One of the most original and influential voices in the humanitarian arena, Dr. Samantha Nutt, a medical doctor and a founder of the internationally renowned non-profit War Child, is a speaker who is constantly in demand. For over 15 years, she has been at the front lines of many of the world’s major crises, in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Darfur. These experiences have given her unique insights into the brutality of modern conflict: why it begins, what sustains it, and what must be done to prevent children being held in its terrifying grip. The Daily Quarterly recently aught up with Dr. Nutt for an interview about her career thus far:
The Daily Quarterly: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be in medicine?
Samantha Nutt: Around the time I finished medical school. I come from a very artsy family and so even though I applied and was accepted, I had reservations about whether I’d made the right decision. I missed the creative side. After high school I had studied literature and drama in England, so medical school was a big change. But I’m glad I had a broadly-based education. Medicine really wasn’t on my radar until later in life and I encourage a lot of students who ask me about getting into medical school to approach it the same way, because those with a diversity of skills and experiences often have more to offer the profession.
TDQ: You were born in Canada, but spent the first few years of your life living in Durban, South Africa. What do you remember about living there, and how did that impact your life and career?
SN: I was six when we returned to Canada. I do have some early memories of Africa – the beauty, the smells, my first friends – and I suspect this had some kind of influence on my eventual return to the continent.
TDQ: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
SN: “Pay attention, you might learn something!” Generously delivered by every teacher I ever had.
TDQ: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?
SN: “Find work-life balance.” This is the rainbow unicorn of professional advice. I can now say with near certainty that there’s no such thing, especially once you have a child (or several). It always made me feel like a failure. Once you stop worrying about whether you are getting it all “right,” you can relax into the chaos and let go of the insecurities.
TDQ: Who are your influences?
SN: Authors, artists and activists. People who think critically and independently. Those who bring us closer to the truth by being willing to debate the point. Sense of humor is also important to me. There’s nothing more tedious than sanctimonious, humorless finger-wagging. Luckily, that still leaves me with many choices for influences, from George Orwell and Jon Stewart to Teju Cole and Caitlin Moran.
TDQ: When you were toiling away in medical school, did you ever envision becoming a Member of the Order of Canada?
SN: Back then I couldn’t even envision a full night’s sleep! Honestly, I have never had a master plan. I’m just not programmed that way. I went to medical school because, as a humanities student, I was increasingly interested in the connection between health and human rights. And the more I explored this theme, the more it changed my career trajectory. I did not imagine being a “war doctor.” I would not have predicted that I’d end up in Somalia during a famine less than a year after graduating. But each question led to new ones and different experiences, and once I had been exposed to the injustice and gut-wrenching reality of war my life changed – for better and for worse – in profound ways.
TDQ: Tell us about your organizations War Child USA and War Child Canada…
SN: War Child is an internationally acclaimed humanitarian organization that helps children and their families rebuild their lives and withstand the brutal impact of war. We take a long term view of the challenge of war – we are not a “relief” organization. We work exclusively with local partner and community agencies to invest in grassroots, sustainable solutions that protect children, uphold the rule of law, and foster self-sufficiency and economic opportunity. Our work is both complex and holistic, with an emphasis on education, access to justice and skills training (economic development) that over time help to break the cycle of poverty and violence plaguing war torn communities. We also have a longstanding relationship with music and music artists as a way of getting our message out and galvanizing support for our efforts.
TDQ: Tell us about your book “Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid…”
SN: Damned Nations is a distillation of 20 years of working in war zones and thinking about the ways in which our responses to these crises, from a humanitarian perspective, don’t work as well as we would all hope. I also wanted to confront assumptions that many of us hold that war in other parts of the world has nothing to do with us, and yet we profit from and sustain it. We’re quick to blame people in other parts of the world for orchestrating such misery while failing to address our complicity in their suffering. So it’s part exposé, part call to action, and part guide for anyone interested in international development causes. I wrote it because I wanted people to see, up close, the perspective from the ground – to hear the stories of those I have met who defied every stereotype we have of people living with war and poverty as “helpless victims” – and to draw general readers into a pointed conversation about war, militarism and aid. I’m glad to see it is doing that.
TDQ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
SN: Well, staying alive and sticking around is really the priority, which is harder than it sounds when you’re working in highly insecure environments. But the hard truth is that war is on the rise again and our programs are needed more than ever. We are being asked to be in more places and expand our reach because children in these environments need it. But our resources are finite. Hopefully in five years we will be able to do even more. Ultimately, though, the goal is for us to not be needed at all. Sadly, we’re still a long way from that.
I am also working on a couple of book projects with my publisher, Penguin Random House, and so I hope that in five years I will be writing and producing even more. It means though restructuring some of my other responsibilities, which is something I have been trying to do.