‘We see ourselves as a humanitarian medical organisation that brings assistance to people in need; conflicts, natural disasters, epidemics,’ says Dr Joanne Liu, International President of NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors without Borders. ‘We respond in the emergency phase, then we have to decide for ourselves for how much of the mid to long-term we are going to be there. We like to tell ourselves that we are only there for the emergency phase, but if we look at our record: we’ve been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for more than two decades, we’ve been in South Sudan since 1983, of course we had some absences, but we’ve been in Afghanistan since the 1980s. So the reality is we have what I call a ‘mid long term relationship’ with many different countries.’
MSF’s activities in Afghanistan have hit the headlines in recent weeks, with the news that on 3 October 2015 MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids by US forces, resulting in the deaths of 22 people, including 12 MSF staff members and ten patients, with many more injured. President Obama has apologised for the incident, and the International Humanitarian Fact-finding Commission has now been activated to respond to MSF’s demands for an independent investigation into the incident.
“It’s only when crises knock at the door of Europe and the US that all of a sudden the world pays attention. It’s very distressing and unsettling to realise that”
Liu stresses that MSF – founded in 1971 in France by a group of doctors and journalists in the wake of war and famine in Biafra (now southeast Nigeria) and consisting predominantly of volunteer medical staff – cannot be expected to indefinitely bear the brunt of humanitarian crises around the world, and calls on political leaders to step up and provide essential assistance to the cause.
‘I just returned from South Sudan,’ she continues, ‘where we have a camp for displaced people. The people there don’t even have the basics; shelter, food, and medical care. I don't believe that in the 21st century we just cannot address that. I don’t believe that we accept, as an international community, this kind of situation. We cannot accept it at MSF, but we cannot be the firemen of the world. Some other people are going to need to take responsibility. This needs to happen.’
Liu was speaking at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, with MSF the recipient of the 2015 Chatham House Prize, annually awarded ‘to the person or organisation that is deemed by Chatham House members to have made the most significant contribution to the improvement of international relations in the previous year’. In this case, MSF was recognised for its vital contributions in combating the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, remaining engaged on the ground throughout and caring for the majority of patients in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
‘With Ebola,’ says Liu, ‘I really think that our biggest lesson learnt is the fact that we didn’t know that the world wasn’t ready to answer the epidemic. And we did not know that they were not willing to answer it. It’s only when it knocks at the door of Europe and the US that all of a sudden the world pays attention. It’s very distressing and unsettling to realise that.’
‘We see it again with the migrant refugee crisis, it’s the same thing,’ she says. ‘Right now, the migrants and refugees are knocking at the doors of Europe, and all of a sudden it’s an issue and we have to pay attention. The reality is this has been going on for years, if not decades. Of course, this year the movement of the population is much bigger than it used to be, but unless the Western world feels its interests are at stake, they don’t pay attention. This is why there are so many crises that are off the radar. Like South Sudan, or the Central African Republic, nobody talks about those crises.’