Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Médecins Sans Frontières and Some Gratuitous Comments about France (1/2)

Last Friday I picked up a book on Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the famed medical humanitarian organization, and read it over the weekend.   I was preparing for a phone interview with the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Mantua (pseudonym).  A position had opened up for an instructor for their B.S. in Health Sciences program.  Specifically, they wanted someone to teach students a historical and global perspective for the upcoming spring semester.  MSF, known in the English-speaking world as Doctors Without Borders, was co-founded by the indefatigable and charismatic physician and diplomat Bernard Kouchner in 1971.  Over the years MSF has gained a reputation as the "cowboy" of relief organizations, self-assured in its practices and unafraid to question governments.  Say what you want, devoted and skilled MSFers deliver the goods, namely medical aid to peoples suffering from man-made or natural disasters throughout the world.  With main branches in France, Belgium, Holland, Canada, and the United States, MSF runs projects in almost seventy countries.

I'm not exactly a Francophile.  I kid around that I joined the military under the mistaken notion that we were fighting the French.  That's not nice, I know.  Be that as it may, France has been smarting over its gradual decline in its status as a player on the world stage vis-à-vis Anglo-American hegemony for nearly two centuries, and especially since World War II.  We've had to bail them out in two world wars and Vietnam, and what do we get in return?  A series of anti-American presidents, a constant contrarian position to any Anglo-American resolution or act of diplomacy, and vehement opposition to Turkey's membership in the EU (a position that irks me as a Turcophile).  All the while, France, for all its talk about the United States as an imperial power, is not averse to fighting a bloody war in Algeria in the Fifties, inadvertently or purposely protecting the Hutu killers in Rwanda via Opération Turquoise, and otherwise tromping around imperiously in its dwindling Francophonic backyard (i.e., West and Central Africa).  Like the heirs of Charlemagne's legacy, successive French governments have sought to preserve vestiges of its sad empire.  Everyone knows that France is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (and not a more deserving country like Japan, India, or Brazil) only because of the accident of history.  Is it any wonder that France, unlike its neighbors, has never produced a great rock band?  An Anglo-Saxon to the core, I've never really understood the Gallic frame of mind.

The truth of the matter is that I have a profound respect for the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and not merely for one of my favorite actors of all time, Gerard Depardieu, or one of the few French presidents in recent memory I actually like, Sarko, who albeit is ethnically Hungarian.  After all, I took two years of French in college and even hazarded a few discussions in Strasbourg when I was researching my dissertation.  Most of all, one word says it all: Lafeyette.  We would not have become an independent nation without French assistance.  True, the French were in a titanic struggle for control with the British, so they had their own reasons for helping those ragtag Americans under the command of a mediocre tactician.  The lapse of two centuries should not cause us to forget their service to us.  Arguably, the writings of two Frenchmen, for entirely different reasons, exerted more influence on me than any authors from other lands, namely John Calvin and Voltaire.  But to bring things up to date, I've always admired the work of MSF, which, believe it or not, is still the focus of this blog.  (Don't let me get off focus again!)

The origins of MSF go back to 1968 when some French doctors working for the Red Cross, including Kouchner, spoke out against the Nigerian government.  A civil war erupted after the eastern state of Biafra succeeded from the union, and most of the international community sided with the central government.  The French "Biafrans" condemned Nigeria's efforts to starve its breakaway state into submission.  They also  took issue with the Red Cross's policy of neutrality, believing that, as Kouchner would say decades later, "neutrality led to complicity."  The question of neutrality plagued the nascent institution and ultimately Kouchner's position did not prevail.  He left at about the time MSF doctors and surgeons were marching off toward the killing fields of Cambodia.  Pol Pot's genocide was perhaps the organizations first baptismal by fire.

Dan Bortolotti's book Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors Without Borders devotes plenty of pages to MSF's work in Haiti, one of the places where the author observed the relief organization close-up.  The earthquake this past January offered MSF a unique opportunity in having troops already on the ground, for it had built a hospital in Port-au-Prince a year prior.  Only days after the catastrophe had destroyed most of the health clinics, MSF had established a portable trauma hospital on a soccer field.  Seeking to bridge the cultural chasm in various countries, MSF founders had tried to establish a balanced ratio between "expats" working the field (mostly Europeans and North Americans) and "national staff."  The cover of the book shows a Haitian man sporting the trademark white MSF shirt offering medical attention and counsel to earthquake victims.