Yesterday I attended the premiere of the documentary Living in Emergency, which portrays stories of four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctors who struggle to provide emergency medical care under extreme conditions with limited resources. As it seems, MSF gave the documentary crew uncensored access to its field operations.
Personally I can only recommend watching it. It’s a high quality piece that superbly presents the toughness and need of humanitarian aid.
However, there’s something I’d like to have seen yesterday. Perhaps because it’s so focused on MSF, they neglect the bigger picture (except for a few good jokes!) of how their work is connected to other institutions like the Red Cross or the United Nations.
Especially because there’s an interesting (usually unknown) story behind the formation of MSF, which was supposedly set up to fix the work the Red Cross was failing to do.
Everything started during the Nigerian civil war at the end of the 1960s when the Red Cross was granted access to the country and a group of French doctors volunteered to work in hospitals in the city of Biafra (under siege). However:
After entering the country, the volunteers, in addition to Biafran health workers and hospitals, were subjected to attacks by the Nigerian army, and witnessed civilians being murdered and starved by the blockading forces. The doctors publicly criticized the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behavior.
Because of this event, and as a result of the merge of existing smaller organizations, MSF was born to “ignore political/religious boundaries and prioritize the welfare of victims.”
You may wonder why Red Cross acted this way and did not take part. The reason is that its mandate to protect the victims of international and internal armed conflicts is established by the Geneva Conventions, and therefore they should observe the highest neutrality during conflicts:
The Red Cross prefers to engage states directly and relies on low-key and confidential negotiations to lobby for access to prisoners of war and improvement in their treatment. Its findings are not available to the general public but are shared only with the relevant government. This is in contrast to related organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International who are more willing to expose abuses and apply public pressure to governments.
Red Cross believes that “this approach allows greater access and cooperation from governments in the long run” helping reach people that otherwise would have been abandoned:
In the era of apartheid South Africa, [Red Cross] was granted access to prisoners like Nelson Mandela serving sentences, but not to those under interrogation and awaiting trial. After his release, Mandela publicly praised the Red Cross.
Which organization is getting it right? Which political neutrality maximizes the welfare of the victims? Well, the match so far is as follows, the Red Cross has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944, and 1963. Amnesty International got it in 1977, and Médecins Sans Frontières in 1999.