MSF Lessons Learned

Medecins sans frontières [MSF], or Doctors Without Borders, is marking its 40th anniversary with a collection of stories exposing what it’s like to confront those difficult decisions. The book is called Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience and it comes out later this month.

CBC’s program The Current covers the uncomfortable compromises that humanitarian aid workers regularly face. As The Guardian reports:

Marie Noelle Rodrigue, operations director of MSF in Paris, said: “The time has come to explain the fragile equilibrium between the price it is necessary for an organisation to pay so that you are helping the victims.

“Often that means making a compromise to a degree where you are helping the authorities. This is a question that no-one has wanted to examine and it is good that MSF have looked into it and I think we are happy that we’ve done it honestly.”

MSF is keenly focused on learning from its mistakes and this book is part of that process. Some of those lessons:

Everything is political and influences medical assistance.

Gut feeling is very important to assess complex situations.

Finding common ground between parties in conflict is very difficult and too often simple, but ineffective, solutions are chosen.

The situation is always changing and there is a need for constant reflection, as individuals and at an organizational level.

Impartiality [trust] is the “red line” that cannot be crossed.

Every action is a compromise.

Conflicts are messy & dirty – therefore the humanitarian assistance is messy & dirty.

Learning through constant discussions is critical for all members of the organization.

MSF has a culture of debate and exposing the truth and this lets the organization move forward.

MSF follows the principles of narration and transparency to ensure it stays a viable organization facing complex, messy situations. Many organizations who are trying to adapt to the network era could learn from MSF.