‘Humanitarian movement at a crucial phase’

What enables a volunteer doctor to withstand the horrors of war? People can only answer this for themselves. What helps me is the feeling that I have something very specific to do. Were I a mere spectator, I probably wouldn’t be able to bear it. How different is the reality of war, as experienced on the battlefield, from what we see on the news? As different as daily life is from the advertisements that supposedly mirror it. They have nothing to do with each other. Are humanitarian organizations always welcome on the battlefield? Of course not. In a war, the ones who have the upper hand want to control everything. Humanitarian action, through the help it offers, but mostly the way it influences public opinion, becomes an important factor in the outcome of the war. In France two years ago, many French Doctors Without Borders had begun to question whether it was right for humanitarian aid groups to be neutral. Fortunately the organization did not adopt this stance, but it remains one of the most crucial issues. What is the most shocking experience you have had in your humanitarian missions? In Somalia, in 1992, they brought in a young man with a serious head injury. Everyone, including myself, thought he would die at any moment. I worked on him intensively, admittedly more to control my own emotions rather than in the hope of saving him. The local people were staring at me, not knowing how to tell me not to waste my energy. In the end, the man survived but did not recover and I left wondering whether I had left him as a «vegetable.» Three years ago, I received a card from him, saying he was now walking again and living a normal life, running a small store in Mogadishu. Is it possible for volunteers to be politically committed and how can their ideology, even their nationality, affect the manner and the purpose of their assistance? Humanitarian action cannot be conceived of without an ideological framework. Ideology is always present, consciously or otherwise. The modern European humanitarian movement, as it began in France in the 1970s, is both the product of Christian civilization and of Marxist philosophy. Where it is headed now is another story. But we should not think that this is the only existing model. In Arab countries, there are hundreds of Muslim humanitarian NGOs that function on an extremely different basis. As for nationality, of course it affects the work. In 1999, in Kosovo, the Greek branch of Doctors Without Borders was accused by other branches of organizing missions only using Greeks. Their argument was not without foundation. But what were we to do? We were the only ones who wanted to go! How far do state (or EU) subsidies restrict the actions of volunteers? What commitments does an NGO undertake when it becomes famous, established, globalized? You have touched on a very sensitive issue here. My view – which I have often expressed – is that NGOs are victims of their own success. They begin as volunteer groups with very little means but with their hands free. Then when they do a good job, they turn into major undertakings with many paid employees and considerable budgets that have to be administered properly if the organization is to survive. The humanitarian movement has entered a critical phase in which it has to make painful decisions.