Working overseas with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will require you to adjust to unfamiliar food, living quarters, pace of life, forms of entertainment, languages, and companions you may or may not get along with. Regardless of where you go, it will be a very different lifestyle and your privacy and leisure time may be greatly reduced. You may not be able to practice your favorite sports, socialize outside the team, or have Internet access for the duration of your placement.
- Does living in a tent or a traditional African tukul (mud hut with thatched roof) for an extended period sound like a fun challenge (or your worst nightmare)?
- Could you handle severe weather conditions such as extreme heat or cold, high humidity, heavy rains, or dry desert conditions for long periods without access to a fan, air conditioning, or heater?
- Can you tolerate lots of annoying insects?
- Can you cope with long-drop toilets? Does a bucket shower by candlelight (due to limited access to electricity and perhaps running water) sound like another fun challenge? (or yet another nightmare?)
Working in an unfamiliar culture inevitably involves challenges in communication and perceptions. You may be in a country where people have a very different understanding of issues like punctuality at work, responsible behavior, or respect for personal space. Being aware that people may not act or think like you, accepting this, and being able to adapt your own behaviors if required, is of utmost importance when working in the field.
- Have you ever lived within a culture that is totally different from the one you grew up in?
- Are you open to accepting there is more than one way of doing things, and that your way may not necessarily be "right" in all contexts?
- Do you enjoy the challenge of communicating with those from different language and/or cultural backgrounds to your own?
Security and safety
Because MSF's purpose is to bring medical assistance to people in distress, the work may occur in settings of active conflict, or in post-conflict environments, in which there are inherent risks, potential danger, and ongoing threats to safety and security. MSF acknowledges that it is impossible to exclude all risks, but we do our utmost as an organization to mitigate these risks through comprehensive security management.
Each field mission has strict, detailed safety regulations and security plans in place based on thorough analysis of that specific context. Risks are continually monitored and security regulations are updated as needed. Once in the field, all MSF staff must observe security rules and regulations; failure to do so may result in dismissal.
MSF’s safety regulations may restrict your freedom of movement or your ability to interact with local populations outside of working hours. You may be under curfew and required to remain in the MSF compound when your working day is over. It is important to consider these possible restrictions before you apply to MSF. People cope in different ways, so it is important to think about how you will manage, particularly if you have difficulty being confined to the same place for long periods of time.
Working for MSF is a deeply personal choice; individuals must determine for themselves the level of risk and the circumstances in which they feel comfortable. Field workers are briefed about security prior to their departure, and MSF is transparent about the risks involved. Prospective field workers can decline a mission if they do not feel comfortable taking the risk of working in a specific context and once on mission, if you feel the risk is too great then you may also ask to return home.
Personal and family life
Working overseas with MSF means leaving your loved ones behind for a long period.
- Have you assessed the impact of putting your personal life "on hold" for up to a year?
- Can you cope with keeping in touch on an infrequent and/or irregular basis, perhaps even just once every couple of months?
- Can your friends and family cope with that too?
Humanitarian work in emergency contexts can be highly stressful. A wide range of issues can cause stress and drain your motivation to work: strained relations with teammates, health problems, lack of communication with your friends and relatives back home, insecurity, frequent changes in the project, difficult relations with local authorities, poor living conditions, and diet.
Consider the following:
- Are you able to address problems and/or conflicts as they arise?
- Have you ever lived and worked with the same people for extended periods?
- Do people describe you as a good listener? Do you find ways to solve problems between colleagues and between friends?
- Can you put aside personal issues in order to complete your work?
- Have you ever had to try your stress management techniques within a group living-working team dynamic?
These issues are meant to be a reality check about what working in the field may entail. We hope that you have given them serious thought. While it is essential to keep all of this in mind, don't forget that thousands of people have worked with us over the years and found their experiences to be challenging and ultimately very rewarding. For many of us, going to the field has been a life-changing event. Working for MSF is not simply seeking adventure or wanting a job. By becoming a field worker you are acting in solidarity with populations in need.