Humanitarianism is a 'fallen angel,' says MSF president

Dr. Christos Christou, president at Médecins Sans Frontières. Photo by: MSF

BARCELONA — Humanitarian work has become increasingly challenging as it has lost the widespread support it once enjoyed, the president of Médecins Sans Frontières has said.

For humanitarian organizations, “we’re living in this era of the ‘fallen angels,’” Dr. Christos Christou told Devex in an interview.

“When you try to build fences or you pretend that the problem is not yours, then what you create is ultimately even more risky.”

— Dr. Christos Christou, president, Médecins Sans Frontières

“Societies were traditionally donating and supporting us, and many others like us, to help people in neglected corners around the world. Now the problem has come inside these societies [that were donating]. They have been split, and they don't all support what we do,” he said.

Asked about the response to the refugee crisis in Europe — which ultimately led to an agreement for Turkey to take back undocumented migrants in exchange for financial support and visa-related concessions — Christou said it “put human lives aside and prioritized notions like security,” adding that “when you try to build fences or you pretend that the problem is not yours, then what you create is ultimately even more risky.”

In some settings, he said, the “basic human act of assisting others” was being “penalized” and humanitarians were being denied access to vulnerable populations.

For almost 50 years, MSF has provided medical support to people affected by natural disasters, conflict, displacement, and other crisis situations. It now works in more than 70 countries.

But Christou said that new dynamics around humanitarianism have made responding to crises “even more challenging and difficult.”

“That human lives seem to be less valued today is a fundamental problem that we deal with, and I'm afraid that MSF cannot change this on their own,” said the NGO leader, who has worked at the organization for two decades.

“It needs a collective effort by everyone to keep reminding that when you attack human beings or you neglect their problems, it is an attack to the human species itself.”

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.