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Bearing witness inside MSF

‘I resisted the idea that I could be significantly hampered by my race.’

Man walking across open concrete space
(Andrew Gook/Unsplash)

Late last summer, while delivering a diversity and inclusion training session to medical staff at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) operational centre in the Netherlands, I felt it

The crossed arms; the remarks that the topic was a passing fad; the suggestion that insufficient data meant it was impossible to know whether there was even an issue to discuss. One participant asked me to spell out my name, and my name alone, on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. I glanced at my white co-facilitator and then looked the participant in the eye. The stare back was menacing. The silence was deafening.

Like many international aid groups, MSF uses a two-tier employee system: So-called “international staff” are mainly hired from countries in the Global North and move from office to office in management-level assignments; so-called “national staff” are locally recruited in the countries where MSF operates. What I came to understand through my three years with the organisation is not simply the extent to which this formal, racialised hierarchical structure creates a culture of institutional racism and a homogenous leadership class, but that attempts to begin dismantling this – through my work and by speaking out – were and are met with vicious resistance. 

When I joined MSF Canada in its Toronto office in 2017, I believed in its mission. Its principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality spoke deeply to me after working as a director of fundraising for a Canadian charity and as a programme manager for a public health non-profit in East Africa. 

What I could have never predicted was the harsh disillusionment that would follow over my time with MSF, or the idea that my experience would make me question my very compatibility with the aid sector as a whole.

Other organisations I’d worked for had been corporate or foundation-driven, and MSF’s wide base of individual donors appeared to provide the independence to pursue programming based on patient and community needs. Where my work in East Africa often included ethical questions about collaborating with governments, here was an institution that focused on “témoignage”, or bearing witness, supporting those willing to go on the record about the structural causes of suffering.

I imagined an open culture of debate, a focus on performance that would result in objectivity in hiring and promotions, and an actively anti-racist framework that would be at the forefront of defining a new participatory development and emergency aid model. 

I was wrong. What I could have never predicted was the harsh disillusionment that would follow over my time with MSF, or the idea that my experience would make me question my very compatibility with the aid sector as a whole. 

I’m not sharing my experience in order to denigrate MSF – whose overall mission I still believe in – or to point fingers at individuals. (All names in this piece have either been omitted or changed.) I’m sharing it in the hope of bringing greater awareness to the ways in which group dynamics replicate and reinforce structural inequalities. I’d also like to spur a wider conversation about the degree to which aid organisations will need to directly challenge their own staff if they are to initiate the radical changes necessary to dismantle a powerful system of positionality and privilege. 

Something’s not right: ‘I will rise above this’

At first, the issues I found in Toronto seemed troubling but perhaps not overwhelming. As a project manager leading the development of online learning courses for the European operational centres, I encountered problematic language around staffing. Training sessions for Canadian hires who would soon move to field offices often referred to national staff – more than 90 percent of MSF’s employees – as “vulnerable to corruption”, ostensibly a justification for their exclusion from the most senior management positions. Departing international staff were also reminded that they would almost all be in positions of authority over national staff. 

I was distressed that such a structure – one that did not take individual qualifications into account – could be promoted as a rule. The staff who were about to leave Canada reflected the inequalities in Canadian society; they hardly represented the diversity of Toronto’s labour market, skewing heavily white and upper-middle class. This was replicated in the virtually all-white Canadian management team, for which previous “field management” experience was a prerequisite, and from whom invitations to exclusive drinking parties were seen as victories needed to advance one’s career. 

Through my work, I saw an opportunity to begin to redress these issues. At MSF, online trainings have historically been geared to and designed by international staff with little feedback from national staff, reflecting the power of its top-down organisational structure. In this context, my role to promote online learning to rapidly expand access to information across the organisation – to both international and national staff – seemed a highly relevant goal. I also hoped to introduce participatory course design, tapping participants for ideas on what they needed from each training. 

I believed that such empowerment would propel further changes down the line, breaking down artificial restrictions to knowledge and ultimately leading to the decentralisation of learning and development programmes, away from power centres in the Global North. Excited, I got down to work.

As an Indian-Canadian male with experience in global nonprofits, I initially thought myself largely above the progressively heated conversations about racism, sexism, and ableism in the office. Soon after I joined, MSF-Canada had kick-started an attempt to lead the movement on equality, diversity, and inclusion within its ranks and had quickly become overwhelmed. The work had been distracted by a coincidentally timed investigation into abuse of power – a case with a distinct gender and racial lens. My colleagues spoke of their increasing uncertainty over the independence of the investigation team and, progressively, of the human resources department and the board. The more diverse junior staff went further, commenting on their perception of leadership as incompetent, incapable of dealing sensitively with issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and as being immune to consequences with respect to their own behaviour and hiring practices. A newly released "equity assessment" report on equality, diversity, and inclusion found widespread experiences of systemic oppression by equity-seeking groups, including perceptions of favouritism, bias, and nepotism; a culture of normalised misogyny; and higher turnover rates for diverse staff.

Despite an obvious racialised power structure in the office and the rampant stories of microaggressions shared by colleagues, I resisted the idea that I could be significantly hampered by my race. I had always sought to define myself by my personality, the quality of my work, and my ability to support others. While I did question my immediate prospects for upward mobility for the first time in my career while at MSF-Canada, I did not lose the rather easy confidence I had developed as a relatively privileged middle-class Montrealer – at least at first. A distinct culture of racism, modelled and promoted at the top, seemed surmountable for the work I wanted to achieve to help subvert it. It seemed temporary, inevitably replaced by truth and hard work. I will rise above this, I thought. 

As an Indian-Canadian male with experience in global nonprofits, I initially thought myself largely above the progressively heated conversations about racism, sexism, and ableism in the office.

So I persisted, even while becoming increasingly aware of something I could not then fully articulate but now see as pervasive racial bias. My director, finding it difficult to challenge my points on their merits, began speaking over me at meetings. A senior manager ignored my presence for the year and a half I worked in Toronto. An ambitious fundraising colleague cornered me at an office party to ask about my experience as a minority for the express purpose of “helping” him “in a future leadership role”. A tech colleague left a “Survival Shield” product sold by the openly racist/sexist radio commentator Alex Jones at my desk, and proceeded to engage me in a conversation about his belief in a “clash of civilisations”. When I asked colleagues – women and people of colour – about him, they said his behaviour had been reported and, as far as they knew, had gone unchallenged by human resources. When I shared all of these experiences with non-white colleagues, I often found that their stories were considerably worse. 

Still, I kept working, despite the growing volume of an internal voice repeating itself with greater frequency: Where am I?

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An empty office
kate.sade/Unsplash

International or national: Are you us or are you them?

Eventually, a colleague in Amsterdam, impressed by my work, asked me to interview for a position managing the entire online learning portfolio at the MSF-Holland operational centre, a role supporting thousands of staff around the world. During the interview, I described the abolitionist and decentralised vision I was pursuing, a defined commitment in time and one that would require additional resources. Walking down to the lobby a few hours later, having made my peace with sure rejection, my phone buzzed with a text message. “You’re hired,” my future manager wrote. “It will be a journey. I believe in you.” I was thrilled. 

Back home, as I prepared to leave, a few of my friends seemed less excited about this new challenge. On one of my last nights in Toronto, chatting over sushi, Marie and Chaz, two women of colour who had left MSF of their own volition and in disgust after being described by managers as “incompatible with MSF culture” and “aggressive”, and who were now, months later, seething in under-employment and occasional therapy bills, sounded an alarm. “You’re entering the lion’s den,” Chaz warned. “You‘ve gotta be careful.”

I shrugged it off. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “I know how to navigate it.”

Marie shot back, “You might not define yourself as a racialised person.” She paused and then added: “But you will come to be.”

My awakening began in August 2019, about seven months after I arrived in Amsterdam. In the much larger MSF operational centre there, the almost comical lack of diversity felt strangely refreshing in its honesty. I could count visible minorities on my fingers. Most were part of the “Rainbow Network,” an LGBTQ+ employee coalition, or the quickly forming “Kaleidoscope Network”, a diversity and inclusion group. Passing each other in the hallways, we’d share a momentary nod, an acknowledgement of an understood secret. Their eyes spoke volumes: I know, you know.

This extended to my own team. In a global learning and development unit of about 10 people who created and delivered training for both HQ and project staff, I stuck out in the all-white, majority Dutch and British group. Apart from the friendly and welcoming younger team members, my colleagues generally treated my by then open ambitions with a removed coolness. As was common for non-medical staff throughout the organisation, the lack of formal qualifications beyond experience as “international staff” was evident. A few team members had been trainers, a few others were former “internationals” who had worked in human resources roles in the field. Only one, my closest colleague and ally Marlene, had any significant training in course design, the team’s central function.  

“You might not define yourself as a racialised person.” She paused and then added: “But you will come to be.”

Demand for online learning was exploding at MSF, and I was working across the organisation on multiple initiatives. I frequently encountered medical experts who assumed national staff were intellectually “lazy”, meaning I had to consistently negotiate participatory approaches to designing courses. “Diversity and inclusion is a fad” was a phrase I often heard parroted whenever I brought the topic up.

I didn’t express my true feelings – such as my sense that I was continually navigating institutional racism or that a learning and development team responsible for over 10,000 staff with so little diversity could only be defined as colonial. I settled instead on advocating within and outside the team on the more “politically correct” need to focus our efforts on localising our initiatives and processes. My message always seemed to be met with extended sighs.

In a team meeting, a colleague compared national and international staff in generalising terms during a five-minute monologue. I spoke up, cautioning against such generalisations. This colleague then ignored me for months, dulling an initial friendship.

Marlene, my compatriot, shrugged it off. “Don’t worry about it. You were right.”

In the meantime, my main project – to open up the digital learning platform to everyone, including national staff – had run into problems: Vendors had been slow to finish, and MSF’s own approval systems for access to online programmes were segregated, based entirely on whether one was a “national” or “international” employee. That meant that one could not easily create an open learning website that could be readily and equally accessed by all. To begin the authorisation process, you needed to identify yourself as MSF defined you: Are you international or national? Are you us, or are you them? 

In the pursuit of fairness and equal access for all staff, one then quickly hit a wall. You could not easily dismantle a structure of your own making. You were reminded of your perceived differences. 

In the midst of all of this, our team was deep in discussions over our long-term strategic plan.

One evening, reading over a draft document that Marlene had asked the team to comment on, I saw that no one had mentioned the issue of accessibility – our ongoing need to engage locally hired staff who are significantly under-represented in trainings. I quickly typed a comment, stating that this was a core problem and that a deeper investment in online learning could be part of a solution. I paused for a moment. Should I speak my mind about the wider issue at hand? Carefully, I typed these words:

**(This paragraph was revised on 11 September to reflect the original wording of the comment)

Our functional strategy must grapple with the fact that historically we have been a centralized team made up of former international staff, with our products and activities mirroring these experiences. We have missed out on the majority of staff in MSF, we do not calculate whether our investments translate dollar for dollar into the highest performance impact. This vision has something to do with resetting these patterns.**

Peacefully, I went to bed. 

I awoke to a torrent of comments in the document.

“What do you mean?”

“Where do you get your information?”

“I have a problem with this comment.” 

***(‘Comment’ was changed to ‘comments’ on 11 September to clarify that the author had inserted multiple comments to the document)

Tension during the team meeting that day was palpable. I had expected my comments to generate a much larger conversation about the skills and experiences we needed as our department evolved.*** I hadn’t anticipated the hostility that greeted me. 

A member of the team flatly asked me if I had read the team charter – a question that seemed to suggest that I had transgressed some norm of civility on the established rules for “respectful discourse”. I politely responded that I had indeed read and understood it. 

Tension during the team meeting that day was palpable. I had expected my comment to generate a much larger conversation about the skills and experiences we needed as our department evolved. I hadn’t anticipated the hostility that greeted me. 

“Online learning isn’t a priority,” another colleague stated minutes later. “It’s not important.”

I was shocked that such a statement could be made, given the demand that I had understood to exist within the organisation. In anger, this person was attacking the very core of my work, not to mention what I believed was the interest of MSF: expanding training at scale to under-represented groups through online delivery. 

Pointing to ‘reverse racism’ or protecting a system of privilege?

As days and weeks passed, the sense of anger from certain co-workers was so strong that I began to feel unsafe in the office. Slowly, I distanced myself from the team, physically sitting apart from my colleagues. 

One day, my manager, Jen, pulled me aside. 

“Listen, some people are very upset,” she said, and told me that a colleague who had previously been critical of my work had talked to her and demanded that I face disciplinary action for my comments. The person, Jen said, was “threatening to go to HR”.

“For what?” I couldn’t understand what was happening.

“Reverse racism.”

Reverse racism? The long-discredited conservative concept that white people suffer from systemic discrimination? The myth that advocating for racial justice policies for minorities are tantamount to oppressing and persecuting a majority group? On an all-white team?

My heart stopped. My work required seeking advice on a diversity and inclusion course next year from this colleague and others.

The person’s “comments have no basis”, Jen said. “There was nothing wrong with what you said! But maybe try to speak to others on the team? Get them to understand what you meant.” 

What I wanted at this point was peace. Days later, on a video call with another colleague, I let myself be lectured.

“If you had spoken about it more respectfully, you might have had a better chance of being listened to,” my teammate told me, casually and confidently. We finished the call, and I sat in the darkness of a meeting room as the automatic lights switched off. 

Of course, I had heard about this technique from so many others before me. If you had just said it differently, maybe you wouldnt be going through this.

****(This sentence was revised on 11 September to clarify that the meeting was not held specifically to discuss the author's behaviour but to also address team-wide dysfunctions)

Friends were growing increasingly concerned about my mental health. Aware of the tension that had been growing within the team over the three months since my comments on the strategic plan, and around numerous unrelated managerial and performance issues, Jen contracted an external facilitator, someone who knew some other members of the team.****

In an introductory email, the facilitator asked us to write in confidence about our experiences. Shortly after I submitted my response, I was asked to reformulate my answer to avoid naming individuals.

Walking into the session in late November, the facilitator took me aside. “I just want you to know this is going to be a difficult experience for you,” she said, not unkindly. “I want you to be prepared.” 

Printouts of all the comments – which we had assumed would be kept private – hung on the windows and walls. The facilitator asked us to walk around and read the notes. For the next 30 minutes, I read variations on comments that are now seared into my memory, lines that I recall as:

–He needs to apologise fully to the team for his spiteful and disrespectful comments.

–He is doing a poor job and his collaborators are not happy with him.

–You’d have to be on drugs to write the type of comment he wrote in the strategic plan.

–I object to his tone in emails and the quality and style of his writing.

–His use of professional development funds was a waste of team resources.

–He is not doing the work he should be doing and his collaborators cannot find him.

–Jen needs to hold him to account and discipline him for his behaviour.

–Jen is aloof and unsupportive of the team’s current issues.

–The team’s problems will be solved if Jen and Arnab both leave.

I hung in a dizzying haze as we sat down to discuss the comments. Periods of stunned silence punctuated the conversation.

When asked for my thoughts, I paused.

Finally, I spoke: “My comment was meant to compel a broader conversation of how we’d improve as a team, and I cannot apologise for it.” 

Jen’s response was less forgiving.

“My job is to protect a member of the team from being subjected to abuse. My honest response right now is: Fuck you.

Walking out of the meeting, I was rushed by a few teammates who were seemingly horrified by what had just happened. 

“I want you to know I don’t support this.”

“We’re here to listen if you ever want to talk about it.” 

“We’re really not normally like this.” 

A friend on the team told me how impressed he was by how “stoic” and “patient” I had been during the session. Shaking my head, and hating myself for my neutrality, I tried to explain. 

“I don’t know how else to say this, but it felt like a lynching,” I said. “Folks were lying about me. Over a non-controversial comment. This is extreme fragility. And discrimination.”

He tried to talk me out of it: “People aren’t bad. Everyone’s stressed right now. I’m sure this wasn’t motivated by racism.” 

I stared at him in disbelief. How could my friend not see this for what it was?

“I don’t know how else to say this, but it felt like a lynching.”

The next day I met with a friend, a co-founder of the Kaleidoscope Network and another person of colour on her way out of MSF. She offered the following advice: “They’re going to go after you. They will re-frame you as a troublemaker. They will say you were bad at your job. They will imply you didn’t get on with people. They will deny your experience. And they will end by deeming you a liar. They are protecting a system of privilege. My suggestion is this: Control the narrative about yourself.”

A few days after the session, I handed in my resignation letter. 

Months later, Jen also quit. 

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Person holding briefcase
Fikri Rasyid/Unsplash

Decades of stories that remain untold

I flew back home to Canada in January 2020, and worked remotely on a contract until March. 

Not long ago, in the context of the George Floyd protests, I awoke to an email invitation to an online discussion about racial injustice led by the MSF executive team in Amsterdam. My official MSF email still hadn’t been shut off. Lying in bed, I listened in. The Q&A session had started. 

“Will MSF formally and finally acknowledge that it suffers from institutional racism?” a participant demanded. 

An executive team member dodged the question: “What we’re here to do is listen...”

I shut off the computer and spent the next hour figuring out how to get out of bed. 

I thought of MSF’s La Mancha Agreement, a document affirming and refining MSF’s principles for the 21st century that in 2006 had identified, “the urgent need to address any issues of discrimination which undermine the ability to realize (our) full operational and associative potential”. I thought of all the people who had suffered since then, in undoubtedly worse ways than I had. I thought of how MSF’s own inclusion surveys continue to exclude national staff from engagement or analysis entirely, of the stories that remain untold. 

I remembered a quote from the La Mancha Gazette, an internal newsletter, from that year:

“We have never tried to understand who they are (or) the nature of their relationship with MSF.”

I thought, strangely, of the time the person who had threatened to go to human resources with the accusation of “reverse racism” had told me about loneliness as we walked in Zandvoort, speaking of an MSF cowboy who had flown on to another project, another conflict. 

When I eventually made it to my mirror, I was shocked to catch the face of someone I didn’t recognise. Behind the puffy eyes and a blistering headache was the unmistakable look of someone haunted. 

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