Humane: Do Some Good
Crossing the Line
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontierers, MSF) accomplishes much good in the world. Their mission statement declares their strength of resolve: Medical aid where it is needed most. Independent. Neutral. Impartial.
We hear about MSF in the news almost daily which shows how great the need is worldwide for medical care during crisis. How did this organization get started? Their website tells the story:
Amid the Parisian upheavals of May 1968, a group of young doctors decided to go and help victims of wars and major disasters. This new brand of humanitarianism would reinvent the concept of emergency aid. They were to become Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known internationally in English as Doctors Without Borders.
After the revolt of May '68 burst onto their black and white TV screens, the French public soon saw other, more frightening images. For the first time, television broadcasted scenes of children dying from hunger in remote corners of the world.
In southern Nigeria, the province of Biafra had seceded. This miniscule territory was surrounded by the Nigerian army and the Biafran people were decimated by famine. The French Red Cross issued an appeal for volunteers.
For a number of years, Max Recamier and Pascal Greletty-Bosviel—volunteer doctors with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva—had been regularly intervening in armed conflicts.
"Contrary to popular belief, the Red Cross is not a medical organization at all," says Max Recamier. "Pascal and myself were the only two doctors they knew because of our previous mission in Yemen, so they asked us to find some doctors for the ICRC. The first one to volunteer was Bernard Kouchner, who was much younger than I was; he was just finishing his studies and hadn't even finished his thesis yet, but he volunteered to go over there."
A team of six set off on the ICRC mission to Biafra: two doctors—Max Recamier and Bernard Kouchner—as well as two clinicians and two nurses. Being thrown into such a bloody conflict was a real shock for these fledgling doctors, who found themselves having to provide war surgery in hospitals that were regularly targeted by the Nigerian armed forces.
Recamier and Kouchner believed the world needed to know about the events they were witnessing: civilians being murdered and starved by blockading forces. They openly criticized the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behavior.
In the following three years, other doctors began to speak up. These doctors, or "Biafrans," as they were known, began to lay the foundations for a new and questioning form of humanitarianism that would ignore political or religious boundaries and prioritize the welfare of those suffering.
In 1971, Raymond Borel and Philippe Bernier, journalists from the medical review Tonus, issued an appeal to establish a band of doctors to help people suffering in the midst and wake of major disasters. The "Biafrans," who had been attempting to start an emergency medical response group themselves, jumped at the chance.
“In the back of our minds was the fact that we’d already done this and we wanted to do it again,” says Bernard Kouchner, “We wanted to ensure sufficient knowledge of this new type of medicine: war surgery, triage medicine, public health, education, et cetera. It’s simple really: go where the patients are. It seems obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary concept because borders got in the way. It’s no coincidence that we called it ‘Médecins Sans Frontières.’”
MSF was officially created on December 22, 1971. At the time, 300 volunteers made up the organization: doctors, nurses, and other staff, including the 13 founding doctors and journalists. MSF was created on the belief that all people have the right to medical care regardless of gender, race, religion, creed or political affiliation, and that the needs of these people outweigh respect for national boundaries.
Since its founding, MSF has treated over a hundred million patients—with 8.3 million outpatient consultations being carried out in 2012 alone. MSF has also maintained its institutional and financial independence, and the organization has continued to be critical of both itself and the broader aid system when appropriate, all in the name of trying to help direct more effective and timely aid to those who need it most.
This quote crystallizes the intention of Doctors Without Borders:
“Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to this assumption. We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill."
Dr. James Orbinski, then-President of the MSF International Council, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF in 1999.
Here are all the ways that you can help Doctors Without Borders.