This November Bristol Friends of MSF invited communications officer Eleanor Webber-Ballard and midwife Sarah Coates to speak. I sat in the audience nervously chewing gum, because I should have been writing an essay. I expected the usual spiel you get from NGO’s about the ‘amazing work’ they do, but I was wrong; it was so much more than that.
Started by doctors with a non-political passion for the Hippocratic Oath and journalists searching for truth and transparency, it is a non-partisan organisation that sends doctors out to treat people in areas of poverty, corruption and conflict. They aren’t funded by the UN; they advocate based on what they see on the frontline alone, and seek to train doctors local to the countries in which they work. Of their work, founder James Orbinski said, “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”
The speakers were deeply passionate, and deeply aware of what the concept of ‘charity’ entails. Webber-Ballard talked about the difficulties of highlighting the problems that lead to disease and issues of conflict without a patronising white saviour narrative. Unlike many other charities, MSF move away from neo-colonial images – they don’t use celebrities and advocate only where necessary. On the frontline they abandon politics to treat everyone with dignity.
Midwife Sarah Coates discussed her work in Haiti, and the difficulties of impacting change where due to corruption and national disaster a lot of hope has been lost. She talked about how she worked with local nurses and doctors to improve the care of pregnant women and new born babies. In an extract from her diary her frustration at a system where it was impossible to provide the treatment she could in the NHS was clear.
‘When’s your book coming out?’ I asked. She responded with ‘I have thought about it, maybe. It was mainly a personal debrief but reading it again has made me think people could be interested’. If she does write a book, we’ll have a lot to learn from it, even within the UK we need to value and fund our NHS more than ever. As a home population we also have the power to lobby our own government to stop the arms trade that leads to brutal bombing in areas like Yemen.
So I left. The medics chatted with enthusiasm about how they were interested in working on the frontline in the future, and asked questions about safety. I smiled, thinking how in a bleak world, an organisation that seeks to both ensure people’s safety and change global narratives is a very welcome breath of fresh air.