, each participant struggled to define the word ‘hope’ in a humanitarian context. Marilyn McHarg (MSF), James Orbinski (Nobel prize winner for MSF, currently Dignitas International), Stephanie Nolen (Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondant), Romeo Dallaire (Led peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in 1994), Chimamanda Adichie (Orange broadband prize winning novelist), and Stephen Lewis (former UN Envoy for Aids in Africa), or as I like to refer to them, the Canadian ‘development glitterati,’ each found a different definition. The result was a variety of voices, each with often contradictory visions of “humanitarianism in the 21st century.”
Of course I can’t attempt to cover each point covered in the extraordinarily long session at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, but I’ll try to touch on some of the highlights.
Marilyn McHarg saw humanitarian action as “creating space for hope,” and in the same vain, James Orbinski suggested, “Hope is about possibility”. It was interesting to see the way in which they differed, however, given that Orbinski is a former director of the organization McHarg now represents. While McHarg toed the company line and focused on the apolitical nature of humanitarianism in general, Orbinski emphasized how we may like to look at humanitarianism as simply addressing human suffering, but “human suffering does not take place in a political vacuum”. He went on to discuss the ways in which MSF and other organizations acted politically in order to address issues of human suffering, including increasing access to anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. One of the key topics that Orbinski seems to focus on in his writing and speaking which I find particularly interesting is the detrimental impact of military-delivered humanitarian action. This led to some respectful but adamant opposition from Romeo Dallaire, who during his hour emphasized that the only way to confront the new forms of conflict was through coordination of military, political and humanitarian aspects. Adichie didn’t weigh in on this particular debate, but although she claimed to be “only a story teller,” she articulated strong sentiments on how change and hope must come from within Africa itself.
My favourite speaker, however, was Stephanie Nolen for her frank and passionate discussion of her experience as a journalist covering HIV/AIDS in Africa. Far from the polished and formal presentations of the others, Nolen FELT her way through her 20 minute talk, and then intermittently teared-up and cussed while being interviewed by moderator Gillian Findlay. Her message to us? “We do more than we did, but that’s not enough…The Gap makes a t-shirt about AIDS. You can’t say you don’t know there’s a problem. Real foreign aid starts here.”
Stephanie Nolen:28: Stories of AIDS in Africa
James Orbinski: An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century
Stephen Lewis: Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa (CBC Massey Lecture)
Romeo Dallaire: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
Chimamanda Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun