From emails to “Healing Our World”

David Morley is one of those fellows that everyone would be blessed to spend an hour or so with once in awhile. The President and C.E.O. of Save the Children Canada recently released a book about his experiences, from 1998 to 2005, as executive director of the Canadian section of Médecins Sans Frontières.

The book is called “Healing Our World – Inside Doctors Without Borders”.

‘The world is our emergency room’ (one of the American Doctors Without Borders’ slogans) was too long,” David laughs as we sat having a cup of java in a busy midtown coffee shop last weekend.

Friends remember a few of David’s emails from the field, such as his vivid experiences in Brazzaville, in the Congo. We also recall the pride we felt at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, where David and Elizabeth are also members, when it was announced that MSF had won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize. It was these emails, and many more, which were the start of the book.

“I’m able to immerse myself in a different culture and then, at night, I write about the day and process what has been going on. A couple of people said to me that I should write a book. A guy I play hockey with had compiled and printed the emails and shared them with friends. Sharing, pressing “send”, helps me figure out what’s going on and I can try to locate myself which then eases my re-entry into Canadian society.

While still at MSF David was approached with a book proposal by a family friend at Fitzhenry & Whiteside (who published Deborah Ellis children’s books “Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk About AIDS” and “The Heaven Shop”.)

“I’m lucky I get to speak at a lot of schools and ‘kids’, anyone from an 8-year old to a 22-year old young adult in university, ask great questions with all the passion and commitment that comes with believing that we can make the world perfect.

“‘Healing Our World’…in a way it’s an impossibility, so it feels quixotic, but we have to keep on doing it.”

The book, whose first half is reminiscent of a workbook or manual, might well encourage young people to get involved in community development work or re-affirm the views of those who are already so committed.

“As I was doing the history of MSF, I was having some difficulty writing it in the third person, as I thought it should be. It was Stuart McLean who said, ‘No, it sounds too much like a promotional brochure for MSF.’ He urged me to include more of my personal history, an extra risk, but what people identify with.”

This personal history includes how, when after university he applied for his first volunteer overseas position with Pueblito, David met Elizabeth. Bruce McLeod, a family friend since David’s teen years, had volunteered with Pueblito after serving as United Church of Canada moderator and suggested David do the same. He and Elizabeth would marry two years later and now their sons, Nicholas and Alexander, are in university. Such is the fleeting nature of time.

David says that one of the questions he is often asked is whether he gets depressed working in places where natural or human disasters are all around.

“I remember, when I was in Costa Rica early on in my work, assuming that because they did not have the material things we take for granted they would feel poor. Not so.”

“There’s actually something harder about doing justice work here at home because we (activists) are not in the majority. While physical conditions are certainly worse overseas the marginalized are so often in the majority and their struggles, therefore, seem like something everyone has a part in.”

“The gift of action is one of those intangibles – the exhilaration that comes at the end of the day from freely giving without being motivated by some imposed moral code or some smug self-satisfaction. When it feels like a drop in the ocean I get to see, eye-to-eye, some of the people our work has impacted.”

With the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, including a cash award approaching $1 million, MSF launched the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines to address and improve access to essential AIDS, TB, malaria and other treatments for populations in danger. While the prize money was only about one percent of MSF’s worldwide operations budget, David is proud that the organization made a conscious choice to enter the sphere of sharper advocacy.

“What MSF was used to was natural disasters and wars…but to enter into an economic sphere, with the challenge of on-going pandemics, we could see that we were not going to be able to do anything without a cut in the cost of medicines. Some pharmaceutical companies even said, ‘We’ll give you (MSF) a break in the cost’, but we said, ‘No, it was very important that drugs come down in price systemically, not just as an act of charity.’”

While other advocacy groups can push for more training of nurses and call on western countries to stop ‘poaching’ health-care workers from AIDS-endemic areas, David says, “Who better than MSF to deliver meds, and right now, given the emergency!”

David says his work these days, at Save the Children Canada, is comparable to the community development he was part of when this all started for him back at Pueblito.

When he left MSF Canada in July, 2005, David had been the organization’s longest-serving Executive Director.

In February, he learned that “Healing Our World” was being translated into Korean.

Healing Our World: Inside Doctors Without Borders, by David Morley, is published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.


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