An MSF doctor treats a baby at a refugee camp in Thailand. Photo by MSF

For years, caught up with the principle that “charity begins at home,” I was fully engaged in a corporate career to become financially independent, acknowledging from time to time the stark photos of human misery elsewhere that would occasionally surface in the media. When my wife Kate McNally and I gave to charity, it would be a quickly written check in response to appeals from the local Hospice, Red Cross, or annual United Way campaign.

Nine years ago, we moved to Belgium and a little under two years ago, as I nudged towards 70 years of age, I began to look for ways to say thanks for all I had received in life. I have lived longer and more comfortably than the grand majority of the 6.8 billion people alive today have or will. I wanted to use my skills to serve others in a volunteer way as a way of saying ‘thanks’.

I was doing that in a small way by leading English language conversation groups in Verviers in the French speaking community of Belgium where Kate and I now live. However, I wanted to do more. I made contact with Médecins sans frontières (MSF) Operations Center Brussels, Kate and I became donors, and after I had an interview with volunteer coordinator Danielle Dewulf, I began doing French to English translations and working with MSF staff members who needed training in English.

MSF is unlike any other organization I have ever encountered.

Dynamic, professional, compassionate for the neediest, non-religious, non-political, non-bureaucratic, democratic, culturally diverse, ambition limited to providing immediate urgent medical and living aid, first-class medical care, not-for-profit, independently funded by mostly private donors, neutral, non-combatant, vulnerable, engaged in combat zones to limit the devastations of war, addresses the most urgent needs of humans in the most dangerous places and situations throughout the world.

Its staff members have the ‘can-do’ attitude of the Americans I grew up with in the 1940s, ready to face and overcome any challenge in support of others in our world. (A Russian friend of mine told me once, “I can always tell an American.” “Oh, yeah,” I said. “How?” “They seem to have no fears. They have a confidence about them that says, ‘We can do anything if we work hard enough for it.’ ”)

One of the medical doctors I trained in English, a thirty-three year old general practitioner from Liège, Belgium was being sent to Pakistan just after four local MSF staffers were shot dead when their convoy was caught in the crossfire of warring factions. “Are you afraid for your safety?” I asked. “No. I trust MSF,” he replied.

MSF carries no guns, no weapons, and wants no soldiers or police on its premises. Its security is based solely on its non-partisan humanitarian aid reputation, and prudent measures learned from experience for staff to avoid danger in the world’s most dangerous situations.

Security is a duty for all MSF staff members — expatriate and local national. Kidnapping (for monetary, not political reasons) in some locations is a constant danger. MSF staff travel on the ground in clearly marked MSF vehicles, remaining in radio communication at all times, announcing arrival and departure to MSF base and remote unit locations. Staff members are encouraged to always wear the white MSF T-shirt except where that may be culturally unacceptable such as in India. MSF goes only where welcome, only with agreement and understanding from all factions in armed conflict that it takes no sides and has only one purpose – to deliver immediate urgent medical and living aid to suffering human beings. At times, MSF may be the only humanitarian aid organization able to enter and function in a conflict zone, such as slums with warring gangs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or Cité du Soleil in Port au Prince, Haiti.

MSF (Doctors without Borders) was created in 1971 by doctors and journalists in France who were frustrated by the slow-moving response to humanitarian crises from the large relief organizations at the time.  Today, MSF delivers medical and humanitarian aid in over 60 countries.

In 2008, the latest year for which audited figures are available, MSF provided almost 9 million outpatient consultations, cared for over 300,000 hospitalizations, performed over 47,000 surgical operations, and treated over 200,000 children for acute malnutrition.

MSF medical staff preforming basic surgery at La Trinité, Haiti. Staff worked day and night to treat as many earthquake survivors as possible. 2010 © Julie Remy

Activities are directed from five operations centers in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Paris, and Geneva, over twenty sections and branches connected with them, and an international communications office in Geneva. Linked to the Paris Operations Center, the U.S. section MSF-USA was established in 1990 in New York City: MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERES, DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS, 333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10001-5004, USA, Tel: (212) 679-6800, Fax: (212) 679-7016, www.doctorswithoutborders.org

Today, MSF can deliver a complete field hospital and staff within forty-eight hours of a call for help. A far cry from humanitarian aid response in 1971. On any one day, close to 27,000 doctors, nurses, logisticians, water-and-sanitation experts, administrators, and other qualified professionals can be found providing medical care in international teams made up of local MSF aid workers and their expatriate colleagues from around the world.

MSF doctor treating a patient in Bolivia for Chagas disease-a parasitic illness affecting up to 15 million people, primarily in Latin America-may show no symptoms for many years. But one-third will develop heart and intestinal complications leading to death. © Anna Surinyach

Where and when does MSF respond?

  • Armed conflict: A major part of MSF’s efforts aid people affected by armed conflict or internal instability.
  • Epidemics: MSF has a long history of responding to epidemic outbreaks of cholera, meningitis, measles, malaria, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases that spread rapidly and can be fatal if not treated.
  • Malnutrition: MSF treats children primarily with ready-to-use food (RUF), a product that has changed the way we respond to this devastating childhood disease. The need is enormous. Malnutrition is a key factor in the deaths of 5 million children a year. On any one day, 20 million children are suffering from acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
  • Natural disasters: Surprisingly, responding to natural disasters represents in some years only a small part of MSF’s overall activities, although that will increase in years with major disasters such as the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and this year’s earthquake in Haiti. While widespread media publicity of disasters frequently brings aid from other relief organizations, MSF is often already on site administering aid when a disaster hits. MSF has been present in Haiti since 1991, was able to give immediate aid to earthquake victims who immediately flooded three MSF locations in the country, and started mobilizing support from MSF centers overseas within minutes after the earthquake hit.
  • Exclusion from health care: MSF provides medical, social and mental health care to refugees, migrants and others who may be denied health care for cultural and ethnic reasons, and advocates with local and national government and civil society for improved access to services and increased social acceptance for their patients, including advocating for the availability of proven effective drugs. (MSF is one of the co-founders of the independent, not-for-profit partnership DNDi, The Drugs for Neglected Disease initiative for research and development of new and improved treatments for neglected diseases such as Chagas disease, sleeping sickness and malaria.)
In the Gaza Strip, an MSF international team struggled to reach thousands of wounded civilians trapped during three weeks of intense fighting in December 2008 and January 2009. © Bruno Stevens/Cosmos

In December 1999, MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Working with MSF is a totally moving experience, both from the energy and dedication of everyone I meet at MSF to ‘get things done’ in whatever order, to the stories they write that are published in the internal Brussels Operation Center (OCB) bimonthly journal Contact where MSF staffers in missions anywhere under OCB supervision are invited to speak out. Check out the blogs from the field on MSF International at www.msf.org and other MSF websites. One thing that MSF staffers learn before going on mission to the field is to stay in telecommunications contact at all times wherever they go. And they do.

I am now caught up in the MSF energy and spirit. Although I no longer have the drive to go to the mosquito-infested and war-torn places they go to, I can play an important volunteer role for those that do. And that is immeasurably rewarding.

© Daniel Clarke Flynn 2010

Editors Note: Follow MSF/Doctors Without Borders on Facebook by clicking here

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Daniel Flynn

Daniel Flynn

Married to a Southerner, Dan was born and grew up in San Francisco, California and is a citizen of the U.S. Thanks to his Like the Dew author wife Kate McNally’s research skills, he successfully gathered the necessary documents to successfully claim his citizenship in the Republic of Ireland through his Irish ancestry. Following a career in corporate Human Resources with a variety of organizations in North America, he took early retirement, earned a Cambridge Certificate in English language teaching to adults (CELTA), and moved with Kate to Verviers, in eastern Belgium (near the Ardennes Forest where tens of thousands of American young men lost their lives in the famous ‘Battle of the Bulge’ to successfully bring an end to World War II in Europe) to teach English to adults who speak other languages such as French, German and Dutch – the three official languages of Belgium. An article by Dan on how to move abroad can still be found on the website of the former magazine Transitions Abroad at http://www.transitionsabroad.com/publications/magazine/0507/moving_abroad.shtml Today, he does volunteer English language training and French to English translations for Médecins sans frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders) in Brussels and leads English language conversation groups in Verviers.