Doctors Without Borders marks 50 years of idealism, activism

By Marta Garde

Paris, Dec 21 (EFE).- Fifty years ago thirteen young French doctors decided to join forces and create Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization that would provide medical aid during emergencies.

What started as a small and idealistic enterprise now boasts some 64,000 employees.

“We wanted adventure. We wanted a different life from going to university or opening a surgery,” Xavier Emmanuelli, one of the co-founders, told Efe in an interview.

The formal launch of the charity took place on 22 December 1971.

Its members, which included doctors who were “mainly left-wing, but also conservative”, had intervened in the past in Biafra or East Pakistan and their first official mission took place in Managua, a city devastated by an earthquake that in 1972 claimed between 10,000 and 30,000 lives.

“We were not colonizers or soldiers, but humanitarians who provided solutions,” Emmanuelli, who said the Red Cross turned its back on the idealistic and outspoken activist at the time the charity first emerged, added.

The founder said his 23 years at MSF and being exposed to “refugee camps and death on a massive scale” shaped “his soul and heart”.

But soon clashes emerged between those who were in favor of keeping the charity small and those who backed scaling up the initiative. The NGO split in 1980 paving the way for Doctors of the World with doctor and politician Bernard Kouchner at the helm.

“All organizations end up having fratricidal struggles,” Emmanuelli mused.

To this day, the 83-year-old is surprised that the “misfits” who first set up the project were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 in recognition of their pioneering humanitarian work.

In 2020, MSF worked across 88 countries. From an annual budget of around 1,680 million euros, the charity deployed around 114 million euros ($128 million) in The Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2020. The second country to receive the highest volume of funds was South Sudan with 78 million followed by Yemen with 74 million.

Mego Terzian, MSF chief since 2013, told Efe that Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria and “the Middle East in general” were key areas for the NGO, which, through its wide spectrum of operations, deals with malnourished children and female victims of sexual violence.

“In recent years the most important evolution in humanitarian medicine for MSF has been the development of surgical activities, including specialized ones,” the pediatrician continued.

The organization normally intervenes with the agreement of local governments, but acting without endorsement happens in some conflict zones, such as Syria, when “serving populations in danger is the priority.”

“Paradoxically, at times we have been able to communicate with radical groups in various countries and it has been very difficult to negotiate with governments, even with those considered to be secular, like the Syrian one,” Terzian added.

The nature of the work means that despite caution being a priority, around 160 MSF workers have died in “violent circumstances” since 1980.

“But we insist that we do not send humanitarian personnel to be martyrs. Our priority is their return home safely. If we sometimes consider that their safety is not guaranteed at all and that the degree of danger is very high, we prefer to abstain, not be present,” the Lebanese-French president said.

If there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the NGO emerged, it’s MSF’s ethos.

“We continue working in war zones and crisis zones and responding to epidemics as important as Ebola in 2014 and 2015 in Western Africa.”

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