This study of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) casts new light on the organization’s founding principles, distinctive culture, and inner struggles to realize more fully its “without borders” transnational vision.
Pioneering medical sociologist Renée C. Fox spent nearly twenty years conducting extensive ethnographic research within MSF, a private international medical humanitarian organization that was created in 1971 and awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1999. With unprecedented access, Fox attended MSF meetings and observed doctors and other workers in the field. She interviewed MSF members and participants and analyzed the content of such documents as communications between MSF staff members within the offices of its various headquarters, communications between headquarters and the field, and transcripts of internal group discussions and meetings. Fox weaves these threads of information into a rich tapestry of the MSF experience that reveals the dual perspectives of an insider and an observer.
The book begins with moving, detailed accounts from the blogs of women and men working for MSF in the field. From there, Fox chronicles the organization’s early history and development, paying special attention to its struggles during the first decades of its existence to clarify and implement its principles. The core of the book is centered on her observations in the field of MSF’s efforts to combat a rampant epidemic of HIV/AIDS in postapartheid South Africa and the organization’s response to two challenges in postsocialist Russia: an enormous surge in homelessness on the streets of Moscow and a massive epidemic of tuberculosis in the penal colonies of Siberia. Fox’s accounts of these crises exemplify MSF’s struggles to provide for thousands of people in need when both the populations and the aid workers are in danger.
Renée C. Fox is the Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Experiment Perilous: Physicians and Patients Facing the Unknown, In the Belgian Château: The Spirit and Culture of a European Society in an Age of Change, and In the Field: A Sociologist's Journey and coauthor of The Courage to Fail: A Social View of Organ Transplants and Dialysis and Observing Bioethics.
“The last forty years have seen an extraordinary rise in humanitarian assistance to those suffering in conflict and emergencies. Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) has been at the center of this, one of the world’s most admired organizations, yet one constantly seeking to reinvent itself. In this book Renée Fox at once tells the story of MSF, offers a brilliant sociological study of organizational character and change, and analyses the challenges MSF faces working in settings as diverse as Russia and South Africa. This is a book well worth reading.”
—Craig Calhoun, director and president, London School of Economics and Political Science
“This is a commendably reflective work of sociology that, more importantly, tells and remarkable history of care.”
“Long awaited, Renée Fox’s study of Doctors Without Borders is an insightful and generous ethnographic account of the Nobel laureate organization, not eluding the dilemmas, quandaries, tensions and contradictions at the heart of the noble but uncertain task of saving lives and advocating for victims.”
—Didier Fassin, author of Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present