On Monday the 28th of October, Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières (FoMSF) hosted a film screening for ‘Access to the Danger Zone’, a documentary about the trials and dangers which MSF workers, both medical and administrative go through on a daily basis to achieve their humanitarian goals. The film was very well produced and featured interviews with head officials at MSF and the United Nations, as well as medics on the ground in the conflict areas where MSF operates.
The film started in Dadaab, a large refugee camp in Kenya near the Somalian border. It got to the point quickly, mentioning the two MSF staff who were kidnapped there in October 2011 but have since been released after 644 days in captivity. The MSF agents working in the Dadaab refugee camp were forced to reduce operations to a ‘skeleton team’ of medics and ship the vast majority of the workers out of the region. This highlights the real risks that MSF and other humanitarian organizations take when working in conflict and high-risk areas and how much those security issues affect the day-to-day operation of humanitarian activities, meaning that hundreds or thousands of people will have gone without the aid of a full MSF staff due to the aforementioned kidnappings. The film says that ‘more than 230 humanitarian aid workers [have been] killed in the last century’ which, while alarming, has not stopped MSF and organizations like MSF from sustaining and increasing their work in ever-more complex and dangerous situations.
Access to the Danger Zone then focused on specific conflict regions, starting with Afghanistan. Here, the film highlighted the issues which MSF workers face when dealing with a multi-sided conflict. Their philosophy is one of total neutrality. They believe that if they are seen as being affiliated with coalition forces in the area, then people will be less likely to trust them unconditionally. The film cites cases where humanitarian contractors working for the US military or other Western powers will only provide necessary services if promised political cooperation in return, and the dangers civlians face using these affiliated organizations. This strategy is a core part of US counter-insurgency doctrine in the War in Afghanistan and, for MSF, represents a distortion of the pure humanitarian goals which organizations with such capabilities should be trying to achieving with no eye to politics or strategy. For MSF, civilians are just civilians, trapped in a situation most of the people reading this article won’t even be able to imagine, where cooperation with the US military means threats from insurgent forces and non-cooperation leads to necessary services being withheld. MSF is highly critical of what they describe as ‘paramilitary’ actions on the parts of these private contractors. They consider health care a human right, one which cannot be used or exploited for political gains, but are still forced to use some Coalition resources for their security in certain situations. They try to reduce the gross amount of security present by instituting a strong ‘no weapons’ rule in their medical compounds, making the internal areas of their workspace de-securitized in the traditional sense, but all the safer for it.
MSF’s doctrine of neutrality is constantly put to the test in their operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well. One of the more powerful anecdotes in the film came from a MSF worker who stated that there are times when you have to ‘negotiate with the devil to access the depths of hell’ and engage with dialogue on all fronts. Where politics overrides humanitarian needs, as it does when the UN is involved in conflict situations, humanitarian goals are put on the back burner of policy initiatives, even when there is rampant sexual violence and a high demand for urgent medical attention in the region. This is perhaps why neutral organizations like MSF are so important. They can address immediate humanitarian issues while actors like the UN take on the long-term political and security goals. MSF still has to ultimately rely on the UN and Coalition forces in the DRC and Afghanistan respectively in order to maintain an at least semi-stable environment for MSF to work in. The security issue is equally important in MSF’s work in Somalia, where they rely on an amalgamation of groups, including tribal leaders, to ensure their security.
The film’s focus on the safety and logistics contexts of how MSF operates, rather than what they actually do within those contexts was an interesting variation of what the film could have easily been about. Most everyone knows about the great work MSF does providing healthcare in conflict zones and impoverished areas all around the globe, but fewer actually appreciate what MSF goes through to be able to work in these areas. While it did put me off thoughts of a career with MSF, it was informative, engaging and at times, riveting. It drove home the point that human security issues, which are important in their own right as well as in the post-conflict reconstruction process, are far too often pushed aside in favor of narrow political goals. This is an unsustainable balance which organizations like MSF seek to re-align in favor of civilian interests, a central part of upholding human rights and liveable conditions in even the worst places at the worst times.