Nonprofit head emphasizes challenges of humanitarian aid

Sophie Delaunay of Doctors Without Borders examined the problematic intersection of politics and humanitarian aid.
Sophie Delaunay of Doctors Without Borders examined the problematic intersection of politics and humanitarian aid. Photo by Joyce Xi.

Sophie Delaunay, the U.S. executive director of Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, spoke Wednesday afternoon about the increased number of challenges that humanitarian organizations face as their influence grows.

At the lecture — which was sponsored by the Yale International Relations Association and entitled “The Instrumentalization of Aid and the Challenges of Negotiating Space for Humanitarian Action” — Delaunay spoke about the challenges faced by her organization, a humanitarian nonprofit that sends medical professionals to over 70 countries to provide health assistance. Delaunay said the process of finding locations where MSF can conduct nonprofit work often involves compromise with local leaders and sometimes fails altogether.

“Compromise is always driven by potential outcomes,” she said. “If you know your intervention is going to be life-saving, you are likely to compromise.”

MSF often accepts roles of limited access and visibility in certain regions in order to maximize the potential benefit of its work, Delaunay said. In Myanmar and Pakistan, for example, MSF was prohibited from entering specific areas despite the critical health needs of the areas’ inhabitants. Delaunay noted that violence against health workers, including the killing of two MSF employees in Mogadishu, Somalia, two years ago, contributed to a reduction of viable zones in which MSF could operate.

Though compromise has been necessary to remain active in as many regions as possible, Delaunay said it is important to “never compromise your capacity for judgment.”

Delaunay said that governments often feel ambivalent about MSF because the organization refuses to favor specific factions or governments as an independent and impartial organization. She added that MSF draws attention to health problems that invariably become political problems. In Niger, MSF’s work helped begin a dialogue about malnutrition that continued until the government expelled the organization.

Currently, the stakes are higher for humanitarian groups because as they gain more resources, they have the potential to impact a larger group of people, Delaunay said.

“What makes us nervous these days is that we have more to lose now — we are treating patients by the thousands, and so we have a lot to lose if we’re not granted access,” she said. “You know people are starving. If you cannot act, it is really heartbreaking.”

Audience members interviewed said they enjoyed hearing an honest conversation about a field typically characterized by high-minded idealism.

Sophia Clementi ’14, executive director of the Yale International Relations Association who helped plan the event, said she wanted to have a representative of MSF speak to students in order to look at the field of international relations through a humanitarian lens.

Ruchit Nagar ’15 said he found Delaunay’s discussion of the dangers of political issues particularly interesting.

“I’m happy that [Delaunay] acknowledges the problems of politicizing humanitarian aid,” he said.

MSF was founded in 1971.

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