Doctors Without Borders members tout organization's impartial humanitarianism

By Tressa Versteeg

Speaking about their own professional challenges, personal dangers, and, most importantly, the need for medical care throughout the third world, four members of the French-based, but internationally committed, medical organization Doctors Without Borders’ members of the Macalester community and the public last Wednesday in Kagin Ballroom. Don Shelby, an anchor and reporter at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, moderated the discussion.

President Brian Rosenberg began the evening with the promise for “an interesting and powerful event.” Shelby followed, introducing the individual panelists and commending their work around the world.

“These are the medical professional equivalent to the Navy Seals,” he said. “These people are the toughest, bravest, most prepared, most willing of all people in their fields and it is an honor to be in the same room [as them.]”

After a short video summarizing the organization’s work, the discussion began. Topics varied from how the panelists joined Doctors Without Borders, to common problems encountered in the medical field abroad. A common theme among the panelists was their belief in their organization’s commitment to impartial humanitarianism-serving patients despite political affiliations or religious views, whether they are civilians, government soldiers or rebels.

“We don’t really care about peoples’ politics,” panelist Dr. Unni Karunakara said. “If someone is injured, if someone is sick, we will take care of them.”

Describing the challenges encountered in their work, panelists spoke of difficulties including language and cultural barriers, lack of supplies, and dangers to their own lives that often arise in the countries in which they work.

Before the forum was opened to audience questions, Shelby asked each panelist what the word humanitarianism meant to them. Each responded differently.

“Standing by a person when they are going through a difficult period,” Dr. Karunakara answered.

“[Making sure someone knows] he is a valuable human being, there is someone who cares about him and he is not forgotten,” Jennifer Vago, a registered nurse, said.

“Basic respect for individual life and the hope to be successful,” Bare Yogol said. Yogol, a Kenyan refugee, received help from the organization and has since volunteered with it.

Michael Barringer-Mills, a logistician responsible for coordinating supply chains, gave the shortest answer of the group. “To me, it means solidarity,” he said.

Many students and community members asked their own questions to the panel. One audience member asked at what point Doctors Without Borders members would leave an area for safety reasons. The panelists noted that though they had evacuation plans, in some cases, there may not be another organization to take up the work if they leave.

“You provide medical care to the person who needs medical care . What will happen if we are not there?” Dr. Karunakra said.

Another question that arose was how the organization handled donations. Funding for Doctors Without Borders comes exclusively through individuals and private donors, not from governments. Moreover, the organization does not accept pharmaceutical donations to avoid potential low-quality of drugs supplied, the panelists explained.

Dr. Karunakara closed the evening with words to counter Shelby’s opening remarks. “We are not really Navy Seals. We are just like everyone here. We have the same securities, the same fears and the same aspirations. We just took that step. It is there in everyone of you and you just have to go and see for yourself. We are special in our own way,” he said.