“We deal with a lot of death — a lot of death — much more than we’re used to seeing at home by far.”
Sometimes I view the posts I write as an opportunity for me to learn something new. Even when I don’t think of them in those terms, I almost always learn from my research. It came to me last week that I knew only a little about a large group of people who are doing good things all over the world, and I would like to learn more, and at the same time honour them in my Wednesday “Good People Doing Good Things” post. Today, I am pleased to write about a group that is maybe doing the hardest, yet some of the most humanitarian work around the globe: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders.
My first question was “how did Doctors Without Borders get its start?” Rather interestingly, it was a combination of politics and the Civil War in Biafra in the late 1960s that led to its formation. A group of French doctors working with the International Red Cross (IRC) in Biafra were frustrated because by the policies of the IRC they were not allowed to speak of the political atrocities they saw in the region. Meanwhile, a group of French journalists, trying to bring attention to victims of natural disasters in spots like Iran and Bangladesh, became frustrated that doctors were unwilling to help out the victims of these catastrophes. The two groups with similar frustrations came together and in 1971, joined forces to form Médecins Sans Frontières. Today, MSF has about 30,000 people working in its organization to provide medical aid in over 70 countries.
Who are these men and women who give their time to such a noble cause? Doctors, of course, but also nurses, midwives, and other medical professionals, logistical experts, water and sanitation engineers and administrators. They provide medical care irrespective of race, religion, creed or political affiliation. Their charter emphasizes “independence and impartiality”, and explicitly precludes political, economic, or religious factors in its decision making. For these reasons, it limits the amount of funding received from governments or intergovernmental organizations, which allows them to speak freely with respect to acts of war, corruption, or other hindrances to medical care or human well-being. 90% of Doctors Without Borders’ funding is private, coming from a loyal base of five million donors. That gives it the independence to speak out and do what’s really needed, not just what’s best for raising money.
In another example of standing behind their principles last October, Doctors Without Borders refused an offer by pharma giant Pfizer to provide one million vaccine doses against a deadly form of pneumonia. Their reason? The fact that Pfizer has overcharged dramatically for the drug, making a profit of $6.245 billion in 2015 from just that one vaccine! MSF took a stand against the greed of Pfizer that made the vaccine off-limits to the people and countries that could not afford their harshly inflated prices.
- In 1999, MSF deservingly won the Nobel Peace Prize “in recognition of the organization’s pioneering humanitarian work on several continents”.
- In 2007, MSF increased its presence in Mogadishu in different locations and opened an emergency response program in Afgooye, just outside the capital, where an estimated 200,000 internally displaced persons sought refuge, living in extremely harsh conditions with little access to food, water, and shelter. Many of those remaining in Mogadishu were staying in makeshift camps with little more than ripped cloth and plastic sheeting for shelter and were exposed to a high degree of violence.
- The group also set up equipment to produce clean drinking water for the population of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, after a 10 October 1986 earthquake that struck the city. In 2014, the European Speedster Assembly had contributed $717,000 to MSF.
- In December 1979, after the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan, field missions were immediately set up to provide medical aid to the mujahideen, and in February 1980, MSF publicly denounced the Khmer Rouge. During the 1984 – 1985 famine in Ethiopia, MSF set up nutrition programmes in the country in 1984, but was expelled in 1985 after denouncing the abuse of international aid and the forced resettlements.
The work they do is not without danger, In addition to injuries and death associated with stray bullets, mines and epidemic disease, MSF volunteers are sometimes attacked or kidnapped for political reasons. In some countries afflicted by civil war, humanitarian-aid organizations are viewed as helping the enemy. If an aid mission is perceived to be exclusively set up for victims on one side of the conflict, it may come under attack for that reason.
- On 3 October 2015, 14 staff and 28 others died when an MSF hospital was bombed by American forces during the Battle of Kunduz.
- On 27 October 2015, an MSF hospital in Sa’dah, Yemen was bombed by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition.
- On 28 November 2015, an MSF-supported hospital was barrel-bombed by a Syrian Air Force helicopter, killing seven and wounding forty-seven people near Homs, Syria.
- On 10 January 2016, an MSF-supported hospital in Sa’dah was bombed by the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, killing six people.
- On 15 February 2016, two MSF-supported hospitals in Idlib District and Aleppo, Syria were bombed, killing at least 20 and injuring dozens of patients and medical personnel. Both Russia and the United States denied responsibility and being in the area at the time.
- On 28 April 2016, an MSF hospital in Aleppo was bombed, killing 50, including six staff and patients.
And then there is the risk of disease. In 2014, an Ebola crisis broke out in West Africa. Along with Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), Doctors Without Borders were there, and stayed through 2016. Below you will find a link to the Story of Salome, a young woman treated for Ebola by Doctors Without Borders, then working with them after her recovery. During the Ebola outbreak, 16 of the MSF’s staff contracted Ebola, nine of whom ultimately died from the disease.
And yet these doctors, nurses and others keep coming back. Why do they do it? The money? While many staff are volunteers, the doctors do receive a modest salary of approximately $1,900 per month, or about $4 per hour, given that they often work 16-hour days, seven days a week. Working conditions?
“To do this job well, you’ll need to get used to dealing with difficult situations. Many of the patients you see won’t make it. When it isn’t from an epidemic or a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis, it’ll be from the ravages of war. And any of those things could do you in just as easily.
You’ll also have to be cool with going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground and not seeing your friends or family for almost a year. You’ll be on call 24/7. Sleep will be in short supply. You’ll see horrible things that’ll make you want to hurl, but luckily, you won’t have much in your belly to give up anyway.”
And many of the areas are in some of the worst climates in the world. Take, for example, the MSF hospital compound in Bentiu, South Sudan where in the rainy season, the camp turns into a giant mud pit. In the dry season, the temperature hits 115 degrees and it becomes an expanse of dust.
So again, why do they do it? For some people, there’s an overriding need, a driving force, to do the most good they can in the world. For some, the upside comes from knowing you’ve directly helped to save the lives of countless people. I am sure there are other reasons as well, but I can only say, whatever the reason, I admire each and every one of these people. And hats off to those who donate to this cause … it is certainly money much better spent than donating to politicians!
“Now I can’t imagine going back to work in Amsterdam to an academic hospital. I feel happy being here. It’s hard work. It has really high highs and deep lows, but I’m happy to be here.” – Dr. Jiske Steensma, serving with Doctors Without Borders at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Site Bentiu, the largest refugee camp in South Sudan.
It is a tough program to get into. Thousands of eager, hopeful docs apply to MSF every year, but only a select few are chosen, mainly because this is an incredibly demanding job and very few have the skills, temperament, and overall ability to handle it. Although some make a career of it, moving from mission to mission; in other words, be homeless—or, permanently displaced — with a medical degree, most sign on for a shorter term, four months or so, and do it every year or two.
There are so many wonderful, heartwarming/heartbreaking stories out there and I cannot possibly cover them all in this post. But here are links to a couple that I think will give you insight into the people who risk their lives and give of themselves to help others:
Five Days and Five Nights with Doctors Without Borders – I highly recommend this one! It is touching, but oh so heartwarming!
Story of Salome – Warning … this one does not have a happy ending, but is still a worthy read.
And of course, there is the Doctors Without Borders website, a plethora of interesting information
There is also a documentary that I hear is excellent, although I have not watched it yet. It is available to watch free of charge if you are an Amazon Prime member (I am), or you can buy the DVD for $17.16. The title is Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders.
Christopher Dickey, international reporter and foreign editor for The Daily Beast, sums it up best: “You will show the world what is happening, you will touch the conscience of the world and thereby try to make things better for people who otherwise would be utterly forgotten.”