First in and last out of the world's danger zones

By Elizabeth Davies

The Independent

29 July 2004

Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) is the international aid organisation which can always be relied upon to be first in and last out of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

Founded in 1971 by a group of French doctors, including the media-savvy Bernard Kouchner, MSF proclaimed itself to be the world's first non-governmental organisation specialising in emergency medical assistance. The agency has more than 2,500 volunteers worldwide, offices in 18 countries and activities in over 80 countries.

The Nobel peace prize-winning independent medical agency is committed to providing essential aid to trouble spots. But yesterday, the organisation decided that Afghanistan was too dangerous, even by its own tough standards.

MSF works on rehabilitation projects for hospitals and dispensaries, on vaccination programmes and on water and sanitation projects. MSF teams also work in remote healthcare centres and slum areas, and train local personnel, to rebuild local health structures.

Relief teams have been working at the Darfur emergency in Sudan since October 2003. Over 150 international staff are working alongside 4,000 nationals to bring aid to the region, where death rates are considerably above the "emergency threshold".

Many other countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, are also sites of MSF operations. They may not be grabbing the headlines like Sudan, but they too are in need for aid. The DRC's healthcare system is in tatters after years of civil war and MSF has been picking up the pieces with extensive medical aid since 1981.