- Special Guest -
Am always pleased to feature guests involved in humanitarian work. Today is no exception. I feature a highly-qualified woman who is the Humanitarian Affairs Officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) - Hosanna Fox. I've been trying for ages to interview her but, like many who work in human rights areas, they are extremely busy. Welcome, Hosanna ...
WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT JOB?
Humanitarian Affairs Officer (HAO), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Currently working in Nigeria.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE LAW? ANY REGRETS?
I’m not a lawyer, but I have an MA in International Human Rights Law. I appreciate law for its fundamental role in human societies and its incredible normative potential. At its best law enshrines the very best of human nature in order to restrain the very worst of human nature. Like all products of human interaction, our legal frameworks are as flawed as we are, so I make no argument for law as perfect – but I think at their essence, bodies of law are dynamic and evolving frameworks that are both normative and aspirational in that they reflect how we want to live and what our values are. In this way they are living and breathing entities that interact with societies, living bodies of consensus that measure the progress of society, as well as sometimes its failings.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR SECOND CHOICE FOR A CAREER? WHY?
I’ve tended to focus on vocation rather than career, which makes for a wending career path. Coming to work for MSF after going back to school for my MA was a bit of a change in direction, although I suspect even our detours are part of a continuous path. If I had to take another detour? Writer!
WHAT ORGANISATIONS HAVE YOU WORKED FOR?
I’ve worked for MSF for two and a half years. Before that I took several years away from work for academic pursuits and family adventures. Before that I worked for a variety of NGOs in the US, mostly environmental groups.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?
I would put a lot of scholars and other experts out of business if I could define Human Rights in one paragraph! Like all big concepts, Human Rights mean many things to many people. It’s a living notion that has to be worked out by human communities and as such I think it defies singular or even static definition. For me personally, the core concept of Human Rights is about the universal impulse toward dignity and respect. I think in its most essential form, this inclination toward self-determination and enjoyment of a spectrum of rights is universal – but communities tend to express what we call rights in different ways – so it makes sense that to a certain degree, human rights are culturally relative. Still, that impulse, toward fulfilling our greatest human potential through a framework of protected rights forms the core of human rights. After that, it’s all up for debate.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES IN THE WORLD AS YOU SEE THEM?
I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it’s difficult – if not ethically problematic – to prioritise or elevate one issue over the other. If human rights speak to an individual or group’s right to dignity and respect, then there is no hierarchy of importance. So perhaps the greatest human rights issue is the multiplicity of competing issues. I would draw no distinction between the battle of the Rohingya to be recognised as rights-holders and Sudanese refugees’ right to basic security in their homeland. In addition to all of the issues we readily acknowledge, there is a long and woeful list of invisible issues to which the system is blind. So it’s perhaps this blindness – the inherent biases in the system – that are its greatest weakness.
I think the system and conception of rights itself is challenged by the globalisation of rights. The international human rights system has been rightly criticised for being dominated by Western values and imposed on other cultures with an arrogance reminiscent of colonialism. This must be confronted and addressed with honesty and humility. Those of us that “believe” in human rights too easily become dogmatic hypocrites when we defend absolute and universal rights. This is easier to do in sterile academic settings or in culturally homogenous societies. The irony of universalism is that an system conceptualised, implemented and enforced by a global minority is inherently not universal. A system of global human rights could only become universal through global ownership and participation of the system – which would necessitate a certain acknowledgement and accommodation of cultural relativity. Again – a tempest-size debate for a teacup sized response!
HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE HELP, OR BECOME INVOLVED IN THOSE ISSUES?
Act glocally. Recycle and smile at your neighbours and help old people and be kind to children and all that other stuff – because it really does make a difference. Examine your hypocrisy, even if you can’t reconcile it. Do what you can and then push to do just a small amount more. Every day. Don’t buy into the false argument that one person can’t make a difference, because there’s no such thing as one person – we all act as part of human communities. Participate in politics. Raise educated, thinking children. Be your own hero. Don’t think that only extraordinary people change the world. We are all ordinary people. The important difference isn’t between ordinary and extraordinary people – it’s between ordinary and extraordinary actions. Not everyone that is a humanitarian aid worker is a hero. And you don’t have to be a humanitarian aid worker to be a hero. Decide what kind of hero you can be and do that. If everyone waits around for the extraordinary people to fight injustice, we turn ourselves into spectators rather than participants and arguably we become complicit. Look around you and fight injustices, small and large, wherever you find them. Donate to Doctors Without Borders!
HOW CAN WRITERS AND AUTHORS HELP?
Everyone can help. But if you have a gift with words, you can help by using your words wisely and for the right causes.
As an exercise in relativity (and gratitude), consider this: Not everyone even has words. Given the number of people in the world that don’t read or write, having basic literacy skills is an extreme privilege. What do we do with that privilege? Do we gossip? Do we write more violence into an already violent world? Do we lend our words to those who don’t have them?
There is a world of invisible people and untold stories. Tell the story of someone who can’t. Tell a story that the world is ignoring. One of the things I love about my work with MSF is that it is built around the powerful act of witnessing – an act of solidarity that gives a voice to the voiceless. The act of authoring is something each of us can do on a daily basis.
DO YOU THINK MUCH ABOUT WORLD POVERTY, REFUGEES, ASYLUM SEEKERS AND HOMELESS PEOPLE?
It’s pretty hard not to in this line of work. Honestly, thanks to my socially aware upbringing by two amazing parents, I’ve grown up thinking about these issues. But frankly, world poverty is something that everyone should be thinking about. If you are living a comfortable life in the US or Europe, other people have paid in some way for that comfort and continue to do so. And the majority of the world continues to be actively excluded from that lifestyle. I am not saying that we should live in guilt – I really don’t think this is the answer. Everyone has to find their own way of navigating and responding to the world’s injustices. But it is an ethical responsibility to at least be aware of the suffering of others – and each person is capable of doing their part to create a different reality for those living in misery.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS?
The lack of a singular, universal gadget charger. The fact that there’s no wireless electricity. The fact that all the rows in a plane aren’t exit rows. Distance, both literal and figurative.
WHAT ARE YOUR GREATEST ASSETS?
Resilience and a terrible memory!
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE WOMEN INVOLVED IN LAW? WHY?
The simple answer is yes, but I’d take it one step further. I’d like to see more women involved in public life, period. I’d also like to see more diversity in law, period. Law, for all of its ability to create positive social change, also has some pretty regressive tendencies. As such, there are some dark legacies within the legal system. It has been used to liberate, but it’s also been used to enslave, to justify domination. There is a
Part of that dark legacy/history is the direct result of being a product of Western cultures that were at that point – and arguably still are to a certain degree – dominated by white men. In this regard, there are some very valid critics that see law as inherently patriarchal, Western and thusly limited in it’s scope and spirit. I don’t disagree with these arguments.
So yes, we need the entire chorus of voices, not just one range. That includes women and every other flavour of human being.
GENERALLY, ARE POLITICIANS DOING WHAT WE ELECT AND PAY THEM TO DO?
It would be easy to fall into stereotypes to answer this question. I think the evidence would show us that some are and some aren’t. What’s more interesting to me is our participation in what they are doing. Politicians neither get elected nor make their decisions in a vacuum. And while I think it’s quite valid to feel frustrated with various systematic flaws that indicate corruption and inefficiency (campaign laws, lobbying rules, corporate influence, etc), I think ultimately we have to remember that politics is not a spectator sport – it is, among other things, a system of interaction between the public and decision-makers. We are the government. One cannot be disappointed in governance and simultaneously decline to participate meaningfully. If we aren’t voting, if we aren’t picking up the phone or getting online on a weekly basis to let decision makers know what we want from them, then I think we should refocus our frustration regarding their actions.
Additionally, one can say many things about capitalism, but it does offer us an alternative way of voting – of expressing what we want and what we don’t want. Every time we spend a unit of our currency, we are converting labour into decision-making. We are indicating to the market a preference for the kind of world we want to se and the market responds accordingly. So for example, if you don’t want to live in a world where environmental toxins threaten our children’s’ health, and your politicians aren’t doing enough even after you’ve communicated your preferences to them – stop buying toxic products and bringing them into your home.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT SOME GOOD THINGS ARE BEING ACHIEVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS?
Unequivocally, yes. Is the human rights system perfect? No. Is it highly flawed? Yes, highly. But I’m not sure why we expect it to be any other way. The last 70 years have seen an arguably historically unprecedented development of human rights frameworks. The protections that are available to both individuals and groups today represents an enormous improvement over what was in place before WWII. The system still excludes or fails to protect people. It’s messy and parts of it are bureaucratic and even corrupt. But it’s a product of human societies, so why wouldn’t it reflect the full range of human behaviour? The arguments are many, but for me, there’s a simple counter-argument – thousands, in fact. Every refugee and IDP that’s been given assistance, every person that’s sought remedy in one of the human rights courts, every person that has not been sent back to a country where they will be tortured, every person that’s been granted asylum, each one of them is testament to a system that works at least some of the time for some people. The fact that it fails for a lot of people, the fact that it is often manipulated by politics or instrumentalised by nation-states are not indications of the systems failure, but rather indications that human beings can only create systems and institutions as good as they are capable of being.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Love and courage – which I suspect might be the same thing. Strength and kindness – which I also suspect might be the same thing. The people that I work with – the medical staff that face our patients every day with dedication and an admirable resilience, the logistics staff that do their best to get the medical programs what they need to operate under very difficult circumstances at times. Our patients – people that have been battered and abused, starved and forgotten, shot at and displaced and still find a smile somehow.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST DREAM?
My dreams have become surprisingly mundane! They involve a garden full of tomatoes ripening in the sun. Satisfaction with the contribution I’ve made. A peaceful heart and a serene mind. A happy and healthy family. Being a good daughter, a good family member and a good community member. Perhaps then, my dream is contentment!
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY?
I’m not sure I’ve discovered it yet. I think I’m still searching within for the ability to make all my days ‘perfect’.
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST FEAR?
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PLACE?
So hard to narrow it to one! Santa Fe, New Mexico is certainly very high on the list of places that always feels like home. My absolute favourite city is London. Other places on the top five list would be Los Angeles and New York. I can round out that list with a blank spot reserved for anywhere in the field.
WHAT DO YOU MOST LOOK FORWARD TO?
Clancy's comment: Thank you for sparing the time, Hosanna. It's been a pleasure to interview you. Keep up the good work.
NB: All views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). For more on Hosanna's experiences travelling and working, please visit www.life-in-orbit.com and www.redbubble.com/people/rubbish-art