Origin of the Perception Project
Two events convinced MSF to undertake this project. The first was the killing of five MSF staff members in Afghanistan in June 2004. MSF had been working there for 25 years. Such a long-standing presence in the country had led MSF to believe that it was known by the population and was, therefore, somehow “protected.” The killings forced the organization to reconsider its analysis of the link between long-term presence in areas of intervention and its perception and acceptance by local people and actors.
The second event was more specific to the Swiss section of MSF, which, in the past, has sometimes sent out contradictory messages to the populations with which it works. The most striking case occurred in Bunia, in the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). MSF had taken over a number of medical activities at the Bon Marché Hospital. In 2005, the United Nations Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) launched a military operation in Ituri to disarm the militias. As UN forces were using white all-terrain vehicles similar to those of MSF, the population conflated the two organizations. To add to the confusion, MONUC posted soldiers to “protect” the space where the MSF teams were based. It became difficult for the organization to explain its neutrality to the local people. MSF-Switzerland decided to repaint its vehicles fuchsia, as that color was not associated with any political or military force present in the region.
In the wake of serious security incidents and image problems like these, it was important for MSF to find out how it is perceived in the places where it works. Moreover, within the framework of a new paradigm shaping international relations, this research offers tools to understand the contexts in which humanitarian aid is deployed.
Indeed, since 2001, the new paradigm of the “war on terror” has replaced the post–Cold War paradigm of the 1990s. This shift saw the radicalization of certain political actors and the politicization of humanitarian aid, which became a means of “winning the hearts and minds” of the populations in the places where the war was being waged: Afghanistan, of course, then Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where development assistance and humanitarian aid have always depended on the political agendas of actors external to the conflict.
The study got underway in June 2007, and by the end of the research stage, 11 projects had been visited: two in Niger, two in Cameroon, one in Liberia, one in Kenya/Uganda, one in Guatemala, one in Kyrgyzstan, one in Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), one in Jordan, and one in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The first documents on the research project were produced by the UREPH, in collaboration with the Operations Department.
As initially set out, the aim of the project was to understand the extent to which MSF’s supposed “difference” from other humanitarian organizations is real and identified as such by the different stakeholders present in the field. This difference is understood as the fulfillment of MSF’s guiding humanitarian principles, such as independence, neutrality, and impartiality.
At the beginning of the project, in 2007, one of the initial hypotheses was that people across the board were aware of MSF’s financial and political independence, which underpinned the organization’s unique position: “A hallmark that very few can claim, financial and political independence is part of MSF’s calling card, proof of its pursuit of detachment from all hierarchical dependencies other than those determined by the organization itself.”
However, from MSF’s perspective, that independence has been severely compromised by states and international organizations exploiting humanitarian action as a means of achieving their own objectives.
The initial paper outlining the project also set out the limitations intrinsic to this position:
But is this profession of faith, which goes so far as to translate into the refusal to use the aid resources of other relief organizations (food from the UN World Food Program in Niger, for example) understandable to all stakeholders in MSF’s areas of intervention? Is it understood, recognized, and considered important by those stakeholders? Are MSF’s aid and identity recognized by local stakeholders for what they represent to the organization: an act of solidarity and disinterested aid for the most vulnerable, provided by an impartial, independent and neutral organization?
So, the question was whether, as an organization, MSF was using its resources wisely to enable local actors to distinguish between it and the other aid players and foreign actors. The challenge was also to define the main criteria for local stakeholders to assess the quality of a relief organization and the quality of the aid provided.