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Doctors Without Borders

Doctors Without Borders


For nearly fifty years now, Doctors Without Borders (also known as Medicins Sans Frontieres in French) has been in the forefront of medical aid advocacy in many troubled areas of the world. The international organisation has been providing lifesaving medical aid to places where there is a serious dearth of it, especially places experiencing armed conflicts. Without doubt, the humanitarian burden that the organisation lifts off affected communities is huge and vital. Moreover, the remarkable courage that it displays in carrying out its many activities and programmes makes it deserving of the recognition and plaudits it has received over time.  The organisation is no longer just an NGO; it has evolved into a global movement that takes medical and humanitarian aid to where it is most needed.


Doctors Without Borders was established on 22 December 1971. Before it was founded,  some of its founders had previously been involved in medical humanitarian intervention in Biafra, the south eastern part of Nigeria that attempted secession from the country. They were young doctors who had responded to the scenes of carnage and human suffering of the Biafra  War, which they saw on their black and white TV sets. Following the broadcast of the gory images, a revolt was triggered in France against the genocidal massacre of children and women coupled with intentional food distribution blockades that resulted in famine. These young doctors—Max Recamier, Pascal Greletty-Bosviel, Bernard Kouchner, as well as two clinicians and two nurses—plunged themselves into the bloody conflict that was the Biafra War to provide emergency medical services to the wounded and dying, following a call by the French Red Cross for volunteers. Recamier and Kouchner during that time were vocal and openly criticized the Nigerian government and the seemingly complicit Red Cross.

At the end of the  Civil  War, these “Biafran” doctors, as the group of volunteers were famously known, kept speaking and engaging in advocacy on situations and issues related to the one they had experienced in the Biafra War. It was then they began to lay the foundations for a trans-border, non-political, trans-religious organisation that would not be gagged by internal bureaucracy like the one they believed inhibits the Red Cross.

In 1971 two journalists from Tonus, a medical review issued an appeal to establish a medical practitioner body or group that would work to help people affected by disasters, conflicts or any kind of widespread suffering. The “Biafran” doctors jumped at the opportunity and in December 1971 formed part of the founding members of the Medecins Sans Frontieres as a group that believes the need of people for medical attention outweighs gender, political and religious affiliations or national boundaries. Its founding members were: Dr Jacques Beres, Philippe Bernier, Raymond Borel, Dr Jean Cabrot, Dr Marcel Delcourt, Dr Xavier Emmanuelli, Dr Pascal Greletty-Bosviel, Gerard Illiouz, Dr Bernard Kouchner, Dr Gerard Pigeon, Vladan Radoman, Dr Max Recamier and Dr Jean-Michel Wild.

The newly formed organization led a mission in 1972 to Managua in Nicaragua, in the wake of a deadly earthquake that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people. Next, in 1974, it set up a relief mission to aid Hondurans affected by Hurricane Fifi. By 1975, Doctors Without Borders began to embark on larger scale missions. For example, it provided medical aid to the huge number of Cambodians seeking refuge from the despotic rule of Pol Pot. This first large scale mission exposed some of the weaknesses of the group, which had never previously taken up any humanitarian work of that size.  In 1979,  a General Assembly of the organisation deliberated on whether to make its work and administration more organized or to retain its existing guerilla-style model.  By  80-20 percent majority vote, the group endorsed a more organized approach. Unimpressed by the decision, the minority members favouring the status quo made up of  Bernard Kouchner and his other “Biafran” doctors,  left the organisation to form a new one called Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World).

Work and Modus Operandi

Doctors Without Borders works as an independent, neutral and impartial advocacy agent providing medical aid to people who need it. In its many years of humanitarian service, it has remained committed to its core objective of providing the best possible medical care in moments of crisis to every patient irrespective of political or racial interests.  It works hard to maintain its philosophy of impartiality and at the same time provides people with the best possible medical aid on the most dispassionate terms possible.  In 1999, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its pioneering humanitarian work around the world.

The organization assumes the additional responsibility to bear witness to its experiences in the course of its work. It notable spoke out against the Nigerian government’s inhumane blockade of food supply that led to many deaths among Biafrans from starvation during the war. It also bore witness to the Ethiopian drought and forced displacements between 1984 and 1986, the Rwandan Genocide, the 2011 Syrian conflict, the Kosovo War, the 2013 sectarian crisis in the Central African Republic, and many more.

On a regular basis, the organisation audits its activities and the impact of its missions globally. It also is a quick responder to emergency situations. In many countries, Doctors Without Borders have trained staff on ground who first respond to cases of emergency and seek further support if need be. It also invests in equipment and facility for its various mission operations, including vehicles,  easy-to-make tents, medical kits, water processing facilities, power supplies, and nutritional supplements. Disasters that develop over a period of time, for example, diseases like HIV/AIDS, receive long-term attention. In addition, medical advocacy and research form a part of its core activities. It does not just respond to disasters but also makes advocacy to prevent disasters that can be avoided as well as helps to bring abuses to light. Ways to improve on healthcare delivery,  to understand the scope and nature of disaster situations, and to prevent them, also are of interest to the organization.  Thus, research has become one of the key instruments of evaluating places and areas of need around the world and the appropriate solutions or steps to adopt.

Solely funded by individuals who support its work, Doctors Without Borders does not receive funding from government agencies or countries. It has its headquarters in the United States of America, has an advisory board, and a board of directors that governs the organization.  Members of the association elect the board of directors, who are responsible for setting the broad strategic directions of the group.  The board is responsible to the members of the association while the management team is charged with executing the organization’s strategies.


History.” Doctors Without Borders. https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/who-we-are/history. Accessed 12 July 2019.

Who We Are.” Medecins Sans Frontieres. https://www.msf.org/who-we-are. Accessed July 2019.

Medecins Sans Frontieres.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A9decins_Sans_Fronti%C3%A8res. Accessed July 2019.



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