Last week, I attended the annual AGM for the U of T Alumni Association. It was 300 of us packed in a room, sadly, not there to listen to the budget breakdown or the newly elected Board members, but for the guest speaker Dr. James Orbinski, co-founder of Dignitas International, and past president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctor’s Without Borders).

Although I was immediately moved by his lecture and had to tell everyone about it, it has taken me a week (as it does usually with moments like this) to digest the material completely.  And in light of recent world events, his words resonate with me even more so.

So much is taken for granted.  Specifically this mystical entitlement to freedom,  idealized political theorems and this notion of not only equality, but also equity.  Orbinski reflected upon his life and work, with a speech touching upon several relevant topics. He spoke of those “entitlements,” as it pertained to the notion of citizenship and what it means to be accountable for each other as humans beings. To the attribution of human dignity and what that signifies, and lastly, global health and what ‘we’ are doing to help those less fortunate.

I’d naïvely argue that the word “accountable” is quite simple. However, I’d lose. The word “accountable” has become, an ‘each person debate and develop their own unit of measure,’ which itself seems unfair and unjust to those who are dependent on a fairness and equity. Can there really be a universal standard of accountability that ‘we’ take on, or is that too a utopic ideal?

In explaining the meaning of being an ‘accountable citizen’ of the world, Orbinski explored a few points:

1. Equity is a practical hallmark for a respect for human dignity – where there is no distinction. Equity is organized. And similarly, a lack of equity is too, organized.  So, what happens when this equity is repeatedly and systematically defective?

2. With regard to an ‘engaged citizenship’ Orbinski says, “Dignity begins with seeing the saneness of self,” and compares the process to an ‘Imperfect Project’ (like a science experiment, with out perfect outcomes or controlled variables). How can we restore dignity to those whom have been stripped of rights, and of voice?

3. Hope lies in what we actually do, not in utopian dreams. (It occurs to me that this whole exercise is a ‘utopic’ way of explaining what we know we ought to do.)

4. The right kind of politics can be effective. ‘Listen first, act next.’ My faith in politics is stunted at the moment. From local governments, to foreign governments. And yet we still ask and rely on them to do, act, and help.

5. There’s no suffering worse than suffering alone. Another debated word. Another word that comes to mind: empathy.

To cope with the last point, Orbinski wrangles upon the difference in definitions between optimism & hope. The former thought based on reasonable outcomes based on action; the latter, that a certain action is right and makes sense regardless of outcome. Though he’s seen the worst of what humans are be capable of, he’s also seen the best and continues to be optimistic and have hope for the future saying, “…hoping creates optimism in choices.”

After spitting out a good 10 minutes of  ridiculous statistics of certain pharmaceuticals, deaths due to smog, west nile, heatwaves, lack of water, lack of medication, the realities of disease, stats of money: money people make, money to save lives, money to start organizations, money to underwrite illness, money for dignity and money for equity – Orbinski holds on to hope and ends with this positive yet empowering message, “…that ideas are more powerful than economy and armies.”

And therein lies our call to action.