As the huff and puff over the Duffy affair steams along all through our national election campaign, the Quebec City-born international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), laments the lack of humane, forthright leaders.
“Our world is starving for good leaders. Leaders today are way too political. They’re not looking out for the good of the community,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, a McGill University-trained physician who has worked for MSF since 1996.
Elected MSF’s international president, in 2013, she’s witnessed events many of us never will. When in the field, she’ll now and again sleep with boots on in case a quick escape is necessary.
Unlike leaders who’ve led sheltered, stage-managed lives, Liu has led in the most dire circumstances. She’s been on the Ebola offensive in West Africa since the outbreak, and this summer, she’s worked in war-paralyzed Yemen where, all through a site visit , she ended up assisting with remedy for 200 wounded in less than 24 hours.
Liu spends 70 per cent of her time in the field, frequently in countries we’d be challenged to find on a map. Or else she can be found trying to convince the United Nations General Assembly or the World Health Organization that they need to put petty machinations aside and work for the suffering, not their now and again insufferable desires. And, no stranger to Canadian affairs, she remains a pediatric emergency physician at Montreal’s CHU Sainte-Justine Hôpital for Children.
Liu embodies intelligence and vast experience, wrapped in compassion. Her call for leaders without borders should be heeded.
“Indifference is paralyzing us. It’s important to care and not be indifferent to what’s going on. We need more citizens of the world,” she told me.
Somewhat ironic is that all through the many hours she spends in airports, Liu has noticed a surplus of books about leadership in the shops. They’re kind of like diet books — there’s an abundance — but lasting results remain elusive.
With her ready appetite to fight the status quo, Liu decided to take a stab as MSF’s international leader on account of a schism in the organization. She was worried about the growing number of people associated with MSF who considered the humanitarian organization a social club. To her, MSF’s raison d’être is to actively serve populations in danger and in need, not to dress up a resume, say, for a leadership bid.
Now, thanks to our online world, citizens almost far and wide can follow, from a distance, what leaders of organizations like MSF or political parties do. We are detached but superficially informed, signing online petitions in the comfort of our homes, but heaven forbid we’d leave our house to attend a protest march. As Liu said, “So many like to talk and don’t do the work.”
Perplexing to her was the widespread reaction over the killing of Cecil the lion in July: “It was very astonishing that people care for that big cat. I don’t have a problem with that.”
What bothers her is that people are dying on Canada’s streets or in refugee camps in Africa and the reaction is, meh, and pass the sriracha. If it isn’t trending somewhere, it’s not happening.
“We are numbed,” Liu says. “Not doing something isn’t the solution.”
She also understands that we are caught up in our jobs, raising children or caring for members of the family, and that not everyone has the courage, skills or stamina to work in danger zones. Yet, as a guarded optimist, she believes that deep down, we have the moral fibre to help others.
As the harping continues all through the federal election campaign, Canadians should be thinking about what defines a leader and what sort of leader we want for the country. Do we want one who serves or own narrow interests or one who makes us proud beyond our borders?
Shannon Moneo is a writer living in British Columbia.