Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Doctors Without Borders under fire in the Sudan

Vincent Hoedt, a second worker from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has been arrested in Nyala, Sudan today. Yesterday, Paul Foreman was arrested in Khartoum. Both are senior coordinators for the organization. The charges appear to be "publishing false reports, spying and undermining Sudanese society".

MSF is a nonprofit volunteer organization (NVO) that sends physicians, nurses, technicians and other allied health personnel throughout the world to provide emergency healthcare under the most difficult conditions imaginable. They go where no other NVO's go assuming extraordinary risk from natural disasters and war. They often work under the aegis of extremely hostile governments.

Although as might be imagined, MSF holds very liberal, very egalitarian ideals. However they typically go to great lengths to be as politically nonjudgemental as any organization can possibly be (at least of the countries in which they are operating). This makes sense given the precarious environments within which they labor. Failure to do so can obviously lead to serious consequences.

They have also gone to equally great lengths to avoid being "exploited" by host governments, foreign governments (including the U.S.). MSF has been accused on numerous occasions of being spies" for other countries and they have vigorously defended their reputation against such charges.

It doesn't bode well for the Sudan if their leadership has chosen to arrest representatives from, of all organizations, the MSF. This kind of behavior suggests a paranoid and hysterical nature on the part of this government. This is a sign of their tenuous, desperate grasp of control.

Hopefully, MSF will be able to convince the current Sudan leadership of their true intentions. If not, Sudanese people may become abandoned yet again. Their tragic day to day existence will continue without respite.


Blogger Henry Stern, LUTCF, CBC said...

"No good deed goes unpunished"

-- Clare Booth Luce

It's a shame, tho, that politics and greed ("But I repeat myself") interefere with potentially life-saving efforts.

Thank you for brining this sad situation to our attention.

June 02, 2005 12:32 PM  
Blogger tompain said...

You say that MSF holds "very liberal, very egalitarian ideals." I think they can be called "altruistic," but liberal and egalitarian people usually do not go around the world assisting tyrants by freeing up treasury funds for acts of violence and oppression. Charitable organizations like MSF encourage incompetence and graft at local and national levels by lessening the need for serious health and human services efforts by the governments in power. I question the actual utility of these efforts. Furthermore, MSF hardly stays out of the potilical fray. That can be said of the Red Cross (or it could be said until recently), but MSF has never avoided taking political sides in places like Chechnya and Gaza.

Obviously, emergency medical relief is often necessary and right. However, I think it's worth reassessing the work of groups like MSF with the rule of unintended consequences in mind.

June 05, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...


I don't disagree with you that MSF has exhibited political agendas. This is why I when I described them as politically nonjudgemental, I added the disclaimer "at least of the countries in which they are operating".

My post was intended more as a criticism of the actions of a despotic government than as a glorification of the virtues of the MSF. As an ethical transgression, arresting medical relief workers who are trying to help the unendurably downtrodden people of the Sudan can't compare with their well-intended but perhaps misguided efforts.

That said, I do agree with you that such relief efforts may indeed actually shore up the rule of miserable tyrants. In fact this may be said of the vast majority of foreign aid given to corrupt regimes.

Can you say "oil for food"?


June 05, 2005 11:01 PM  
Blogger tompain said...


I may have lashed out at MSF a little too forcefully. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from their highly politicized exit from Afghanistan last year, which I believe was a deliberate election-year poke in the eye for Bush. MSF apparently did not comprehend that it also amounted to a knife in the back for Karzai's fragile government and a tacit nod of agreement for Taliban irrationality and bloodlust. My impression of events was made worse by the fact that I happened to be in Belgium at the time, where bashing America had become a pastime more popular than petanque.

Sometime in June, in the remote northwest of Afghanistan, remnants of the Taliban pulled five MSF workers from their car and killed them. They later offered the rationale that the workers were abetting the American war effort (by feeding the people the Americans liberated). Instead of rejecting this accusation and keeping the blame focused on the murderers, MSF actually bolstered the Taliban's argument by echoing it in press conferences, complaining that Americans were making aid to Afghans contingent on cooperation. Whether or not this criticism was valid was soon made irrelevant, partly because MSF packed their bags and left (noisily), and partly because when it comes to Americans, suspicion equals guilt. MSF's departure may have appeared brave and principled to my Belgian companions, but to me it looked like grandstanding. This act of spite left the U.S. and Karzai's government looking manipulative and gave the impression that the Taliban had some justification for executing five aid workers.

I know that within MSF there are brave men and women who do invaluable work. And I believe that the government of Sudan deserves nothing but disdain. It appears that MSF's protective coating of impartiality has worn thin, and the nervous tyrants of Sudan probably see this even more clearly from their vantage point. I imagine that MSF's leadership may be absorbing certain lessons at the moment: mainly that being non-partisan does not mean merely avoiding criticism of your hosts. It means showing a clear and consistent resistance to politicizing your presence (or your impending absence).

I agree wholeheartedly that foreign aid to corrupt regimes opens the door to abuse. But one difference between monetary aid and humanitarian efforts is that money can be earmarked to build actual infrastructure within the nation that needs assistance. At least, that is, until it is stolen and used to build another palace.

Thanks, by the way, for the link, the review, and the encouragement. I'm currently researching a topic with a medical component (one related to Sudan, actually) for an upcoming post. I'm glad to know you and your readers may be watching. It'll make me keep my standards up. I've truly enjoyed browsing your archived posts, and I intend to comment on the antibiotics issue (I'll leave it on the more recent post) as soon as I have time.


June 06, 2005 1:40 AM  

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