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The Red Cross and MSF

I vaguely remember having a conversation with someone once about the different between the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières.1

The Red Cross focuses solely on the individuals in need. It will work with corrupt regimes to get access to prisoners of war, and it will summarily ignore any wrongdoing it comes across beyond its narrow focus on the immediate needs of the people it is there to serve. This means that the Red Cross can provide care to people in some of the most extreme circumstances, across boundaries and within facilities that no-one else might ever be able to access.

Médecins sans Frontières tries to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. It published reports condemning wrongdoing it has seen. In extreme circumstances, it will pull out of facilities and territories rather than be complicit in silence. This means that it can bang the drum, or threaten to do so, to secure safety and health for whole groups of people.

In practice, the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières coordinate to make sure that they can both meet their goals while leaving as few people unserved as possible.

This has been playing on my mind recently in the context of health protection. Sometimes, for example, hospitals have outbreaks of infectious diseases, and sometimes, they ask for my advice and support. I approach these situations in a very ’Red Cross’ manner: as in, “your secrets are safe with me, let’s talk openly, honestly and frankly, and let’s fix the problem.”

Others in my role would approach these situations from a more ‘Médecins sans Frontières’ perspective: as in, “I want you to listen to my advice, make an action plan to fix this problem and report to me on progress regularly, or I’ll escalate my concerns to your commissioner.”

These two approaches aren’t as mutually exclusive as they might first seem: even with the ‘Red Cross’ approach, the reality might be that I’d have to involve regulators or commissioners eventually if I was deeply concerned.

Yet, I see my primary role is to be a friendly independent source of help and advice to help steer things in the right direction; others in the same role see it differently.

I convince myself that my approach is based on experience and evidence, and that it’s the most effective approach for me. But I can’t deny that it also aligns with my personality and preferences, and that almost certainly colours my thinking.

I suppose my reflection is that different approaches work for different people, probably in part because they suit different personalities and contexts. There is often a drive in life to standardise things, but sometimes, greater things can be achieved through having two opposed approaches working in harmony, just like the Red Cross and MSF.


The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.


  1. The details of this might be a load of misremembered rubbish.

This post was filed under: Health, Post-a-day 2023, , .

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