What one organization is doing to tackle the world’s ills. And the value of simply “being there.”
The Value of Never Giving Up
Stephen Cornish, Executive Director, MSF Canada, Disptaches, Summer 2017, 2.
In 1996, I embarked on my first overseas posting with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), working as a logistician in South Ossetia during that region’s separatist war with Georgia in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
As with all wars, the civilian population bore the brunt of the suffering, and despite our efforts to provide medical care and humanitarian supplies, the challenges of working in an area beset by ongoing violence meant that we could not easily reach everyone who needed our help.
At times, my own personal challenges as a first-time aid worker also seemed difficult to overcome. Our medical stocks were twice broken into, drugs were stolen, we were publicly accused of being spies, there was a fire at our compound and we had a security incident where a nurse and a doctor were in harm’s way. Somehow I temporarily lost sight of our mission and the difference we were making, and I began to despair at how hopeless things had become.
Then one day, while we were crossing an enclaved area, a woman flagged down my vehicle. When I rolled down the window, she said that she just wanted to express how grateful she was for our presence there. She had not personally received our aid, but just seeing our car with the MSF logo on the road every few weeks had given her strength. Knowing she was not alone gave her courage to continue on, caring for her children through the darkest months of the war.
I was humbled. In that moment, I saw how even the smallest act of care can have a huge impact on people’s lives. I learned that meaningful humanitarian action is not necessarily a perfectible task that can be fully accomplished all at once, but is rather an ongoing process of accompaniment, care and dogged struggle to re-establish basic respect for humanity.
In 2016, MSF carried out more than nine million outpatient consultations across 60 countries affected by conflict, disaster, disease outbreaks and neglect — in keeping with our stated purpose to “deliver emergency medical care to people at risk, wherever they may be.” Bringing care to everyone who needs MSF’s help is a dauntingly impossible task, but we remain committed to trying to reach the most vulnerable, wherever they are: people cut off by conflict, people who have been forced into hiding, and people shunned by their own societies, who may be hiding in plain sight.