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Médecins Sans Frontières

The Beginning MSF – Médecins Sans Frontières – grew out of the 1968 upheavals in Paris, when a team of 6 young doctors decided to help support victims of political crisis in Biafram. They worked with the Red Cross, as a new brand of humanitarianism emerged, which eventually became emergency aid. In their support of the Biafran people, they were the subject of targeted attacks and were given a shocking insight into the lives of those who face discrimination, on whatever ground.

The founders of MSF had found flaws within the Red Cross organisation, and really believed they could offer a completely ‘new medicine’. And so, on the 22nd of December 1971, MSF was officially created. In the coming years they undertook military missions in Managu, Honduras and Cambodia. They experienced success, but they recognised there were many weaknesses; lack of preparation, unsupported doctors and tangled supply chains. Fractures emerged within the organisation – were they to be an organised body or a group of guerrilla doctors? These fractures led to a vote in 1979, in which 80% opted for the organisation to become more organised. Interestingly, Kouchner, one MSF’s founders who was involved in the original mission in Biafran, was against this and left MSF. This highlights important elements of success; the ability to compromise, sacrifice, and put the needs of the organisation in front of your own.

Impact This decision was for the better of not just MSF, but more importantly the people it supports. Since 1980, MSF have opened offices in 28 countries and employs 67,000 people. In1999, MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the money they won was used to establish the MSF Access Campaign in 1999 to fund the development of life saving medicines, diagnostic tests and vaccines. These successes have allowed MSF to reach areas of the world where roads don’t – providing 11m outpatient consultations in 2019 alone. Their work has led to assisting 300,000 births, treating 2m malaria cases and vaccinating 2.5m against measles in the past decade.


Principles MSF has however, remained closely bound to its founding principles. It is entirely independent from government bodies and institutions. MSF call out politicians, such as in 2018 when they rescued 630 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, who were denied entry into the ports of Italy. In 2016 they refused EU funding in protest against new polices which included limiting intake of asylum seekers and offload responsibility to non-EU countries.

COVID-19 MSF stepped up to support Italy, the first epicentre for the virus in Europe, when other EU states stepped down. Their work in the region of Lombardy, Northern Italy, has helped the nurses and doctors remain healthy, as without them “there will be nobody left to treat patients”. MSF doctors learned quickly from doctors involved in fighting COVID from the beginning, helping advance new diagnostic tests such as ultrasounds which are much faster than X-rays. A local baker explained how she commonly saw “doctors and nurses sit in a corner and start crying”. This situation is traumatic, but with the help of MSF doctors they will help share the load, or at the very least, alleviate some of the pain. COVID is forcing medical professionals to make decisions unknown to them. Before, treatment would go to the most server cases, but with the consistent worldwide shortage, it is no longer that simple. MSF has been able to support those making these heart-breaking decisions through using their experiences from medical conflicts throughout the world.

Democratic Republic of Congo Many developing countries face problems in unbeknown to those in western hospitals. Imagine being in the middle of performing life-saving surgery and the lights turn off. Why? A power cut has occurred. Many hospitals on the DRC rely upon diesel-powered generators, but in a country with inadequate roads, sometimes the fuel never arrives. MSF have faced this problem by installing solar powered energy systems. They can store enough energy to run the health facilities for two days, with each battery having a life span of at least 5 years. As Dr Pacifique Kapimbu, director of Kingulube hospital said, “we can (now) ensure that oxygen machines and other biomedical devices will not be affected by power outages, even though we are in the middle of the jungle.”

For more inspiring stories, please see MSF’s website: https://www.msf.org.uk/stories

MSF stay strong to their values; they’re independent, they go where they’re needed, they speak out and they are a network. It is those values which have allowed MSF to deliver its belief that all people have the ‘right to medical care regardless of gender, race, religion, creed or political affiliation.’


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@2020 by WIDS Team

University Of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Rd, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK

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