Friday, March 4, 2011


I recently had the time to catch up on my Netflix queue and watched a documentary about the experiences of Dr. James Orbinski as a medical relief worker in Africa that raised a lot of controversial talking points about human rights and intervention.
Orbinski sets out a pseudo-thesis for the purpose of his documentary, exploring the reality of intervention versus the good intention such action represents.

"Humanitarianism, since the end of the Cold War has undergone a major transformation. And many of the basic principles and ideas that underlie humanitarian practice have been co-opted under a military-political agenda.

And we now have humanitarian wars. And if you just think about that, it’s a complete oxymoron.”

Orbinski is clearly bothered but the outcome, or lack of, in Sierra Leone and Somalia where he worked - and yet he does not regret responding to the obligation he felt to help. It is one man's struggle that can be extrapolated to examine the conflicts of humanitarian action as a whole.

At one point Orbinksi describes the system for treating patients in triage during the civil war in Sierra Leone. By numbering the arriving injured based on injury and survival likelihood, triage doctors were able to efficiently save as many lives as possible given their resources. And yet, as Orbinksi still remembers, it went against every instinct as a medical professional and a civil human to let a living human suffer to ration drugs or fluids for the sake of maximizing the success of their operation.

In the end systems like this have to exist and are indeed the most rational but at the sime time cruel and unforgiving. Triage forces us to examine who we're really helping and at what cost. If you get the opportunity, I encourage you to watch it.


  1. This documentary sounds really interesting, and Orbinki's comment about "humanitarian wars" is-- or at least shoul be-- convicting. This post reminds me of the instances when helping hurts, when the manner in which aid is given is inefficient and unsuccessful. In this sense, a moral conviction or responsibility in the hands of a misguided or misinformed individual can be incredibly dangerous. Think about all of the financial aid given out the developing countries in the 70's, 80's and 90's. Although it was well-intentioned (we assume), it actually fed the corruption of governments and maintained underdevelopment, instability and violence.

  2. I think this brings up an interesting problem. Humanitarianism is a wonderful concept, and in theory it is great- but when implying it, and enforcing it, do we not have to breach our own humanitarian ideals to do so? Forcing humanitarianism on people still requires force, which is in contrast to our beliefs... Thus is this an impossible feat?

  3. I think one of the most interesting ideas would be to have Triage for Intervention. We get a panel of experts from each major area, health, security, economics, ethics and these experts could rank the necessity of all the nations that need to be intervened in. Then within the top ten percent of nations that need to merit then the UN could actually fight or send food or doctors to where it was needed, not just where the West makes money.


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