Ragged Islands by Don Hannah 

Healing Our World: Inside Doctors Without Borders

by David Morley

Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside

121 pages, 2007

Buy it online



Acting Globally

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

We all know the expression, think globally, act locally, but David Morley takes it one step further, showing his readers how easy it is to put your body where your mouth is and actually get out there to make a difference, one pair of hands at a time.

Morley, for seven years the executive director of the Canadian section of Doctors without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières: MSB for short), has not only written an historical book about this important humanitarian organization, but also an inspirational one. Along with the history of this non-political group, he shares journal entries, volunteers' reactions, photographs and stories of disaster in the neediest places in our world. From the AIDS pandemic in Africa to civil war in the Congo; from earthquakes to tsunamis and cyclones; from diseases like malaria and sleeping sickness to the simple but deadly measles, MSF is there.

This slim hardcover is an easy read; you can finish it in one night. Although you might expect to feel depressed after opening the book and viewing some of the pictures you'd expect to see in a book like this -- starving children in Biafra, diseased children in the Congo, earthquake devastation in El Salvador -- you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that the book's prevailing mood is not one of despair. By balancing his visuals of destruction and disease with images of international teams working together, smiling faces, and locals at work, the author helps to keep alive the spirit of hope and the simple message delivered by James Orbinski, the organization's international president, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Price on behalf of Doctors without Borders in 1999:

Despite grand debates on world order, the act of humanitarianism comes down to one thing - individual human beings reaching out to others who find themselves in the most difficult circumstances. One bandage at a time, on suture at a time, one vaccination at a time.

Healing our World also delivers some information that may surprise you. Only one third of the organization’s volunteers, for example, actually are doctors. Another third come from the health care professions like nursing, psychologists, and technicians. That leaves a whooping one third volunteers made up of people in other professions, people like us, many of whom dream of making a difference: engineers, mechanics, accountants, administrators, teachers.

Also of interest is the dichotomy between the urge to be political and to speak out against injustices the crew sees while in the field, and the need to stay neutral so that access to the area will continue to be provided and to ensure that no danger will befall the volunteers: not an easy task and not always possible. Chechnya is one example where the decision to be political and to protest against the government's inhumanity came at a cost:

MSF was asking Western governments to call the Russian army to account for its actions against Chechen civilians. But Western governments said nothing, and over the next 18 months two of our volunteers were kidnapped. Though they were eventually released, the message was clear - we could not send volunteers to help the beleaguered people of Chechnya. Our effort at speaking out had not worked.

Sometimes, however, agitation is the answer, as in Chad in 2003, where MSF was the only provider of medical care for 200,000 refugees: And nobody else came. By contacting journalists and inviting them to come and bear witness for themselves, MSF turned the tide. The journalists came, were horrified, and reported the dreadful conditions. Public opinion was stirred and money began flowing into the United Nations.

The book's six chapters cover the disasters and the war zones in which MSF has been active, and chronicle events in Zambia, Congo and El Salvador, as well as the history of the organization and its challenges and victories.

Many sidebars help lift important information off the page and make it immediately accessible: information like the International Humanitarian Law, the Guiding Principles of MSF, and the World's most Neglected Diseases. Unfortunately, these sidebars get forgotten in the last part of the book and I missed them.

So, want to make a difference? Don't mind a certain amount of danger and thrive under intense pressure? Details on how to apply and what MSF are looking for are also found here. Not sure? Just start with Healing Our World.
| March 2007

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.