Médecins Sans Frontières – a humanitarian imperative

For many years, I have worked with and supported an independent non-governmental organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières, (Doctors Without Borders) which is passionate about what it does, taking medical care to different parts of the world in need.

There have been many times when we have felt the need to communicate our message about our work and what we stand for, asking journalists to assist us to spread the word and help us shape our strategy.

There have been many times when we have felt the need to communicate our message about our work and what we stand for, asking journalists to assist us to spread the word and help us shape our strategy.

Every day, we treat 1000s of patients in countries that include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Papua New Guinea and Jordan, dealing with conditions including HIV, TB, poor nutrition and the consequences of conflict and disaster. 

We work in conditions that are a world away from the Level 3 high-tech care offered to patients in the developed world. Instead we have to manage with basic resources and logistics, lack of healthcare professionals on the ground and, very often, a difficult situation to manage politically.  We are politically neutral and impartial so we aren’t against anyone or on anyone’s side. We will talk to everyone we need to to get the job done, including militias. We don’t take money from governments partly to ensure that we retain our independence, but sometimes we need to convince people that we are simply there to treat civilians that need to be assisted medically. In war zones, women continue to have babies and need emergency obstetric care. In conflicts, there are still cholera outbreaks. 

As an organisation, we are self critical and we know we can do so much more. When people come back from the field, they often report the limitations of what they were able to achieve.

As an organisation, we are self critical and we know we can do so much more. When people come back from the field, they often report the limitations of what they were able to achieve. 

We know it is all about getting access to people in need. If we can’t gain access, we can’t function.

We no longer work in Syria after we reported in 2014 that chemical neurotoxins were being used against civilians in Damascus. After we treated 1000s of people with acute respiratory symptoms due to gas poisoning, we were thrown out. We feel this very keenly because we believe there is a humanitarian imperative to step in when authorities and governments refuse or cannot protect their own people. We have a right to step in, but sometimes the situation is just too dangerous.

We also spoke out when the US airforce bombed and destroyed the only remaining hospital in Afghanistan in 2015 in Kunduz – a level 3 trauma centre. Yes, we were treating some wounded militia members who had laid down their arms, alongside many civilians. But it must not become the accepted norm that hospitals can be legitimate targets. Our International President, Dr Joanne Liu, has addressed the UN on three occasions about this issue, insisting that medical teams should be protected in war zones. 

The refugee crisis is another area where MSF plays a major role. There are 65 million displaced people in the world and suddenly, many of them are on Europe’s doorstep. If you go further than the beaches of Sicily into the Med, you will come across a watery graveyard. MSF is part of a rescue operation that picks up these migrants. We have been accused recently of working with people traffickers to ensure the flow, but that is far from the situation. 

We have seen first hand what happens when families get trafficked and then run out of money to pay the traffickers. Women in the family are trafficked into sexual slavery and young boys will be abused. It can’t be right to sit back and do nothing in the face of such misery.

This is taken from a speech made by Dr Paul McMaster at the Hippocratic Awards for Student Medical Journalism at City, University of London, earlier this month.

Dr Paul McMaster

Dr Paul McMaster

Chairman of Medicins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders. After a long career in medicine, British surgeon Paul McMaster made a decision that most 60-something retirees wouldn't: to work in conflict and crisis zones providing medical care to those who need it most.
Dr Paul McMaster

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