17 Aug 18 07 Jun 19

What is humanitarian action? A message from MSF Canada's Executive Director

In his introduction to the Summer 2018 issue of Dispatches, the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada magazine, Executive Director Joe Belliveau writes from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where he has been able to witness MSF's response to the current Rohingya refugee crisis and reflect upon what it means to put humanitarian principles into action.  

By Joe Belliveau

Recently, after a long day in the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, I sat down to unwind for the evening with some members of MSF’s emergency team. We had barely started exchanging end-of-day greetings when two of them jumped up and hopped into the MSF car to head back to the hospital. They returned an hour or so later, explaining that a very young child had been experiencing seizures, most likely resulting from a severe upper respiratory tract infection. The next day I visited that hospital and met that child, still breathing irregularly but closely attended by MSF’s medics.

That child is one of nearly one million Rohingya refugees gathered in the congested and muddy camps near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. MSF’s response in these camps hits the essence of what humanitarian action is for me. It is the recognition that another person has experienced calamity, paired with the relentless will to find a way to help ease that person’s suffering. It is personal and hands-on. It is not passive; it acts decisively and takes calculated risks. It accepts the reality of conflict and disaster, but rejects the inevitability of death and suffering. It reaches out with empathy and compassion, but it also feels and expresses outrage toward those who cause or fail to ease the suffering.

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Humanitarian action is emergency medical care 

MSF expresses its humanitarian spirit through medical care, and our movement exists to create the space within which our front-line medical workers can heal wounds and treat diseases. We are all — from donor, staff recruiter and communications expert through to receptionist, doctor, telemedicine specialist and every other participant in this movement — here to make possible the moment when an MSF emergency team nurse can jump up to go back to the hospital and attend to a small child in seizure. In this issue of Dispatches, we look at MSF’s front-line medical action in response to two of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises — the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh and the ongoing emergency in South Sudan — from the perspective of Canadian field workers on the ground helping MSF deliver urgently needed primary healthcare.

Humanitarian action is mental health

Our medical action also goes beyond emergency health services and takes numerous forms. We are nutritionists, surgeons, midwives, pediatricians, water and sanitation experts and numerous others. This list also includes mental health specialists — one of the less obvious ailments MSF responds to are the psychological wounds that sometimes deeply affect a person’s well-being. Though less visible than a physical wound, psychological trauma can be as debilitating. In an interview, one of our Canadian mental health officers describes some of the challenges of providing care in conflict settings such as Iraq, and explains why this form of medical assistance is so essential.

Humanitarian action is advocacy

Through the course of MSF's work, we learn what our patients have experienced, such as the brutal attack on the Rohingya in Myanmar in August 2017 that sparked their mass exodus to Bangladesh. This often compels us to speak out in order to draw the world’s attention, and to provoke others to act to relieve the suffering of those we stand with. We consider this advocacy, or témoignage, an integral part of our humanitarian action. We will take a closer look at one of our advocacy objectives: to remove the obstacles our patients face in accessing the medicines that can treat their disease. Tuberculosis is one of those, and remains a major global killer – more than 1.5 million people annually. Research for more effective drugs and diagnostic tools is sorely lacking. In this issue of Dispatches we explore why it is time for governments and other institutions around the world to #StepUpForTB, and what Canadians can do to help people affected by one of the world's deadliest diseases.

Humanitarian action is preparing for future needs

As an emergency organization, one of the ways that we remain responsive and relevant is to anticipate. MSF is already looking ahead to one of the factors that we believe will most drive humanitarian need in the years to come: Climate change and environmental degradation are already having a severe impact on human health, and this is set to increase significantly. Two of our experts will help unpack the link between climate, environment and health and explain why MSF is preparing itself for climate-linked humanitarian crises.

Humanitarian action must be defended

This month, the international community marks World Humanitarian Day on August 19. This day was initiated to commemorate those who lost their lives while assisting others. As humanitarians we do not take sides in conflict. We remain strictly neutral and impartial, and yet at times our staff are attacked and killed. We continue to call for respect for humanitarians, and to insist that caregivers, humanitarians, medical practitioners and civilians in conflict zones are #NotATarget. We also deplore the blockage and attempt by some to criminalize the work of humanitarians in the name of counter-terrorism. In in this issue of Dispatches, we hear from a former member of MSF Canada’s board of directors who is working to bring this concern to greater global attention.

World Humanitarian Day is about commemoration, but it is also about celebrating what it is to be humanitarian. For me, that is simply the act of reaching out to ease another person’s suffering. At MSF we express this through our medical action, and each of our 42,000 staff members, along with many thousands of association members and donors in Canada and around the globe, contribute to making this possible in some of the world’s most extreme, challenging and neglected places.

Thank you for being humanitarian with us.  

Joe Belliveau is Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada.

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