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Doctors Without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Impossible Dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières

Overview

This study of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) casts new light on the organization’s founding principles, distinctive culture, and inner struggles to realize more fully its "without borders" transnational vision.

Pioneering medical sociologist Renée C. Fox spent nearly twenty years conducting extensive ethnographic research within MSF, a private international medical humanitarian organization that was created in 1971 and...

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Doctors Without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Impossible Dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières

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Overview

This study of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) casts new light on the organization’s founding principles, distinctive culture, and inner struggles to realize more fully its "without borders" transnational vision.

Pioneering medical sociologist Renée C. Fox spent nearly twenty years conducting extensive ethnographic research within MSF, a private international medical humanitarian organization that was created in 1971 and awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1999.

With unprecedented access, Fox attended MSF meetings and observed doctors and other workers in the field. She interviewed MSF members and participants and analyzed the content of such documents as communications between MSF staff members within the offices of its various headquarters, communications between headquarters and the field, and transcripts of internal group discussions and meetings. Fox weaves these threads of information into a rich tapestry of the MSF experience that reveals the dual perspectives of an insider and an observer.

The book begins with moving, detailed accounts from the blogs of women and men working for MSF in the field. From there, Fox chronicles the organization’s early history and development, paying special attention to its struggles during the first decades of its existence to clarify and implement its principles. The core of the book is centered on her observations in the field of MSF’s efforts to combat a rampant epidemic of HIV/AIDS in postapartheid South Africa and the organization’s response to two challenges in postsocialist Russia: an enormous surge in homelessness on the streets of Moscow and a massive epidemic of tuberculosis in the penal colonies of Siberia. Fox’s accounts of these crises exemplify MSF’s struggles to provide for thousands of people in need when both the populations and the aid workers are in danger.

Enriched by vivid photographs of MSF operations and by ironic, self-critical cartoons drawn by a member of the Communications Department of MSF France, Doctors Without Borders highlights the bold mission of the renowned international humanitarian organization even as it demonstrates the intrinsic dilemmas of humanitarian action.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
03/24/2014
Medical sociologist Fox (Experiment Perilous) passionately yet objectivelyexamines the mission, growth, and culture of the renowned humanitarian group since its inception in 1971. Exploring its founding principles of “acting and speaking” and “treating and witnessing,” the author finds that MSF (the French acronym) has struggled both in the field and in “achieving a ‘without borders’ state of being.” Fox’s treatise describes in detail the internal battles MSF faced as its work reached across a war-torn world; in a sobering appraisal in 2006, MSF declared that its aid was diverted “for the benefit of war criminals” in Rwanda and Liberia in the 1990s, and that it had to fight to stay independent from “political influence” in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq in the early 2000s. Yet its aid in medically and socially challenged corners of the world seems to trump the organizational pains. Fox confesses she “wept” at a children’s performance in Khayeltsha in South Africa: “The juxtaposition of the life force that emanated from these children, and the deadly medical and social plagues with which they were surrounded was profoundly moving—both tragic and inspiring.” This is a commendably reflective work of sociology that, more importantly, tells a remarkable history of care. (June)
Hospitals and Health Networks - Emily Friedman

A remarkable story of healing, conflict and the journey of an organization once dismissed as a bunch of 'medical commandos,' which has gone from being perceived as just another product of the turbulent 1960s to winning the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize to becoming one of the most important health care humanitarian organizations in the world.

Booklist - Donna Chavez

Generally interested readers will Find Fox's thoughtful and thought-provoking overview ambitious and well worth the effort, while anyone focused on health care and medicine will be deeply fascinated.

South African Medical Journal - Solomon Benatar

Professor Fox's carefully researched and eloquently written epic book... is a treasured and monumental depiction of MSF’s courageous and persistent commitment to millions of people in distress.

Booklist
Generally interested readers will find Fox's thoughtful and thought-provoking overview ambitious and well worth the effort, while anyone focused on health care and medicine will be deeply fascinated.
South African Medical Journal
A treasured and monumental depiction of MSF’s courageous and persistent commitment to millions of people in distress.
Midwest Book Review
Doctors Without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Impossible Dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières provides detailed insights on the Doctors Without Borders medical ideals and culture... The result is a blend of organizational history and development and observations of the group's struggles to combat third world nation diseases, making for an outstanding social and health history.
Choice
The author tells an exquisite story of the organization's origins and challenges... This book, honoring those who provide such important humanitarian assistance, will enrich a wide audience.
The Sociological Imagination - Sadia Habib
The author provides a well written ethnographic account of the often conflictual internal dynamics of inclusion and exclusion among various factions within MSF. This book is original in its scope, taking seriously the opinions and personal history of past and current MSF members, from the more prominent and infamous leaders to veterans of humanitarian aid and newcomers alike.
Hospitals and Health Networks
A remarkable story of healing, conflict, and the journey of an organization once dismissed as a bunch of 'medical commandos' [and now] one of the most important health care humanitarian organizations in the world.
Library Journal
04/01/2014
In writing a book on Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), Fox (Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences, Univ. of Pennsylvania; After Parsons) seeks to "understand, chronicle, and reflectively analyze its mission, work, and distinctive culture." She mixes a biography of the organization with technical analysis of its work. Her coverage moves from today's blogging field workers to lengthy accounts of political troubles with the organization in Greece to aid workers fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa. Prominently coming across is MSF's own focus on its self-admitted imperfections. While the challenges and risks of running its massive operations are rendered clear, after four decades, a Nobel Prize, thousands of volunteers, and millions of Euros in support, perhaps the MSF doth protest too much about its failures. (The author remains objective.) Clearly, something is going right. At times the book feels more like a series of essays than one cohesive story and Fox's audience isn't always clear: Is she writing for the medical community or for general outsiders? For a more accessible take on aid organizations, see Stanley Meisler's When the World Calls. VERDICT Fox's book will appeal to a very specific type of reader, e.g., students of international politics/NGOs, medical professionals, or those working with or for aid groups.—Jenny Contakos, Art Inst. of Virginia Beach Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781421413549
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2014
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 393,454
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Renée C. Fox is the Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Experiment Perilous: Physicians and Patients Facing the Unknown, In the Belgian Château: The Spirit and Culture of a European Society in an Age of Change, and In the Field: A Sociologist's Journey, and coauthor of The Courage to Fail: A Social View of Organ Transplants and Dialysis.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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