Amid the Parisian upheavals of May 1968, a group of young doctors decided to go and help victims of wars and major disasters. This new brand of humanitarianism would reinvent the concept of emergency aid. They were to become Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known internationally in English as Doctors Without Borders.
After the revolt of May ’68 burst onto their black and white TV screens, the French public soon saw other, more frightening images. For the first time, television broadcasted scenes of children dying from hunger in remote corners of the world.
In southern Nigeria, the province of Biafra had seceded. This minuscule territory was surrounded by the Nigerian army and the Biafran people were decimated by famine. The French Red Cross issued an appeal for volunteers.
Medics in Emergencies
For a number of years, Max Recamier and Pascal Greletty-Bosviel—volunteer doctors with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva—had been regularly intervening in armed conflicts.
“Contrary to popular belief, the Red Cross is not a medical organization at all,” says Max Recamier. “Pascal and myself were the only two doctors they knew because of our previous mission in Yemen, so they asked us to find some doctors for the ICRC. The first one to volunteer was Bernard Kouchner, who was much younger than I was; he was just finishing his studies and hadn’t even finished his thesis yet, but he volunteered to go over there.”
A team of six set off on the ICRC mission to Biafra: two doctors—Max Recamier and Bernard Kouchner—as well as two clinicians and two nurses. Being thrown into such a bloody conflict was a real shock for these fledgling doctors, who found themselves having to provide war surgery in hospitals that were regularly targeted by the Nigerian armed forces.
MSF was officially created on December 22, 1971. At the time, 300 volunteers made up the organization: doctors, nurses, and other staff, including the 13 founding doctors and journalists.
MSF was created on the belief that all people have the right to medical care regardless of gender, race, religion, creed, or political affiliation, and that the needs of these people outweigh respect for national boundaries.
Since 1980, MSF has opened offices in 28 countries and employs more than 30,000 people across the world. Since its founding, MSF has treated over a hundred million patients—with 8.25 million outpatient consultations being carried out in 2014 alone. MSF has also maintained its institutional and financial independence, and the organization has continued to be critical of both itself and the broader aid system when appropriate, all in the name of trying to help direct more effective and timely aid to those who need it most.