Doctors Without Borders/MSF | Assisting Survival

Jan 21, 2013
Doctors Without Borders/MSF | Assisting Survival
  • History & Principles

    Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971.

    Today, MSF provides independent, impartial assistance in more than 60 countries to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. MSF provides independent, impartial assistance to those most in need. MSF also reserves the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols.

    In 1999, MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Humanitarian Action

    MSF's work is based on the humanitarian principles of medical ethics and impartiality. The organization is committed to bringing quality medical care to people in crisis regardless of their race, religion, or political affiliation.

    MSF operates independently of any political, military, or religious agendas. Medical teams conduct evaluations on the ground to determine a population's medical needs before opening programs, aiming to fill gaps that exist (rather than replicating services that are already offered) or reach communities that are not being assisted. The key to MSF’s ability to act independently in response to a crisis is its independent funding. Ninety percent of MSF's overall funding (and 100 percent of MSF-USA's funding) comes from private, non-governmental sources. In 2009, MSF had 3.8 million individual donors and private funders worldwide.

    As an organization, MSF is neutral. It does not take sides in armed conflicts, provides care on the basis of need alone, and pushes for increased independent access to victims of conflict as required under international humanitarian law.

    MSF's principles of action are described in the organization's 1971 founding charter, which established a framework for its activities.

    Bearing Witness & Speaking Out

    MSF medical teams often witness violence, atrocities, and neglect in the course of their work, much of which occurs in places that rarely receive international attention. At times, MSF may speak out publicly in an effort to bring a forgotten crisis into view, alert the public to abuses occurring beyond the headlines, criticize the inadequacies of the aid system, challenge the diversion of humanitarian aid for political interests, or call out policies that restrict access to medical care or essential medicines.

    For example, in 1985, MSF spoke out against the Ethiopian government's forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of members of its own population. In 1994, the organization took the unprecedented step of calling for an international military response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The following year, MSF condemned the Serbian massacre of civilians at Srebrenica, and four years after that, denounced the Russian military bombardment of the Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
    In 2004 and 2005, MSF called on the United Nations Security Council to pay greater attention to the crisis in Darfur. And in 2007, MSF denounced the targeting of civilians in conflict—something that was occurring with greater frequency in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, and Somalia—and the governments of Thailand and Laos, which were threatening to forcibly return nearly 8,000 Hmong refugees to Laos.

    More recently, MSF endeavored to bring greater scrutiny to the inadequate response of both the South African government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees following xenophobic violence against Zimbabweans and other foreign African nationals; attempts to restrict the availability of generic medicines for people living with HIV/AIDS and other diseases; the hypocritical stance of nations who send nutrition-deficient products to developing nations and call it food aid; the need for a greater response to child malnutrition across the globe; the tendency to politicize and militarize humanitarian aid, as has happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the inadequate response by the international aid system to the cholera crisis in Haiti.

    MSF medical teams on the ground are in constant dialogue with local authorities, warring parties, and other aid agencies in an attempt to reinforce the organization's operational independence and to facilitate the delivery of the best possible medical care for patients and their communities.

    Who is MSF?

    On any given day, more than 27,000 committed individuals representing dozens of nationalities can be found providing assistance to people caught in crises around the world. They are doctors, nurses, logistics experts, administrators, epidemiologists, laboratory technicians, mental health professionals, and others who work together in accordance with MSF's guiding principles of humanitarian action and medical ethics.

    MSF field staff are supported by their colleagues in 19 offices around the world, including one in New York City. The vast majority of MSF's aid workers are from the communities where the crises are occurring, with ten percent of teams made up of international staff, including the more than 200 aid workers from the US who completed nearly 300 assignments in 2009, and the 340 US-based aid workers who left on more than 435 assignments to 45 countries in 2010.

    Quality Medical Care

    MSF rejects the idea that poor countries deserve third-rate medical services and strives to provide high-quality care to patients. Simultaneously, and with equal vigor, MSF continuously seeks to improve the organization's own practices.

    Through the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines and, in recent years, in partnership with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, this work has helped lower the price of HIV/AIDS treatment and has stimulated research and development for medicines to treat malaria and neglected diseases like sleeping sickness, kala azar and chagas disease.

    It has led to significant improvements in MSF’s logistics supply chains and several innovations in the field of humanitarian medicine, particularly in the care of chronic conditions and neglected diseases.

    International Structure

    MSF is an international movement made up of 19 associative organizations: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

    Each association is responsible to a Board of Directors elected by its members (MSF's current and former field staff members) during an annual General Assembly. Thanks to this large network, MSF has considerable financial, human, and logistical resources.

    MSF-USA was founded in 1990 in New York City to raise funds, create awareness, recruit field staff, and advocate with the United Nations and US government on humanitarian concerns.

    In 2009, MSF-USA raised $133.9 million, representing more than 16 percent of the MSF network’s private funding. In 2010, it sent US-based aid workers on more than 430 assignments overseas, liaised with a wide range of US media, organized high-level meetings with UN and US government officials, and arranged regular speaking events and activities across the US.

    More information:

    How We Work
    Where We Work
    MSF fact sheet
    Apply to join MSF in the field

    These stories from our aid workers and patients illustrate the impact
    of the emergency medical work Doctors Without Borders/Médecins
    Sans Frontières (MSF) does around the world.

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