How do humanitarian aid workers think and act?
This work focuses on how humanitarian organisations operate, including their members, affiliations, messages, practices and cultures. Aid to refugee, displaced, deported, exiled and interned populations plays a central role in humanitarian action both now and in the past. What types of aid are provided to internees and displaced persons? What kinds of obstacles and dilemmas does it face? What sorts of practical, political and ethical questions are raised by the participation of humanitarian organisations in population displacement and internment policies?
Interview by Helai Hosseini. A first version was published on the website of the MSF France association on 31 July 2020.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, voices have risen within MSF denouncing the racist and discriminatory nature of our organization. Equal opportunity, they say, is not offered to all our employees. Founded in France in the early 70s by a handful of doctors and journalists, the organization has grown and become international, now employing over 46,000 people around the world, nearly 39,000 of whom are recruited locally. How has MSF’s policy towards its personnel evolved down the years? What is currently being done to fight inequalities? Here is Jean Hervé Bradol’s take on the major phases that have marked MSF’s transformation and the ways in which discussions are engaged today.
First Published December 1, 1999 - Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (NVSQ) - Volume 28 Issue 1.
This article begins with a look at the role played by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) since its inception in 1971, and then looks at the challenges facing MSF today. It focuses on the confusion of humanitarian and political roles and on the goals MSF has laid out for itself to address this confusion. Humanitarian aid has become the favored response of governments to political crises, and governments have increasingly turned to NGOs to carry out their policies. In turn, NGOs have become increasingly dependent on governments for financial support. These changes have politicized aid delivery and made it difficult for NGOs to maintain their independence. In addition, as the number of NGOs increases and their activities become more specialized, there are pressures toward institutionalization and bureaucratization. To respond to these challenges, MSF has identified several goals, including maintaining organizational independence and flexibility and avoiding bureaucratization.
This article discusses the policy of absolute secrecy on abductions adopted by aid organisations. It argues that the information blackout on past and current cases is to a large extent a function of the growing role of private security companies in the aid sector, which promote a ‘pay, don’t say’ policy as a default option, whatever the situation. The article contends that secrecy is as much an impediment to resolving current cases as it is to preventing and managing future ones. It suggests abandoning the policy of strict confidentiality in all circumstances – a policy that is as dangerous as it is easy to apply – in favour of a more nuanced and challenging approach determining how much to publicise ongoing and past cases for each audience, always keeping in mind the interests of current and potential hostages.
In the summer of 2015, the French section of Médecins Sans Frontières started aid projects for migrant populations in Greece and France. The launch of these operations was the occasion for lively discussions within the association, both in terms of public positioning (how to justify an intervention in a rich country and not get lost in "political" territory?), and in terms of revising our operating methods, knowing that the primary needs of migrants were not primarily medical. Some people then recalled the association's militant practices in the 1990s, which were sometimes considered as abuses. By retracing the history of the French Mission, Michaël Neuman seeks to understand, with regard to the migration issue, the complex articulation between operational constraints, political positioning and militant practices.
Humanitarian aid organisations carrying out rescues at sea were made into the accomplices of human traffickers. This accusation is as absurd as it is unacceptable. Not only do rescue operations at sea save people from drowning, but they evacuate people in situations of immediate danger in Libya, MSF recalls.
Kevin MacMahon's review of "Saving Lives and Staying Alive: Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (Michaël Neuman and Fabrice Weissman, London: C. Hurst & Co, 2016) is published in the Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict (2016, pages 69-70).
This article has been inspired by an analysis conducted by MSF-Crash of humanitarian security management and why and in what ways it is evolving. We endeavour not only to describe humanitarian imagery, but to analyse its consequences - the risks it generates for aid workers operating in perilous situations.
The question of quality in the work of Médecins Sans Frontières has been asked from the very beginning of MSF's existence. On the one hand, the issue of improving the quality of practice is a part of ordinary professional activity; on the other hand, Médecins Sans Frontières' work involved working in distant lands and very specific environments, which demanded adjustments to medical practice as a result.
This article was originally published in Humanitarian Exchange Magazine #67 in September 2016. In this paper, Angélique Muller and Michaël Neuman attempt to explore the lessons learnt through examining the decisions as well as the difficulties MSF encountered in its provision of assistance to migrants in Grande-Synthe.