• Michelle Calvert & Hannah Dawson

Médecins Sans Frontières, Volunteering and the Future of Humanitarian Aid

“Humanitarian aid” has become a phrase commonly heard in a time of natural disaster, of political strife, and of social, religious or ethnic conflict. It is the loosely defined idea of taking supplies, resources and personnel to help those affected by these crises, whatever they may be. For those at home, it may be the act of donating to an organization so that it can gather supplies for those in need.

In theory, humanitarian aid is a brilliant way for people in the international community to help people in need, regardless of where or who they are. In practice, humanitarian aid is flawed; many international non-governmental organizations make more money than they give, and can be swayed by governments or corporate actors through large donations (Lee 2014; Human Rights Watch 2014).

Unfortunately there is no international agreed upon code for humanitarian aid organizations around the world. For instance, organizations are not obliged to follow a standard by which they must accept and use donated funds, nor are they obliged to treat their beneficiaries in a prescribed manner. It is up to each individual non-governmental organization to handle their administrative tasks, guide volunteers, and aid whom they choose. With so little formal accountability present in the international community, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) stands out as an organization that excels in providing aid to those who need it most, no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, political views, socioeconomic status or any other conceivable variable.

Since its formation in 1971, MSF has made the most visible aspects of MSF’s charter those of impartiality, accountability and independence. MSF strives to hold itself to these standards in all projects, from development programs to disease epidemics. The organization works to these standards at all levels, from first time volunteers to the international president of the organization, currently Joanne Liu. During a talk given at McGill University’s Global Health week in November of 2016, Joanne Liu, a McGill graduate, criticized her organization’s inability to fully address all the needs of the ebola epidemic a few years prior, and discussed her ideas to improve MSF’s capacity to react the next time a similar epidemic arises, demonstrating the ability of MSF to hold itself accountable even at the highest level.

MSF’s cornerstone policies of impartiality, neutrality and accountability have led them to be the last aid organization standing in various locations around the globe. Yemen, rife with civil war since March 2015, struggles daily to provide its people with medical assistance, food and shelter (MSF 2017). MSF has been running at least seven different outreach programs across the country to ease malnutrition and give access to medical and mental health care. Despite their commitment to Yemen, MSF continues to experience difficulty working in-country. December 2015 and August 2016 saw airstrikes on MSF-run medical facilities by the Saudi-led coalitions (MSF 2017), hindering MSF’s ability to provide aid. In addition, despite MSF’s globally funded resources, it has difficulty providing the aid needed to help over 12 million Yemenis as one of the only aid organizations currently operating in Yemen. Will Turner, head of MSF Yemeni operations, said that MSF volunteers, “often have this feeling of ‘where is everybody?’,” referring to the distinct lack of other international aid on the ground in Yemen (Financial Times 2016). This is because despite the acute need for medical care, food aid, and shelter, most international humanitarian aid organizations have become risk averse and are not willing to send their volunteers into conflict zones they deem “helpless” or “beyond international help”. In fact, in some cases, aid organizations will refuse to help because of political issues tied to their donors (Economist 2014). Herein lies one of the most troublesome issues with today’s global humanitarian aid; aid organizations and volunteers unwilling to help those who arguably need it the most due to the “risks” and politics of working in certain areas.

This begs the question: To what extent can volunteering remain true to its nature and help in the most desperate of situations if it is consistently constrained by avoiding risk and defined by politically-motivated funding?

Questions like this are often brought up by international development studies students at McGill University when voicing their frustrations with the politics of humanitarian aid; namely the hampering of volunteers’ ability to aid those in need regardless of who they are. With international development and global health becoming such popular topics with current university generations and both becoming more profitable than they have been in the past, it is worth reiterating the reasons why humanitarian agencies and global health networks were formed in the first place; volunteers wanting to help. Médecins Sans Frontières has been at the forefront of providing aid without bias for the past 46 years with the help of volunteers who truly believe that equal access to healthcare is a fundamental human right.



Lee, Eugenia. "Does Foreign Aid Make NGOs Corrupt?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

"Bangladesh: Withdraw Restrictive Draft Law on NGOs." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch New York, 05 July 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

"Donors: Keep out." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

"‘If We Don't Treat Them, Who Else Will?’." Medics on the Front Line - Seasonal Appeal 2016. Financial Times, 2016. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

"Yemen: Crisis Update - December 2016." Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. Médecins Sans Frontières, 2 Feb. 2017. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

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