Open Letter to Senior Management and Colleagues in MSF: Beyond Words to Anti-Racist Action (2020)
Original letter: msf.me/beyondwords
Arabic (العربية): msf.me/beyondwords_AR
Bengali (বাংলা): msf.me/beyondwords_BE
French (française): msf.me/beyondwords_FR
Portugese (português): msf.me/beyondwords_PO
Spanish (español): msf.me/beyondwordsESP
Urdu (اردو): msf.me/beyondwords_UR
For the attention of MSF's international president, all general directors, all board members, all departmental directors and senior managers.
The signatories to this open letter stand against racism in all its guises and call for the urgent recognition of institutional racism in MSF, and a meaningful commitment to anti-racist action across the entirety of the organisation.
It should not take the public loss of another Black life for institutions, and particularly white colleagues in those institutions, to wake up to the full extent of racism and other forms of discrimination worldwide.
Only after recent protests and resistance against systemic racism, white supremacy, and state-sanctioned police brutality extended into a second and third week did institutions worldwide begin to respond to a growing pressure to comment on this movement for justice. Why did it take so long? Why only after public pressure made avoidance of the issue impossible?
MSF's own engagement with calls for anti-racist action have been lacklustre at best. Some individual responses have come close to acknowledging a reality: institutional racism exists in MSF. Other statements have projected outwards, completely failing to recognise the extent and impact of racism in our organisation, preferring instead to refer to "racial injustice": a passive phrase that implies a problem "out there", rather than "in here" - in our staff, in our policies, and in our practices.
Yet more comments have suggested that acknowledgement of the structural manifestations of racism is beyond the scope of MSF's social mission. Exclusion, marginalisation and violence are inextricably linked to racism, colonialism and white supremacy, which we reinforce in our work. We firmly believe that it is central to MSF's humanitarian identity to state our commitment to anti-racist action and to practice that commitment in all that we do.
Three years have passed since the International General Assembly (IGA) motion submitted by colleagues in MSF USA, acknowledging 'racial inequity' in MSF, was infamously suppressed. The statement that followed failed to acknowledge the full extent to which racism exists throughout our organisation, and the impact this has on our colleagues, on our patients, and on the integrity of our social mission.
Three years later, meaningful efforts to tackle racism still elude us, despite multiple workshops, committees and reports. "Diversity and inclusion" efforts have been largely unsuccessful; they have failed to adequately engage issues of equity, justice and representation, have not recognised white supremacy and anti-Blackness as the point of departure, and have homogenised a diversity of racial, ethnic and cultural groups.
Again we see hollow statements without clear acknowledgement of failure, or evidence of a commitment to tangible action. This is tantamount to performative allyship, designed to signal that change is afoot, all the while enabling the status quo.
We see no commitment to acknowledge the full extent of racism perpetuated by our staff, in our policies, in our hiring practices, in our workplace culture, and through the imposition of dehumanising "humanitarian" programmes by a privileged, white minority workforce.
We see no commitment to explore the colonial and neo-colonial violence that punctuates our history, nor the gradations of white supremacy that leave MSF resistant to change.
We see no commitment to dismantle the humanitarian "virtue signal" behind which acts of discrimination and oppression have continued unchecked.
Not only is racism perpetuated within MSF, but it is racism and white supremacy that shape the culture and mindset that still defines our organisation: the white European "expert" and the "distant other in need". With few exceptions, MSF's humanitarianism still suppresses indigenous voices, overlooks indigenous knowledge, denies individual and community agency, and makes a mockery of the radical notion of solidarity.
This has to change.
With due deference to those who have fought for years, decades and centuries against racism and other forms of social injustice, we demand the following:
(1) Public acknowledgement of institutional racism in MSF, and of racism, white supremacy and intersecting forms of discrimination (notably gender) in humanitarian action more broadly;
(2) A commitment to, and a clear roadmap for, the radical re-imagination of our approach to humanitarian action that centres affected individuals and communities and seeks to redress decades of power and paternalism;
(3) Elaboration of MSF's stance on racism, white supremacy, and intersecting forms of discrimination, and the impact this has on patients and staff;
(4) An independent, external assessment of racism in MSF, and the impact this has on patients, staff and the integrity of our social mission;
(5) Internal auditing of all hiring processes (including recruitment channels) at all levels of the organisation, with identification and exploration of barriers hindering the recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce. This must be accompanied by interventions to dismantle barriers, and promote inclusion, retention and progression;
(6) Establishment of a clear plan of action to ensure sustained diversity and genuine representation at all levels in MSF, with a particular focus on MSF governance boards and leadership positions;
(7) Rapid and sustained implementation of anti-racism training at all levels of the organisation;
(8) A review of policies and practices across all departments, and a clear implementation plan to ensure anti-racist praxis, particularly as relates to operational decision-making, management, recruitment, fundraising and communications;
(9) Assessment of existing donor relationships and donor policies, and whether they reinforce racism;
(10) Commission of an independent, external review to explore the history of colonialism, expressions of neo-colonialism, and manifestations of white supremacy in all aspects of MSF's work.
Action to dismantle racist and oppressive systems and structures in the organisation must be enacted with clarity, transparency, public accountability, and in a time-bound fashion that seeks to redress a history of delay and inaction. We demand that a functional task force is established with the power to hold those responsible to account, and that progress on the above actions is reported regularly.
We recognise that these demands are not exhaustive, and as such expect a commitment to sustained listening and learning, which recognises and values individuals who have experienced oppression.
MSF must embark on this process of self-reflection and behavioural change in a manner that is fully transparent, action-orientated, and publicly accountable. Without such change, MSF will remain morally compromised, and will soon lose its relevance in a rapidly evolving world.
The full list of signatories can be viewed here:
Personal Reflections & Messages
The full list of reflections and messages can be viewed here: