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Médecins Sans Frontières needs ‘radical change’ on racism: MSF president

‘We are taking a hard look at how to confront racism and discrimination within our organisation.’

(Ben Parker/TNH)

Médecins Sans Frontières has “failed people of colour, both staff and patients”, “failed to tackle institutional racism”, and is part of “white privileged culture”, according to a joint statement to staff from its president and an international board member obtained by The New Humanitarian. 

The 23 June message comes amidst heated internal debate in MSF about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. One staffer, speaking to TNH on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issues involved, welcomed the statement as long overdue, but said it would be a “hard pill to swallow” for the white-dominated “old guard” of MSF.

MSF is among the largest humanitarian aid agencies in the world, providing emergency medical services in low-income countries, conflict zones, and, for COVID-19, parts of Europe and the United States. Most of MSF’s staff of about 55,000 are hired locally from the countries where services are provided, but its operations are run by European-dominated senior management in five units in Western Europe and one in Senegal. It raised €1.6 billion in 2019. MSF is notable in humanitarian circles for valuing candid debate and critical enquiry on sensitive and controversial topics. 

The joint email statement from MSF’s international president, Greek Christos Christou, and Kenyan board member Samuel Bumicho, said “action… is very long overdue”. “This crisis should help us hold up a mirror to see what we are – but that will mean little unless we then act on what we see… those in leadership roles must step up to identify a process for radical change.” 

MSF is not alone in its self-reflection. Several NGOs in the humanitarian sector have issued statements in reaction to #BlackLivesMatter; one of the most strongly worded being from Save the Children UK, which said: “the harm that has been caused – and continues to be caused – by racism in our organisation is… an affront to our values.”

With its message yesterday, the international umbrella group of MSF went further in its self-criticism than the US branch of MSF, which had already issued a statement framing racism as a “public health crisis”, while also saying “we are taking a hard look at how to confront racism and discrimination within our organisation.” 

“We get a lot of ‘all lives matter’ reaction from colleagues from different parts of the world. ... Context is everything.”

“MSF USA labels problems in a way that ruffles some feathers in our Eurocentric organisation,” Avril Benoît, head of MSF US, told TNH. “The North American lens through which we see this issue of structural anti-Black racism, and the language we use to describe it, doesn’t always translate well to other cultures and places. We get a lot of ‘all lives matter’ reaction from colleagues from different parts of the world,” she said. “Context is everything.”

The head of the French section showed less enthusiasm for the issue. In a 17 June posting on MSF’s internal message board obtained by TNH, Director-General of MSF France Thierry Allafort-Duverger said the statements from the US office were at the “edges of our social mission”. 

While there are “real discrimination problems” in MSF, he argued that MSF had limited resources and should be advocating for its work in Afghanistan more than trying to resolve the “historical social and racial tensions shattering the American society”.

The MSF staffer told TNH the posting reflected a naive “‘we’re all part of the human race’ crap” that avoided serious debate about the “structural racism” within the organisation. 

TNH also obtained responses on the message board from staffers objecting to Allafort-Duverger’s posting. One said: “I am appalled that a white man in France is deciding [what MSF’s position should be]... but I am not surprised.” Another said: “what better time to start dismantling colonial thinking/structures and showing solidarity to our staff and patients that bear the brunt of racism than now?” A third described the posting as “tone deaf”. 

Allafort-Duverger told TNH: “I don’t want MSF to use a real-life struggle in which we have little legitimacy and added value as cause branding or virtue signalling, as a lot of companies or organisations are currently doing.” Despite being “the white man in Paris”, he pointed out that he had pushed for reducing discriminatory practices in MSF and supported the creation of the Senegal branch. He said there remains “a long way to go”, nevertheless the organisation should not ”indulge in institutional diagnoses whose only purpose is to simplify complex realities”.

However, an open letter from staff at MSF in Brazil, also posted on the private message board, stated: “we cannot wait any more… it is high time to recognise, once and for all, that we work in an organisation that reproduces structural racism.”

An earlier initiative to address racism and privilege within MSF stalled. 

“We cannot wait any more… it is high time to recognise, once and for all, that we work in an organisation that reproduces structural racism.”

In 2017, the International General Assembly, MSF’s highest-level body, did not adopt a motion on “Unpacking Racism, Prejudice, and Privilege” drafted by the MSF US section. The original text, obtained by TNH, stated that MSF should “explicitly affirm a commitment to addressing how racial inequity affects our organisation and strive to prevent and eliminate racism from our institutional culture”. The motion was set aside on grounds of potential “severe legal implications”, and replaced with a less specific commitment.

Despite the watered-down decision three years ago – to take “all necessary steps to address and prevent discrimination from occurring in our organisation” – there has been “zero, zero, zero action”, according to the MSF staff member, who said “it has always been a major issue”, and that frustration has grown.

In an indication of the level of tension over the issue, the MSF staffer said any message that MSF had to balance its priorities wouldn’t work: “You don’t get to say ‘sorry, but COVID is more important than racism’. 

“Don’t tell me I can’t battle COVID and racism. Fuck off.”

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