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Doctors Without Borders Committed Advocate for Victims of War and Natural Disaster - 2004-01-14


Doctors without Borders is renowned in the international humanitarian aid community for its volunteers’ dedication and outspokenness in favor of civilian populations traumatized by violence and neglect. VOA’s Serena Parker has more on the organization in today’s report.

A dedicated team of men and women has been working for the past several years in Chad, a landlocked, impoverished African nation of nine million. The 86 men and women train local health care workers in surgical techniques and also respond to outbreaks of epidemics like cholera, measles and meningitis.

This team from Doctors Without Borders was one of the only aid groups on the ground when war in neighboring Sudan forced thousands of people to seek refuge in Chad. Doctors Without Borders responded by establishing temporary refugee camps and providing medical assistance.

Nicholas De Torrente is executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States. He says some 100,000 people have fled a very violent conflict in Western Sudan, in the Darfur region.

“They’re arriving in very desolate conditions,” he says. “They have very little that they’ve taken with them. They report that their villages have been burnt to the ground. They report a lot of violence and harassment.”

Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, was founded in 1971 by a group of French physicians, most of whom had worked with the Red Cross in Nigeria during an extremely brutal civil war in the late 1960’s. They were highly critical of the unwillingness of many relief agencies to set up operations on the ground.

More than 30 years later Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, has earned a reputation as a humanitarian aid group that will send medical teams to places most people have never heard of nor would dream of visiting. In these desperate situations MSF assists those who have fallen victim to natural or man-made disasters. Winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, Doctors Without Borders currently has 2,500 volunteers working in over 80 countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dr. Evan Lee volunteered with MSF in eastern and central Africa from 1992-93 and again from 1995-97. In Eastern Kenya he worked with Somali refugees. In the Democratic Republic of Congo he strived to control a cholera shigellosis epidemic, and in Uganda he managed a sleeping sickness program. He says he chose to work with MSF for several reasons, including the group’s activism in protesting abuses.

Evan Lee says his most memorable experience with MSF was starting a tuberculosis treatment program for Somali refugees in eastern Kenya. “A girl, I think she was 15 years old when I started treating her, weighed about 45 pounds,” he says. “And by the time I left after getting her the medicines for TB, she weighed 90 pounds. She had doubled her weight.”

Earlier this month, Doctors Without Borders released its sixth annual report highlighting the top most underreported humanitarian crises in 2003. One underreported conflict is the unrelenting violence in Burundi, where a 10-year civil war has claimed more than 300,000 lives. The fighting has sent life expectancy rates plummeting to 40 years from 60 years of age. The violence and lack of aid means there is only one physician for every 100,000 people – one of the worst ratios in the world.

MSF’s 61 international staffers and 697 national recruits run or support clinics and hospitals in several provinces of Burundi. They also treat civilians with war wounds and counsel victims of sexual violence. In addition, MSF runs nutritional programs and fights outbreaks of infectious diseases, notably malaria.

Nicholas De Torrente says the annual report is designed to raise awareness of some of these situations where political action is needed to resolve some of the underlying issues.

“The reason we put out this list is because we have medical teams working throughout the world,” he says, “trying to seek out where the needs are the greatest, where people are suffering the most, where assistance is the least provided and trying to help them in those context. We also realize that the assistance that we can provide is not enough, that more needs to be done.”

MSF is able to maintain its global presence with resources raised from private donors. These contributions make up more than three-quarters of its total funding. Nicholas De Torrente says that’s no accident.

“What we recognized long ago was that to have independent and flexible operations to respond to where the needs are the greatest, we needed to be independent financially,” he says. “So over 80% of our resources come from individual private donors. We have about 2 million people around the world who are contributing to us. We do take government money but having this pool of private resources enables us not to be beholden to any government interest and to be able to say no to funding that we don’t think is appropriate.”

For instance, Doctors Without Borders accepts no U.S. government funding for its projects in Iraq, where Iraqi nationals run a clinic in an underprivileged neighborhood in Baghdad. Nicholas De Torrente says the same goes for Afghanistan, where MSF has maintained a 20-year presence. Recently MSF withdrew its international staff from the southern Afghanistan in response to escalating attacks on them.

Nicholas De Torrente says those responsible are clearly committing criminal acts, but their motives need to be understood. To some extent they are reacting to U.S. and Western intrusion. “For us, what the conflict is about is not the most important,” he says. “What is really most important is the effect that it is having on the populations of the area and on their medical situation in particular.”

But Thomas Weiss, director of the Ralph Bunch Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York, says the group’s claim to have no political agenda ignores the reality of modern-day warfare.

“That they have no political agenda. That their only political agenda is to speak out for the victims. As much as I love these folks, it seems to me that this actually is a little na?ve,” he says. “Frankly, in most contemporary civil wars violence is pretty evenly placed across the spectrum – one side may commit more atrocities than the other. Whether you are looking at the Balkans or Sierra Leone, that ugliness is pretty widespread. And therefore to think that you can only speak for the victims and that you’re not going to be used or manipulated by the other side or you’re not going to be perceived as hurting the other side seems to me to be quite na?ve.”

Thomas Weiss says Doctors Without Borders has made a niche for itself by being quite outspoken. Unlike the International Red Cross, which keeps a very disciplined staff that rarely speaks out on human rights abuses, part of MSF’s mission is to tell the victims’ stories.

“You recall they were born as a rift with the Internationally Committee of the Red Cross,” he says, “which asks its staff members to be perfectly mum about events, figuring that it’s better to be silent and work behind the scenes in order to maintain good relationships with everyone on the ground. The founders of MSF – including Bernard Kouchner (former French Minister of Health) and others – had enough in the Nigerian civil war and said, ‘we must open our mouths.’ And they have and virtually ever since they’ve been in the news.”

Whether they are helping refugees in Chad or counseling victims of violence in Burundi, Doctors Without Borders is on the front-line. Its staff intends to stay there and keep bringing human suffering to the world’s attention.

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