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Shakeup: Doctors Without Borders Tells Tsunami Donors to Give to Other International Relief Efforts

StoryJanuary 05, 2005
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The medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) urged donors Tuesday to stop sending it money for Asian tsunami victims, saying it had collected enough funds to manage its relief effort there and to focus on “humanitarian needs in war-torn Darfur, Sudan, and elsewhere in the over 70 countries where MSF is working around the world.” [includes rush transcript]

International aid efforts continue in response to the tsunami disaster, but one medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) urged donors Tuesday to stop sending it money for Asian tsunami victims, saying it had collected enough funds to manage its relief effort there.

In a statement they write “We have received sufficient funds for our currently foreseen emergency response in South Asia…We kindly request that you contribute to our general Emergency Relief Fund, which is enabling our quick response to the current disaster in South Asia as well as humanitarian needs in war-torn Darfur, Sudan, and elsewhere in the over 70 countries where MSF is working around the world.”

Their decision surprised other aid groups and drew criticism that it could undercut an unprecedented wave of private giving to provide relief to the region.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Catrin Schulte-Hillen, who is the Program Director for Doctors Without Borders in the United States. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your request to give to world relief in general?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: Let me start maybe by talking just very briefly about the operations in Asia, and how this decision came about, which is the first time we ever do this. We have been able to dispatch teams into the different countries where the disaster hit very quickly because teams were in those countries anyways on other health projects. We have been able to assess most sides of the situation and get a general overview of the needs, and have also been able to observe the incredible local response capacity in nearly all of the countries. That combined with the, you know outpouring of contributions that we had in the initial stage, in the first four days, and everything that we saw from country to country contributions to major contributions from big donors, to the efforts of the countries themselves. And the fact that M.S.F. is an emergency relief organization and is not looking at the later need of rehabilitation made us decide that we should inform donors of the fact that we consider right now that their contributions would have been so generous to allow us to do the work that M.S.F. Doctors Without Borders does, which is the initial emergency relief. With that, we also wanted to underline that while the tsunami disaster has traumatized people in all of those countries and has traumatized us, because it has been so close to us, we have witnessed personal fate and the despair of people, we cannot forget that there’s other conflicts and other crises in this world, which sometimes we don’t get to see, but it exists equally. As an organization, we work in over 70 countries of this world where all of these same despairs and suffering and disaster is happening, and we feel very, very strongly that we want to continue our commitment in all of these countries. Some of them have been in the news over the last month and years such as Darfur. Some of them keep being on the backburner, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where just now, two weeks ago, there has been a major incident in Eastern Congo with the displacement of 100,000 people. These people in a certain way suffer the same kind of situations as some of the displaced from the tsunami disaster, and they need the same kind of support. That’s what we want to transmit, not we don’t want the donations. Our organizations works based on the generosity of the people, who support us, and we believe that the work that doctors without borders is doing is good and we try to do this as a step of transparency with donors to say that if your heart really lies in supporting people from this disaster, we need to tell you that over and above the many donations we already got, we cannot right now assure that we will be able to use your donations in operations that respond to needs. And we do operations that respond to emergency needs of populations.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. And what kind of of response have you had? Have your donations dropped off?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: No, I think, in general, the donations in the first day have been incredible. I think that the response is more what you mentioned, a surprise within the aid community, of fear. We have been trying to be very, very clear that this is Doctors Without Borders M.S.F. that says that, and this has nothing to do with the general aid. There’s different phases. There’s emergency aid. There’s the stabilization phase where people will be in displaced situations for weeks or months, and then there’s the whole rehabilitation and reconstruction of entire stretches of these countries, which obviously is going to take a long time and is going to take a lot of means. In no means do we intend to undermine the efforts and the generosity of people in general.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you another question. We’re talking to Catrin Schulte-Hillen, Director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States, about aid groups working with governments. I was just out covering a protest outside of the Indonesian mission to the United States, Acehnese refugees, who have political refugee status in the United States because they were driven out of Aceh. They were driven out by the Indonesian military. A march from the U.N. where they thanked people, countries for helping, to the Indonesian mission where they protested, and they called on aid organizations and countries not to funnel their aid through the Indonesian military because it has occupied and closed off Aceh for so long. What is your response to that, and how does your organization work and others? For example, CARE works with the government, and in the case of Indonesia, they’re famous for taking a cut, a large cut, of the aid that comes through.

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: I think it’s very important question. As a humantarian organization, the center of the work that M.S.F. does is in conflict zones, and that means that you have to stay free of either siding with the government, or with any kind of rebel group or opposition. The core of M.S.F. functioning is to be independent, impartial and neutral. That means also that as a medical organization, we implement our actions towards the population directly. We do not channel funds through governments or through authorities. That does not mean that we don’t coordinate with it. It is the obligation of any government or local authority to be in charge of the coordination of aid efforts. In order for them to be able to do that, organizations must inform them of what they do and what they intend to do. We do that. So, we inform them, so that they can do their work in coordination, but we do our own assessments and we implement our own projects for the reasons that we want to be sure that aid gets to the population most in need, most vulnerable and based on the needs assessment and not on any political, religious, anything like that. Purely on the basic needs of the people most affected by the disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a rare moment, I believe, one of the first acts of Congress was to rule that if people give contributions now, it can be written off on their 2004 taxes. The idea of giving money now for general relief, have you ever gotten anything like this kind of support, for example, with Darfur, with the D.R.C, the Democratic Republic of Congo?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: I think if we look back in time, and the experiences that we had in the past, it obviously comes up, but it’s not at the level that we are looking at now. Kosovo had major support. Eastimor had a lot of solidarity, but we have never seen this kind of generosity and this kind of support, this kind of engagement also from country to country.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you do with this support? What do you do with it in Sudan and Congo?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: In Sudan and Congo, we …

AMY GOODMAN: What can you do with it?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: What can we do with it? In Sudan and Congo…

AMY GOODMAN: And Darfur, for example.

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: What we’re doing now is support to the main pockets of displaced population in terms of medical supplies, water installation, food supply, specific food programs for kids that are already malnourished. Shelter and non-food items which is jerry cans and kitchen sets to enable people to install in the displacement camp to survive until they can go home.

AMY GOODMAN: Your work in the Congo?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: The work in the Congo looks at medical aid in the country and in all kinds of regions, looking out for displaced people, in all of the areas. So water sanitation, shelter, food and nutrition and medical care and specific medical projects, like T.B., HIV aids, victims of sexual violence, psychological support.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctors Without Borders was among the first in Aceh. The reports now coming out about Indonesian military asking for I.D. before they give food, that they’re selling food that they are getting as aid. And that they’re actual carrying out military raids. Any news about that in Doctors Without Borders?

CATRIN SCHULTE-HILLEN: No. No news that would be — that says that we would be legitimate to talk about, the teams stay clear from working — we don’t work with the military. We have our own means of transport. We have our own helicopter. We do our own assessments. So, we’re looking at the situation very carefully and trying to reach populations and do the assessment and respond to the needs that we see in the fields. Obviously, you know, security side and everything, we’ll keep watching how the situation develops.

AMY GOODMAN: Catrin Schulte-Hillen, Program Director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States. Their website is msf.org.

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