General Director & President's Message
Unfortunately, 2008 was a busy year for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). For many of our patients the year was marred by violence, natural disasters, disease epidemics and heightened malnutrition. For our national and international staff the year was marred by increased insecurity and with that a frustratingly reduced ability to respond to people in the most dire situations.
Violence against aid workers increased substantially in 2008, with one study citing a record 260 humanitarian aid workers injured, kidnapped, or killed in violent attacks. The report noted that fatality rates among aid workers surpassed those for the UN peace keeping forces.
Although the year got off to a good start with the release of two abducted staff in Somalia, circumstances for MSF quickly turned with the brutal murder of three other staff and later the ambush of a fourth staff member, all in different parts of Somalia. This killing of MSF aid workers had a profound impact on the organization and those we aspired to assist in that country, with the abrupt halt of some medical activities and streamlining of other medical projects there. The incidents, in combination with intensified targeting of aid workers in general, led MSF to do some soul searching around our capacity to safely manage our presence in the most dangerous countries of the world.
And yet, with an unwavering sense of duty to respond to those most in need, it was not a matter of giving up. It was a matter of finding a way to continue while holding ourselves to the highest possible security standards. Through a series of evaluations, we reinforced the strengths in our security management while addressing points to improve. Despite being diligent about our security, there continue to be no guarantees. It comes down to understanding the risks, minimizing these risks as much as possible, and making sure those who are taking the risks are fully informed.
Even though we do what we can, as an independent medical humanitarian organization we still argue that the targeting of aid workers is simply unacceptable. How is it possible that aid workers go somewhere to help others and the outcome is harm, injury or even death? It isn’t in the order of things. Humanitarianism is about valuing life above anything else. When we take the risks to save and assist others, it is utterly unjust that aid workers pay with their own lives.
It is not only about the direct loss of life, the pain and suffering that families, friends and colleagues of aid workers endure. It is unjust because of what it means for our patients. When these incidents happen, it is not only MSF that sustains losses – the people we assist also lose their hope of medical care as activities inevitably close.
Humanitarian action is a reaction by one person to another in response to their suffering in crisis situations. It is about keeping as many people alive as possible, and alleviating as much suffering as possible, while giving space for people to hold on to their dignity. It is about people’s survival in the most unstable and insecure environments in this world. It is about organizations like MSF standing in solidarity with them and providing care because stopping is simply not an option.
To not do this would mean giving up hope, which would mean giving up on people and as humanitarians, that’s just not possible.
In spite of our difficulties, in 2008 MSF managed to respond to the most critical needs of thousands of people across many countries. Violence against civilians was an urgent matter in places like Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka. With the food crisis, malnutrition in Niger and Ethiopia, along with natural disasters in Myanmar and Haiti figured prominently in MSF’s work. Treatment for HIV patients with resistant tuberculosis co-infection challenged our staff, as well as mental health programming in unstable settings.
In all of these situations, we offered people medical care and a sense of hope and dignity in the face of extreme human suffering.
As you read our 2008 Annual Report highlighting MSF activities funded by Canadians, remember that we are there, helping others, because of your support.