According to international aid organization Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, there were 42 million cases of AIDS in the world as of 2004. Thirty million of them are in Africa.
MSF operates in more than 80 countries, bringing medical relief to victims such as these. In a symposium sponsored today by the International Institute and the Institute for the Humanities, the University community will host a forum on the issues that face humanitarian organizations seeking to provide relief in situations such as the ongoing AIDS crisis in Africa, and last December’s tsunami disaster in southeast Asia.
While the conference focuses on Africa, the goal is to raise awareness about issues concerning humanitarian organizations all over the world, said conference organizer and Women’s Studies Prof. Miriam Ticktin.
“We would like people to become aware of the issues, aware of the concerns, what kind of a process it is, how MSF intervenes,” said Ticktin. She explained that when a nongovernment (and presumably nonpolitical) organization such as MSF intervenes in a particular situation, be it a war or a natural disaster, it naturally encounters problems with staying neutral while still providing aid where it is needed.
Ticktin also said this conference is a chance for students who are interested in involvement with NGOs to create contacts with MSF members.
Today’s conference will feature lectures from various experts including MSF members who work with humanitarian projects all over the world, highlighting the role MSF plays in intervention and relief. Speakers will also take a critical look at the consequences of such intervention.
Fabrice Weissman, an MSF member stationed in Paris who will be speaking on armed interventions and humanitarian projects, commented on the crisis in Sudan.
“We have a huge operation in Sudan right now, the biggest MSF has ever run in its history. We are taking care of about 700,000 displaced persons,” he said.
While MSF has provided care to thousands of refugees, the medical intervention in the crisis has encountered various political and logistical problems due to lack of resources and MSF’s policy of treating patients on both sides of the conflict.
“The role of MSF in such crises is to provide vital assistance to the population affected by the violence. It’s not to get involved in peace building and conflict resolution. It’s a very limited role, to save people who are facing desperation due to a lack of elements necessary to survive,” he said.
According to MSF policy, the NGO strives to remain independent of any religious or political affiliation, both in the field and in the international community, taking almost all of its funding from private donations.
“Currently we are financed up to 85 percent by private funds which means that we can act without being influenced by the institutional donors, such as the European Union and various state members,” said Weissman.
But this independence is often precarious, as the organization must negotiate with militant groups to gain access to populations in need of emergency assistance.
Emmanuel Drouhin of MSF-France will speak on this topic today, discussing the difficulties in obtaining access to a needy population while still maintaining the political independence of MSF.
Drouhin discussed a situation in Southern Sudan in 1998 where a different NGO had negotiated the delivery of supplies to a needy population with the militant group controlling the area, agreeing to distribute the food first to women, children and the elderly.
When we (MSF) arrived, he said, we found “most of the food was diverted to the soldiers.”
In situations such as these, Weissman said, MSF plays a role to publicize the circumstances they encounter, not necessarily to propose a solution, but to introduce the problem to the international agenda.
He again cited the Sudan crisis, saying that before the last couple years, the international community was mainly concerned with the civil war between the north and the south, and was ignorant to the tragedies taking place in the west, in Darfur.
“There was absolutely no media attention on Sudan … nobody was really concerned with what was going on in the west, where the war had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
At least a half million people were displaced. At this time, Darfur was not a part of the political debate,” he said.
Because of MSF efforts in Sudan to bring relief to victims of the civil war, MSF was able to offer first hand testimony about the situation in Darfur, and met with the UN and the international media to bring attention to the massacres taking place there.
“Our role is to inform the international community of the situation,” Weissman said.
While today’s lectures begin at 9 a.m. in the League, and continue throughout the day, the conference opened last night with a screening of the MSF documentary, “These Patents Make Me Sick! AIDS in Africa.”
The screening was attended by over 100 students and University faculty, and afterwards featured a discussion on what Ticktin called a “non-traditional” function of MSF — the treatment of AIDS in Africa and the problems caused by international patent laws which severely limit the availability of new, highly effective AIDS medications.
In a discussion following the screening, Weissman and a panel of MSF members answered questions about AIDS treatment and the regulation of generic AIDS drugs.
“There are 4,000 patients and we cannot afford much more,” said Weissman, commenting on the high cost of brand-name drugs.
“On all of the missions, we have to decide how we will choose the patients to put on the treatment. That is a very difficult question … We don’t have answers right now.”
Panel members covered various angles of the issue, addressing such topics as distribution of second and third line treatments after patients develop resistance to the first treatment drugs, treating refugee patients and ensuring compliance with treatment plans and governmental cooperation with AIDS treatment programs.