Starting Out With Medecins Sans Frontieres

Medecins Sans Frontieres exists to deliver medical assistance to vulnerable populations in humanitarian crises.  The organisation was founded in 1971 by a group of French doctors and journalists who had been volunteers with the International Red Cross.  These men had signed an agreement with Red Cross which blocked them from speaking out when, whilst working in Biafra in southern Nigeria during a violent civil war, they witnessed unspeakable cruelties including deliberate starvation of the population, civilian murders etc.  Because of the agreement they had signed with Red Cross, who maintain silence in order to preserve their neutrality, they were not allowed to speak out.

There are many truly terrible images of starvation and death from Biafra during the Nigerian War, which were shared with us this week, mainly of children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM).  This mass starvation resulted from Nigerian forces blockading supplies into Biafra, which wanted to become an independent state.  I was tempted to share one or two images here, but they are too terrible – you can find them if you want to.  Instead, I will use a map to make it “real” to those of us who have never heard of Biafra and don’t know where it is.


Upon returning to France the silenced doctors and journalists, led by a doctor called Bernard Kouchner, spoke out against both the Nigerian government and the International Red Cross, and formed Medecins Sans Frontieres.  The English translation is Doctors Without Borders.  The purpose of this breakaway organisation was to continue humanitarian work, but without the restriction of silence when witnessing atrocities.  The French term for speaking out, as used by Medecins Sans Frontieres, is “temoignage”.  Like the International Red Cross, the underlying philosophies of MSF’s humanitarian work are neutrality, independence and impartiality.  Unlike the International Red Cross, MSF maintain this philosophy whilst simultaneously believing in the need to speak out on behalf of those without a voice.  The two areas of work MSF engage in are medical aid and temoignage.

Despite the criticisms Kouchner and his colleagues/friends had of International Red Cross, MSF obviously maintains strong links with Red Cross and other aid agencies, who they often work alongside.  This week one of our presentations was from an International Humanitarian Lawyer employed by Red Cross.

In 1999 MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their “pioneering humanitarian work on several continents”.  Dr James Orbinski was the President of the International Council of MSF at that time.  When he accepted the prize in Oslo on behalf of MSF he used the opportunity to speak out to President Yeltsin, whose army were at that time indiscriminately bombing Chechnya and Grozny.  You can read Dr Orbinski’s full speech, which is well worth your time, here:

Today MSF work in over 70 countries around the world, on at least 372 projects.  This week I had the privilege of becoming an MSF volunteer.  This morning I woke up in Australia for the last time for nine months, as I head to Cambodia tonight to begin my “First Mission”.

During the orientation days this week I have learnt about the organisation, underlying principles of humanitarian work in general and MSF more specifically, and my roles and responsibilities as an MSF employee.  It has been an evocative week of exotic stories from “the field”, seeing photographs and hearing stories from my colleagues returning from refugee camps, war zones and various other challenging situations.  I have also received information about protocols and guidelines, and in a class of 16 other new volunteers, we were led through many interactive activities touching on various scenarios from clinical issues to security and cultural challenges.

45% of the work MSF carry out occurs in stable contexts.  Thankfully my first mission to Cambodia will be in this context.  55% of their work is carried out in unstable contexts such as war zones.  Currently they are very involved in the Syrian crisis, but they also work in refugee camps such as Palestine and various crises occurring, mostly with limited media attention, in Africa.  A short but interesting article from MSF about Syria which featured in the Australian news is here:
This week MSF also spoke out about atrocities occurring in the Central African Republic (CAR):

MSF Australia are currently running a television advertisement campaign, which shows some of the work they do in various settings:

44% of the work carried out by MSF is non-medical (logisticians and security experts seem to feature heavily), 26% is medical and 30% paramedical, which is the umbrella I come under as a nurse.  The settings that they work in include conflict, post-conflict, violent, repressive and failed states, natural disasters, medical emergencies, epidemics/pandemics, high disease burden, complicated disease, neglected and/or stigmatised disease, displaced populations, excluded and marginalised groups, institutionalised violence, domestic violence.

Sadly the world we live in provides MSF and the many other humanitarian agencies doing similar work with an overload of appropriate settings to work in.  Tonight I am flying to Cambodia, where my work setting will be one of high burden of tuberculosis disease.  I feel privileged to have the opportunity to undertake such work with the world’s leading humanitarian medical aid organisation.  I feel motivated (long may it last!) by the opportunity to use my skills where need is greatest, and to contribute something to the world that isn’t just about me earning money to reinforce my already privileged existence.  I look forward to blogging about the experiences lying ahead of me.

A couple more links of interest include MSF Australia’s Facebook page:

The MSF Australia website:

See you from Cambodia!

5 thoughts on “Starting Out With Medecins Sans Frontieres

  1. What a wonderful organisation. I’m very much in favour of “temoignage.” I look forward to reading about your time in Cambodia and hope it’s an amazing experience, all round.


    1. Congratulations on your post Helen. Have an unforgettably wonderful time in Cambodia helping people who would otherwise have no access to reasonable medical care. Much respect for you and all at MSF


  2. It’s such a privilege to know you, Helen, and to find out more about the important work that you do. May you stay safe, yet enjoy your upcoming experiences. My best wishes to you.


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