Independent, Impartial, Neutral
It is easy to write inspiring words to define an organisation’s mission – it is much harder to put those principles in to practice.
At the core of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) identity is a commitment to independence, neutrality and impartiality. These ideals have driven every aspect of our work – from medical care and logistics to finance and communications – since MSF was established in 1971.
Our commitment to these principles, and the impact of the organisation built on them, was recognised in 1999 when MSF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
We provide free medical care to people who need it. It doesn’t matter which country they are from, which religion they belong to, or what their political affiliations are. All that matters is they are human beings in need.
In a conflict situation, we don’t take sides, but go where people’s medical needs are greatest. In the ward of one MSF field hospital, you might find wounded civilians and also injured soldiers from opposing sides. Hostilities and weapons have to be left at the gate.
MSF makes decisions based on our own independent assessment of the medical needs of populations in distress. Our independence from political, economic, religious and other powers means that we can make decisions and take action based solely on medical needs and a firm commitment to our principles. Part of the reason MSF is able to do this is that we rarely take funds from governments or institutions for our work. We rely mainly on the generosity of individual members of the public from all over the world. Over 90 percent of our income comes from private donors giving small amounts. MSF Southern Africa does not accept any funding from any government.
Our financial independence also means the aid we provide cannot be used to further any government’s political or military goals.
Being a medical humanitarian organisation means choosing to go and respond where an emergency or crisis has left people with no healthcare in order to save lives and alleviate suffering. The International humanitarian action is a response which comes when the local capacity is unable to deal with the situation and provide people with the assistance they need. This can be either coping with a short-term, acute emergency – for example by treating those wounded in war; or to access services that would normally be available but are disrupted, such as maternal healthcare.
Wherever we are working, we make sure that local people understand that MSF is politically neutral and will provide assistance to anyone who needs it. MSF teams meet with all groups: from government ministers to leaders of armed opposition groups, community elders, to women’s groups. We do this to negotiate access and build acceptance. In some situations, local media, such as radio, may also be used to make sure the local people are aware of MSF, our principles, the activities we are undertaking and services we offer in that area. Gaining people’s acceptance is key to our being able to work in difficult environments such as Afghanistan or Democratic Republic of Congo.
MSF is an outspoken organisation – we expect and demand high standards from ourselves and other organisations. We speak out if we think other humanitarian organisations are being dishonest, compromised or slow to react to legitimate needs. But we also examine and critique our own performance.
Part of this self-reflection involves research and case studies. In 2012 we published Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. This book examines the reality of the compromises MSF made during our history – some successfully and some less so – to try and help the people suffering most in the world today.
Several research and reflection centres also support MSF’s desire to constantly improve our work. Read more here.
Case studies of some of MSF’s experiences, particularly in contexts where the organisation chose to bear witness and speak out about an intolerable situation can also be found here.