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A letter from the MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam management team concerning institutional racism

A letter from the MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam management team concerning institutional racism

30 June 2020

To all staff and association members of MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam (OCA),

For a number of years, we have been hearing the voices of staff expressing their experience of workforce injustice and inequity within MSF; the structural barriers that prevent them progressing, the policies and procedures that demonstrate institutional racism and other forms of discrimination and the fact that our culture, despite being an international organisation, remains bound up in strong European roots.

We refer to discrimination as being on the basis of diversity characteristics, which may be divided into observable and non‐observable characteristics. Examples of observable characteristics include gender, origin, ethnicity and age. Examples of non‐observable include sexual orientation, sexual identity, education, functional background, organisational tenure, socioeconomic background, personality, religion and disability.

The voices that call out this injustice have amplified, and today we hear and acknowledge the experiences they describe. We also know that there are many others who have not yet been able to raise their voices. We welcome the open letter from staff across MSF. It speaks to the values MSF must uphold and is a true example of the integrity of our staff and their willingness to stand up for humanity.

We appreciate the clear actions and steps that the open letter contains. Today, we acknowledge our failure to date to act decisively on institutional racism and other forms of discrimination. Decision‐making authority in MSF remains almost entirely in Europe, and our cultural structures (including policies), actions and beliefs perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges and resources between people of different origin, skin colour and contractual status. We are deeply sorry to those who have experienced this, and other forms of discrimination, over the years. This is especially in the knowledge that you have nonetheless strived to bring help to people in crisis, in line with our charter and humanitarian values, and in spite of the organisational barriers that you have faced. It has taken us too long to fully appreciate, and to acknowledge the truth of these experiences.

Today, we will act swiftly to launch our organisation onto a better trajectory. As the MSF OCA Management Team, we will undertake the following to address institutional racism and other forms of discrimination within MSF.

1. We openly recognise and acknowledge that institutional racism and discrimination is present within MSF in many forms.

2. MSF is an organisation that brings huge positive impact for people in need; and the founding principles remain as true today as ever. Yet we recognise this also means MSF is rooted in European post‐colonial traditions, and even 50 years later, this manifests in many aspects of our organisation. We commit to accelerating the ongoing redistribution of power and strategic medical‐operational decision‐making more evenly across the world.

3. Ensure our medical humanitarian assistance is free from any racist or discriminative barriers within our own service delivery for patients and for the communities we work with.

4. We will work now, together and transparently on addressing all aspects of structural racism as they manifest in MSF: institutional racist and discriminative practices, policies and culture, as well as individual attitudes, behaviour and unconscious assumptions. A non‐exhaustive list of the steps we will take includes:

  • Commit resources to addressing all policies and procedures that entrench institutional racism and discrimination and create barriers to equitable staff career progression, with an immediate focus on recruitment policies and processes at all levels and in all locations. The steps to deliver on this commitment will be ready and presented at the OCA Coordinator Days 2020.
  • Lead on and remain accountable for the progress of a plan of action to ensure diversity and representation at all levels in MSF‐OCA, with a particular focus on leadership positions, and informed by data and indicators that will be in place by mid-2021.
  • Incorporate anti‐racism and anti‐discrimination training into our learning and development as an urgent priority by the end of 2020.
  • Provide the means for self‐education within the organisation to ensure we all understand open and hidden discriminatory practices, the system of privilege and power imbalance, to be able to participate in the dialogues that will bring change. This will, by necessity, involve many MSF field and HQ staff and association members, and we ask your assistance in this process.
  • Enable a process of safe spaces, dialogue and support mechanisms across MSF OCA – field staff, office staff, association members.
  • Assessment of our internal and public communications and imagery to ensure avoidance of the projection of white saviour complex and white privilege, attitude and culture. We commit to communication in which the staff who are closest to the provision of medical care, represent the organisation and their work.
  • To review the concrete actions in the open letter received from MSF staff and examine our plans to assess where they might fall short.

5. We commit to publish our commitment, actions and performance indicators; and hold ourselves publicly accountable against these towards our staff and associations, the people we assist, their communities and our supporters.

We will develop these commitments into a leadership charter that those with the responsibility of enacting the above will be asked to sign, as well as others in the organisation who want to demonstrate support. Through this collective leadership in field and HQ across the wider OCA, with the ultimate accountability sitting with us as individuals and members of the Management Team, we will move to being the representative, inclusive, safe and anti‐racist organisation that we aspire to be.

Signed on 30 June 2020, by:

Nelke Manders - General Director, MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam
Oliver Behn - Director of Operations, MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam
Vickie Hawkins - Executive Director, MSF UK
Melissa McRae - Medical Director, MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam
Florian Westphal - Executive Director, MSF Germany
Mihaela Ionasc - Head of Human Resources, MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam
Shekhar Pula - Director of Resources, MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam
Martje van Nes - Interim Delegate Director, MSF Operational Centre Amsterdam