Advocacy & speaking out

For many, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is synonymous with emergency medical teams tackling the consequences of disasters, wars and epidemics around the world. But we also work to raise awareness and create debate about these crises.

This means MSF acts as a witness and will speak out, either in private or in public, about challenges and the plight of populations in danger or distress who we assist. In doing so, we set out to alleviate human suffering, to protect life and health and to restore respect for human beings.

MSF and Témoignage – What does it mean?

The word 'témoignage’ comes from the French verb ‘temoigner,’ which literally translates as ‘to witness’.

Témoignage – or witnessing – is simply the act of being willing to speak out about what we see happening in front of us.

For us, this means a willingness to speak on behalf of the people we assist: to bring abuses and intolerable situations to the public eye. Acting and speaking, treating and witnessing were the key words used during the creation of MSF. They remain vital to the work of MSF today.

Speaking out and our origins

When MSF was first created in 1971, its original members had experience of working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a civil war in Nigeria which pitted government forces against rebels from the region of Biafra. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Biafran war because of a deliberate government policy. On their return from the region, a group of young French doctors were frustrated and outraged by the inability to say publicly what had happened.

They joined journalists from a French medical journal to create an association, MSF, which would provide aid in war zones, but also talk about what they saw. They hoped that by bringing abuses to light they could bring them to an end.

At the time, and still today, the ICRC pursues a policy known as silent diplomacy, meaning that they will very rarely speak publicly about what they see during the course of their work, no matter the scale of atrocities and crimes.

Otherwise, they believe, they risk provoking parties in a conflict which would, in turn, reduce their access and ability to work.

The group of doctors that formed MSF refused to watch catastrophe unfold in silence because they believed that silence could kill, making those that looked on complicit in the atrocities.

Speaking Out Case Studies

MSF has created a collection of reference documents on “temoignage/advocacy”, designed to be straightforward and accessible to all and to help deepen understanding on the organisation's culture of speaking out on and the decisions and dilemmas it encountered.

From denouncing the forced relocation in Ethiopia in 1985 to the inaction of the international community during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that demanded an end to indiscriminate bombings of civilians in Chechnya and much more.

In these studies, key information sources – MSF volunteers’ written and oral recollections – are reconstructed by highlighting documents and videos from the period concerned and interviewing the main actors.

Find your publication of interest here to download it as an eBook/PDF.