The Skeletons in MSF’s Closet



I might have just gone too far in my quest to learn ever more about MSF. I came across this article (107 kb PDF). It has interesting details about the internal struggles in MSF’s history and in it’s current operations.

Some interesting things:

  • MSF-Belgium was created as a separate legal entity with MSF-France’s blessing. Quickly MSF-Belgium’s differing interpretation of the mission angered MSF-France, so much so that MSF-France attempted to strip MSF-Belgium of the MSF name in 1985. They failed.
  • The 5 current operational sections used to be 6: MSF-Greece was created to be operational. However, in 1999 MSF-Greece was expelled from the MSF movement over its stance on intervention in Kosovo. It has been reintegrated into the MSF movement as of early 2005, but its operations are now done under the authority of MSF-Spain.
  • Government funding dropped from 50% in 1999 to 20% in 2003. That was due to the increased private-donor fundraising power of the new sections (Australia, Japan, USA, etc).
  • MSF-France relies on MSF-USA for close to 40% of it’s operational funds.
  • MSF-Holland has only 20% Dutch citizens in the field. They rely on other sections to make up the other 80%.
  • Internal controls meant to ensure external communications are consistent and do not jeopardize any operations are sometimes (perhaps routinely?) ignored in order to prevent the consultation and coordination process from watering down the message.

None of that really changes my desire to work for MSF, but it does explain where some of the friction I’ve heard returned volunteers talk about comes from. One volunteer told me that it’s not true that MSF doesn’t play well with other NGO’s. But he went on to say that MSF-X is more likely to work with Oxfam or GOAL than to cooperate peacefully with MSF-Y! (Take that with a grain of salt, of course…)

Another thing I learned from the article is that MSF-USA has taken over operational responsibility for projects originated by MSF-France in Uganda, Guatemala, Nigeria and Haiti. With my Spanish language, time spent in Guatemala, and the slight preference for volunteers to be citizens of the operational section, that means I’m very likely to be offered a job in Guatemala, if one’s open. Strange how stuff like that works out. Last November in New York an MSF HR person told me that MSF-USA was taking over some programs, but did not mention Guatemala by name.


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