For 40 years Médecins Sans Frontières has been battling in war and disaster zones across the world for the lives of victims of conflict, famine and natural catastrophes. The organisation – Doctors Without Borders as it is known in the anglophone world – was created by a group of French doctors who, in the civil-war torn Nigerian region of Biafra in 1971, witnessed murder and starvation that, for political reasons, went unnoticed or unchallenged by the rest of the Western world. Its stated policy is to remain politically neutral wherever it goes. It also reserves the right to speak out to challenge what it sees as unfair. But speaking out can be controversial and has sometimes made maintaining neutrality a difficult task.
As it celebrates its 40th birthday this Wednesday, MSF counts around 30,000 agents in the field, helping some seven million patients in 80 countries. Its budget of 813 million euros comes mostly from its five million private donors. Such numbers make MSF a key player in the field of humanitarian aid, a field which harbours evident dangers; the murder of scores of its workers in the early days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide prompted MSF to call for military intervention, a rare move for an aid organisation.
Its efforts were rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. In the acceptance speech, the President of the MSF’s International Council denounced what he called the “indiscriminate bombing by the Russian army” in Chechnya. Such readiness to speak out has brought into question MSF’s neutrality. The United States’ perceived ‘inaction’ in conflict and disaster zones has been another target of the MSF’s outspokenness. Criticism of the Ethiopian government led the organisation to be expelled from the famine-ravaged country in the mid 1980s. After stinging rebukes in Israel, MSF was forced to recognise that it had been “too one-sided in its presentation of the Gaza conflict.”
By speaking out, MSF aims to draw attention to humanitarian crises rather than just be a silent presence; to alert the world to the causes of a problem rather than simply cure its symptoms. Inevitably, this has sometimes ruffled the feathers of those who believe aid workers should be seen and not heard. But MSF makes no apologies for its policy. As James Orbinski told the Nobel Committee when accepting the Peace prize on MSF’s behalf in 1999: “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”
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