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MSF loses a supporter

21 November 2009

It’s hard to be against the efforts of Doctors Without Borders (aka Medecins Sans Frontieres/MSF): they work in difficult conditions providing excellent care to people who have few if any other options. But recent ad campaigns by MSF have gotten out of hand. Take the latest example, “Girl”:

Perhaps the economic downturn has had a negative impact on giving to MSF, precipitating a need to use such a jarring advert that would compel donors to give in great numbers. I don’t deny the story they tell in the advert could really have happened (in fact, the makers remark the advert uses real audio recorded in an MSF field site). However, after seeing the previous (and related) advert, “Boy”, I commented:

as someone who has spent some time in Tanzania and Malawi, I come back to the US to answer questions from friends about what it’s really like in Africa and if it’s as bad as everyone says it is, or *gulp* worse. i think that viewers might perceive the advert to be about a place in Africa and that it would continue to distort their view of a place that isn’t always tragic (though i understand it is very much so in places where MSF works). i just think the advert furthers this whole “dark continent” nonsense.

All of this is to say you won’t find me recommending students seek jobs with MSF or encouraging rich MBA friends to donate to MSF causes.

(H/T: Matt at Aid Thoughts)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. synarcane permalink
    23 November 2009 1:14 pm

    Hi, I came across your post, but am not here to argue with you…. I understand your position and would agree with you wholeheartedly if this was all MSF did to communicate about our work. I will leave two examples here… The first is Condition: Critical, a year long project (the final chapter of which is to launch tomorrow) whichy aims to give a voice to people living through the war in Eastern Congo The other is the recent launch of the Positive Ladies Football Club documentary, following a an HIV positive ladies football team in Zimbabwe

    It is also worth noting that these ads were made specifically for MSF UK and not MSF internationally.

    That’s all I wanted to say really,


    Pete (web editor, MSF UK)

  2. 23 November 2009 1:18 pm

    Sorry, someone else was logged into my computer, which is why the profile name is strange. just in case you thought it was a fake…


  3. 23 November 2009 2:30 pm

    Pete –

    Thanks for sharing those links, I hadn’t seen them. I also loved the t-shirt video that you didn’t link (but I think you also had a “hand” in):

    Though “Girl” and “Boy” are only pieces to a greater whole, I think you can admit that they are meant to capture attention. Sure, Toyota makes a whole line of cars, and the Prius isn’t even the biggest seller — but it does catch our attention and try to tell us that Toyota is committed to reducing reliance on fossil fuels. So, as much as “Girl” and “Boy” are not the only adverts MSF has made or released, the fact that MSF has chosen to make/distribute these adverts, and the fact that I find they play to a misrepresentation about Africa (already largely perceived as a place of mostly poverty, suffering, and safaris), I just can’t encourage friends to support their work.

    It’s not to say they don’t do good work (or that you don’t do good work — did I say I loved the T-shirt advert already?), just that I can’t support them.

  4. 23 November 2009 2:56 pm

    I think the MSF video fails on a number of counts – mainly that it’s not clear what you’re looking at or hearing. At first I didn’t know what I was watching – Is it a rape in a barracks? a delivery in a health center? a FGM being carried out?? Sorry for the MSF UK folks, I don’t think it will work any better there than it did for me.

    Haba na haba, I share your concern about the negative portrayal of Africa and Africans and have started a blog called “Brilliant Africa” to highlight some of the good things and ideas coming from Africa and also some ideas which might be interesting to people in Africa who might be reading. Check it out at brilliant Africa (on

  5. 23 November 2009 4:40 pm

    thanks, brilliantafrica. i’ve added you to my RSS feed. welcome to the world of blogging!

    p.s. you might want to check out an earlier post where I talk about “Seeing Africa Differently.”

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