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To Hell and Back: Helping the world’s most desperate [CTV]

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To Hell and Back: Helping the world’s most desperate

CTV’s W5, April 3, 2010

By W5 Staff

When massive tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti occur, the international community of humanitarians springs into action. From around the globe they react: medics, nurses, search and rescue experts, all focused selflessly on delivering whatever help they can — often in the most perilous conditions.

Few know the rigours of such an exhausting and rewarding way of life better than Canada’s pre-eminent humanitarian Dr. James Orbinski. “I’ve seen famine. I’ve seen epidemics of disease. I’ve seen war. I’ve seen war crimes. I’ve seen genocide,” said Orbinski, in a wide-ranging feature interview with W5.

As the then head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders), it was Orbinski who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF in 1999. It was an honour he had earned after spending years tending to the sick and needy in just about every war-torn country you can imagine; from Somalia to Afghanistan, Rwanda to Sudan, and beyond.

As a young doctor, Orbinski signed up to work with Médecins Sans Frontières –believing, at the time, that he could use his medical skills to save the world. Orbinski concedes now that he had a naïve view of humanitarianism, believing “it was somehow completely divorced from politics.” He soon discovered otherwise.

It was while he was in Rwanda in1994, that Orbinski’s naiveté was demolished once and for all. A simmering political conflict erupted into mass murder and genocide. An estimated one million people were killed in an orgy of violence. Orbinski witnessed the worst of human brutality and hatred firsthand as he tried to treat the survivors.

“The idea of any kind of rules of war were gone. There was no law,” he said. “There’s no law in genocide. It doesn’t exist.”

Through this Rwandan experience, Orbinski says, he realized that politics is vital to humanitarians. It put him on a road that has made him a prominent face of humanitarian causes and has also made him a darling of the rich and famous.

During the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, Orbinski was the headliner at a black-tie benefit for his newest charity, Dignitas International. The event was attended by A-list celebrities such as Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, Canadian chanteuse Sarah McLaughlin, actress Miranda Richardson, rapper-actress Eve, an eye-popping collection of stars and starlets, as well as the well-heeled of Toronto society. Orbinski challenged his audience, reminding them that HIV/AIDS is still killing hundreds of thousands a year in Africa. A new approach is needed to confront the situation, he said.

“We can’t defer to any more experts. We can’t expect that giving a little bit of money to a charity is going to solve the problem. It’s not,” said Orbinski. “Charity is not a substitute for effective public policy.”

Now working in Malawi, in Africa, Dignitas International is demonstrating the new approach Orbinski believes is key. Rather than just apply what he calls the “Band-Aid” of assistance supplied and delivered by outsiders, his idea is to support local healthcare workers. The idea is that by training local community members to provide the healthcare, they will educate the greater community long after the foreign aid workers leave. In Malawi that work is being done to care for HIV/AIDS patients and to prevent the spread of the disease.

Orbinski said that Dignitas work in Malawi has already saved at least 20,000 lives and many others now have a chance for a healthy existence.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have been tested and hundreds of nurses and community workers have been trained,” he said.

After spending decades helping those all around the globe the father of three has also found new inspiration to improve the lives of others at home — in his own family.

“I see my children, their world now and the world we create for them. I feel a responsibility for that.”

Dignitas InternationalTo Hell and Back: Helping the world’s most desperate [CTV]