Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

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Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)


By: Lionel Healing

Date: January 19, 2006

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: Lionel Healing is a London-based reporter and photographer who contributes regularly to Agence France-Press, a worldwide news organization headquartered in Paris.


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in English as Doctors Without Borders, is an international, independent humanitarian organization designed to provide assistance in emergency situations caused by war, drought, famine, epidemics, disasters (either natural or man-made), or lack of available health care. It was established in 1971. Among the characteristics that distinguish MSF from other charitable organizations are its independence from government funding (it relies on primarily private donations and is very successful at fundraising) and its ability and willingness to make public opinion statements. Currently, MSF has branches in nearly twenty countries around the world. Roughly 80 percent of its funding comes from public and private donations; the remaining 20 percent is received from governmental and international humanitarian agencies.

MSF is staffed by physicians, nurses, health care providers, logisticians, technicians, technical and non-medical personnel, sanitation and water experts, and administrative workers. There is a small core of paid staff, a large number of volunteer workers, and a significant number of local staffers hired at each major site. MSF participates in an average of nearly 4,000 medically related missions each year.

MSF's primary tasks are the provision of basic and emergency physical and mental health care on-site at hospitals and clinics (either existent or created locally by MSF staff); the performance of surgery; the provision of vaccinations and immunizations; and the operation of feeding centers, primarily for children and mothers of babies. MSF also employs experts who are able to dig and construct wells or bring in potable (safe to drink) water, in order to establish a means of supplying clean drinking water. When necessary, MSF also assists in creating temporary shelters and can supply blankets and plastic sheeting materials.

In addition to their emergency operations, MSF operates longer-term projects to treat infectious and communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and sleeping sickness, and to provide physical and mental health treatment for marginalized groups and street children. MSF also has an expert epidemiology section, and it has been utilized around the world to diagnose, treat, monitor, and contain epidemics of cholera, meningitis, and measles, among other diseases.

By traveling in small teams and enlisting local resources, MSF teams have penetrated war zones and reached refugee groups and epidemic epicenters. The photograph below shows a makeshift refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo set up by MSF in January 2006 after over 18,000 people fled conflict between the Congolese Army and Mai Mai rebels.



See primary source image.


Because of its size, well-trained staff, and ability to hire significant numbers of local people in order to meet personnel needs, MSF is generally able to respond extremely quickly to emergencies. They utilize highly specialized kits and equipment packs that enable them to carry all needed supplies with them when they mobilize, so they are literally able to "hit the ground running," with no delay before they are able to begin emergency operations.

Their field kits are tailored to be an exact match for the type of emergency situation, geographic conditions, terrain, environmental conditions, and estimated patient population size. They can set up portable operating theatres, clinics, and hospitals immediately upon arrival in an affected area. They have created myriad treatment and response protocols that are customized to fit any necessary situation; their kits and protocols have been adopted by emergency and relief organizations worldwide.

Because MSF is an independent international organization, it has no political ties or limitations to prevent it from responding to any situation believed likely to benefit from its assistance. It was not designed to become involved in international governmental affairs. For those involved in the local response of MSF, the effort is a humanitarian one. Traveling staff are primarily volunteers (although their personal expenses are paid and they may receive a small stipend) who are willing to make themselves available with very little notice; they are typically deployed in an area for six to twelve months. Assigned locations may be remote and dangerous. MSF hires local staff and provides them with training and materials, and all personnel (MSF core and local staff) work in cooperation with other local and international emergency and relief organizations.

One of the unique aspects of MSF, in contrast to nearly all other relief and aid organizations, is its commitment to combining humanitarian medical care with outspoken opinion on the causes of worldwide suffering. It is equally vocal on perceived impediments to the provision of effective medical care. For example, MSF has spoken publicly against pharmaceutical companies that refuse to manufacture pediatric dosages of AIDS-related drugs or to provide affordable and appropriate medications to African countries hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic. MSF has sought (and received) audiences with the United Nations, various international and governmental organizations, and the worldwide media, in an effort to communicate both the needs of their various patient groups and to educate the world on violations of international humanitarian doctrines that they have witnessed or that they believe have been perpetrated across the globe. Researchers, academics, and scientists associated with MSF publish scholarly articles, create media campaigns, engage in public education programs, and offer presentations and exhibits at local and international conferences, in an effort to create public awareness of medical and living conditions in underserved, impoverished, and war-torn areas of the world. MSF has launched a major initiative called the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, through which they are trying to help underserved or marginalized populations obtain safe, effective, affordable treatments for such diseases as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Médecins Sans Frontières was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.



Bertolotti, Dan. Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors Without Borders. Tonawanda, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2004.

Médecins Sans Frontières, eds. In the Shadow of Just Wars: Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action. Translated by Fabrice Weissman and Doctors Without Borders. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Web sites

Campaign for Access to Essential Medecines. "Companies Not Selling New AIDS Drugs in Africa." 〈http://www.accessmed-msf.org/index.asp〉 (accessed December 8, 2005).

Médecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders. "About Us." 〈http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/aboutus/index.cfm〉 (accessed December 8, 2005).

Network for Good. "Doctors Without Borders USA." http://partners.guidestar.org/controller/searchResults.gs?action_gsReport=1&partner=networkforgood&ein=13-3433452〉 (accessed December 8, 2005).

Nobelprize.org. "The Nobel Peace Prize 1999: Médecins Sans Frontières." 〈http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/1999/index.html〉 (accessed January 31, 2005).

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