How Doctors Without Borders Works

Doctors Without Borders History

A doctor examining a baby in Kosovo.
A doctor examining a baby in Kosovo.
Associated Press/Laurent Rebours

The founding of MSF represented a partnership between a group of doctors and a group of journalists, both from France. The doctors had worked for the Red Cross in Biafra during its civil war, after the region's secession from Nigeria. The French doctors became frustrated by the Nigerian troops' treatment of aid workers as well as the administrative requirements that the Red Cross was required to meet to even work in the area. When they returned to France, some doctors broke their contracts with the Red Cross and spoke out about the atrocities they had seen the Nigerian army inflict on the Biafrans. They also began working on ways to provide humanitarian aid and intervention without the regulations imposed upon the Red Cross.

At the same time, a group of French journalists were trying to bring attention to victims of natural disasters in spots like Iran and Bangladesh. The journalists decried French doctors for not helping out with these catastrophes. The journalists and doctors joined forces to create MSF in 1971, but it wasn't until the end of the decade that the organization truly took off. MSF made a name for itself by providing medical aid in a highly publicized mission in Lebanon, as well as through work at numerous refugee camps around the world, most notably Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees in Thailand [source: Brauman, Tanguy].

The publicity helped MSF to grow at a quick pace; offices outside of France opened, and with larger coffers, MSF was able to offer its volunteer medical professionals a small salary. This allowed the organization to deploy more workers to more areas. Though MSF was founded because doctors wanted to tell the world about acts of violence they had seen in the world, that concept wasn't a formal part of the organization's charter until 1979. The idea of doctors bearing witness was put into practice most notably in 1985, when MSF spoke out about the Ethiopian government's forced relocation of famine victims. As a result, MSF was thrown out of Ethiopia.

Though MSF has continued to bear witness, speaking out, for example, about the Rwandan genocide and the Russians' treatment of the Chechen people, workers' first priority is providing medical aid to people in crisis. Find out what the job is like -- and if you're cut out for it -- on the next page.