A Letter from Dr. Africa Stewart
This year we marked five decades since Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was founded in 1971. Over 50 years, MSF has grown from a group of a few hundred Volunteers to an international movement of more than 60,000 staff providing over 10 million medical consultations In more than 70 countries every year. But the core values of humanitarianism, independence, neutrality, and impartiality that brought those original members together in 1971 continue to drive our work.
In this special issue of Alert, we’ll look back at 50 years of medical humanitarian action through the eyes—and lenses—of some of the photographers who have documented it alongside our medical staff. The images assembled here capture MSF’s responses to a wide range of crises over the years, from conflicts to natural disasters to disease outbreaks. And they illustrate our evolution as we keep striving to provide the highest quality medical care to the people who need it most, no matter who or where they are.
As MSF has evolved, our ideas about what constitutes a humanitarian emergency, and how best to respond, have, too. MSF was founded in the wake of war and famine in Biafra, Nigeria, and much of our work still revolves around rapid response to disasters, both natural and human-made. But over the years we’ve also learned that addressing some humanitarian emergencies requires more than setting bones or administering vaccinations.
Evolution isn’t always easy. In the early 2000s, for example, when HIV/AIDS was spreading like wildfire in South Africa, MSF already had decades of experience working in some of the most challenging contexts imaginable. But this time, the obstacles weren’t just logistical—they were systemic, with lifesaving drugs priced far out of reach and a lack of infrastructure to implement treatment at scale. Some believed the crisis was too big and complex for MSF to address. Instead we evolved, launching our Access Campaign to advocate for cheaper and more affordable drugs and partnering with activists and other allies to get those medicines where they needed to go and pioneer new ways to safely administer them.
We’re still evolving today, and, with your vital support, will continue to do so in the future. Over the course of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve adapted our work to keep our projects running safely while supporting national health systems in their struggles against the virus. We haven’t stopped advocating, either—in early November, MSF delivered a petition to the White House demanding that the Biden administration take immediate action to increase global access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.
The racial inequities laid bare by the pandemic also demand that we evolve. Racism is a public health crisis, and we’re taking a hard look at how to confront it, both within our organization and in the places where we work. We’ve put a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the heart of our strategic plan for the next four years, not just to foster a safe and inclusive workplace for our staff but to ensure we’re doing right by our patients and members of the communities we work with, now and in the future.
The MSF of today is both vastly different and surprisingly similar to the organization launched in 1971. With a firm grip on our principles, we’ll keep evolving to do whatever it takes to bring lifesaving medical humanitarian care to the people who need it most. We couldn’t do it without your support.
Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy new year,
Dr. Africa Stewart
President, MSF-USA Board of Directors