RSGS Livingstone Medallist 1995
by Jo Woolf
“A year of saving lives in Ramtha, Jordan”
“Haiti: Too few beds to treat cholera patients”
“A day in the life of the Syrian conflict”
These are just three of the ever-changing news items taken from the website of Médecins Sans Frontières. Each one tells a story of human suffering, loss, desperation… and hope, where it once seemed that all hope had gone. Against the odds, and often in the most dangerous circumstances, doctors and nurses are giving their time freely, helping to heal wounds, caring for the frail, cherishing life where lives have been shattered.
In 1971, a group of young French doctors were moved by the plight of the Biafran people, who were victims in the Nigerian Civil War. Arriving in Africa to offer medical aid, the doctors soon found themselves targeted by the Nigerian Army, and they realised that a stronger organisation was needed – one that rose above political agendas, and commanded respect worldwide.
Meanwhile, and independently, a second group of medical workers had travelled to assist the people of East Pakistan, which had been devastated by a cyclone. Following an appeal published in the medical journal TONUS, these two groups merged in December 1971 to become Médecins Sans Frontières.
For an organisation with such deep-rooted generosity at its core, the early days of Médecins Sans Frontières were fraught with a surprising degree of controversy. Under the Charter of the International Red Cross, any medical staff sent to war zones were expected to remain neutral and silent. But the doctors who had visited Biafra were horrified at what they had seen, and they felt that the world should no longer be kept in the dark. They published a full report in the French newspaper Le Monde – and immediately there was uproar.
Debate raged about whether emergency aid workers could – or should – take sides, even get involved in armed conflict, if innocent human lives were at stake. It took some heart-rending but impossibly dangerous situations for the precise moral code of Médecins Sans Frontières to become clearly established; but their original provocative approach, exposing the facts of human suffering for the world to see, remained unchanged. They believed that their mission transcended the borders laid down by politics, religion, race – and it was this unshakeable resolve that underpinned their future.
“It’s simple, really: go where the patients are. It seems obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary concept.” Bernard Kouchner, MSF Founder
Today, Médecins Sans Frontières is a global organisation that provides emergency medical care to millions of people. On any given day, more than 30,000 of its volunteer staff are working somewhere in the world. In 2012, MSF teams conducted more than 8.3 million consultations, carried out more than 78,000 surgical procedures and delivered more than 185,000 babies. They also vaccinated 690,000 people against measles and 496,000 against meningitis.
Part of the organisation’s ongoing work involves research into treatments for ‘neglected’ diseases such as Chagas, sleeping sickness and malaria. In addition to medical aid, workers will sometimes dig wells to provide clean drinking water, or set up waste disposal systems. Educating whole communities about the basic essentials of disease prevention is another important element of their mission. Medical teams are accompanied by support workers who provide transport and shelter: the logistics of any overseas aid mission are far more complex than they appear at first glance.
In recognition of its “pioneering humanitarian work on several continents”, Médecins Sans Frontières was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. In his acceptance speech, Dr James Orbinski, President of the MSF International Council, took the opportunity to appeal directly to President Yeltsin of Russia to stop the bombing of civilians in Chechnya. True to the core principles of Médecins Sans Frontières, he was outspoken and uncompromising:
“As an independent volunteer organisation, we are committed to bringing direct medical aid to people in need. But we act not in a vacuum, and we speak not into the wind, but with a clear intent to assist, to provoke change, or to reveal injustice. We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”
In 1995 Médecins Sans Frontières was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, who recognised it as “an extraordinary organisation consisting of a loosely knit federation of countries bound together by a desire to take their medical skills and resources where they are needed without regard to the realities of political geography.”