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Definition: Doctors Without Borders from The Columbia Encyclopedia

Fr. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), international organization that provides emergency medical assistance to people suffering from a natural or societal disaster, such as an earthquake, disease epidemic, or war. MSF was founded (1971) by a group of French doctors who felt that much international aid was often medically inadequate and too easily obstructed by legal obstacles. The group now has more than 2,000 persons providing medical care in 80 countries; MSF personnel also seek to focus media attention on problems and injustices in the areas where they serve. The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

from Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders is the world’s largest independent medical relief organization. It was founded in 1971 by a group of French doctors and journalists returning to Paris from a Red Cross mission to the Biafran War in Nigeria. MSF provides emergency medical assistance to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural or man-made disasters, or excluded from health care. Realizing that more than 90 percent of all death and suffering from infectious diseases occurs in the developing world with insufficient health care systems, MSF rehabilitates hospitals and dispensaries, establishes rural clinics, provides vaccination and drugs, and trains local staff. MSF consists of not only doctors, but nurses, water and sanitation specialists, nutritionists, epidemiologists, logisticians, administrators, plumbers, radio operators, lawyers, mechanics, and accountants working alongside skilled local staff ensuring that the essential medicines, food, fuel, personnel, vehicles, water bladders, and tools are delivered to those in the heart of the emergency. To maintain its independence, nearly 80 percent of MSF’s operating funds comes from the general public—individuals, foundations, corporations, and nonprofit organizations worldwide—while 20 percent comes from international agencies and governments.

MSF’s decision to intervene in any crisis is based solely on an independent assessment of people’s needs. When MSF learns of a developing crisis, it sends an inspection team to assess the situation, and based on the team’s recommendations, volunteers and equipment are dispatched within hours to the troubled zone. Its large-scale logistical capacity ensures that emergency teams arrive with medical kits and equipment needed to start saving lives immediately. The teams accept responsibility for a range of medical interventions that include providing basic health care as well as prevention of epidemics, constructing water and sanitation facilities, providing supplementary foodstuffs to vulnerable groups, and training local health workers. For longer-term programs, MSF provides medical and psychological care to patients with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, and HIV/AIDS.

MSF addresses obstacles preventing people in the developing world from obtaining affordable treatments for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Through its Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines, MSF advocates to overcome trade and other barriers to treatments, lower drug prices, and to stimulate research and development of new treatments. Worldwide, MSF staff raises public awareness by speaking at conferences and showing traveling exhibitions. It also organizes special public education projects to address the stark realities of living without access to medicines and the devastation caused by war.

Many critics, however, believe MSF is used as a convenient smokescreen to hide the lack of willingness of the international community to intervene in crises (the incident in Rwanda was a case in point).

See also:

International Development; Peace Corps

  • Bortolotti, Dan, Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors without Borders. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2004.
  • Leyton, Elliot. Touched by Fire: Doctors without Borders in Third World Crisis. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
  • Esther F. Ojo

    Copyright © 2008 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

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