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MSF UK’s commitment to addressing institutional racism

MSF UK’s commitments to addressing institutional racism

MSF bio lab at MSF’s Aden hospital Caption
29 June 2020

In MSF UK’s new Strategic Direction for 2020 – 2023 we set down a vision to be an organisation and part of a movement that values its staff and ensures that all those who work with and for us feel this value in their working lives and are treated with equity and respect.

Today MSF is a global movement that works in 70 countries, with a 45,000 strong workforce.  We staff our country programmes with management structures where key field coordination positions are largely filled by international staff hired on short-term contracts.

International staff supervise local staff, despite the latter frequently having greater experience of the project. Staff hired locally are rarely given positions of responsibility over colleagues hired internationally and as a result, locally-hired staff perceive obstacles to career development. 

There are clear structural differences between the way these two groups of staff are treated in terms of rewards including professional rewards like career progression and learning and development, exposure to risk and their ability to be heard within MSF.

In our Strategic Direction we have termed these issues as that of workforce injustice and equity. Today we need to go further and acknowledge them as institutional racism.

Actions across MSF internationally

MSF UK is just one part of the global MSF movement – and action on this issue is of course needed across all our offices and projects.

MSF has five ‘Operational Centres’, and a new Operational Directorate opening in Senegal and Ivory Coast, which make decisions on how and when we intervene around the world. As part of the Operational Centre based in Amsterdam, MSF UK is supporting commitments to address racism in MSF at an international level.

The Management Team of the Amsterdam Operational Centre (OCA), of which I am a member, recently sent an update to our staff to acknowledge that institutional racism and discrimination is present within MSF in many forms, and to set out steps to tackle this problem.

Aquarius Search and Rescue - July 2016

Read Dr Javid Abdelmoneim's reflections

We recognised that, while MSF brings huge positive impact for people in need, it is also rooted in European post‐colonial traditions, and this manifests in many aspects of our organisation. We committed to accelerating the ongoing redistribution of power and decision‐making more evenly across the world; ensuring our medical humanitarian assistance is free from any racist or discriminative barriers; and working on addressing all aspects of structural racism as they manifest in MSF.

In the interests of transparency and accountability, we have made that letter available on our website. As an internal document, some of its language may not be accessible for those not familiar with MSF, so I have highlighted some of the key commitments here:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Enable a process of safe spaces, dialogue and support mechanisms across MSF OCA
  • Assess 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.

We also pledged to publish our 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.

Actions to be taken by MSF UK

Closer to home our Strategic Direction commits us to creating a healthy working environment in MSF UK built on community, inclusivity, diversity and a proactive idea of acceptance. A diverse staff team at all levels strengthens us and makes us more innovative and effective.

MSF UK has already put considerable effort and resources to the process of breaking down structural barriers that prevent staff from across the world from making progress within the organisation. Our Leadership Education Academic Partnership (LEAP) programme and Global Health and Humanitarian Medicine (GHHM) course enable access to world-recognised higher education, and our Scientific Days conferences are key knowledge-sharing events.   

We will continue to champion and resource these courses and conferences, prioritising access for staff across the world. 

Over and above our investments in and commitment to the LEAP, GHHM and Scientific Days, the MSF UK Management Team have already committed to the following actions:

  • A diversity and inclusion action plan by the end of 2020 covering all areas including recruitment policies and internal language, fully implemented by the end of 2022
  • An audit of HR policies to check for statements that undermine workforce inclusion, fairness and diversity; and if required will have updated its policies or developed new ones to address this by the end of 2020
  • An increased proportion of locally hired MSF staff members enrolled as students in the LEAP programme and the GHHM course will be 10 percent higher than the 2020 baseline

You can read more of those plans in our Strategic Direction for 2020 – 2023. From June 2020 we will be reviewing and consulting on them to ensure they are good enough, go far enough and actually happen.

In addition, we will be creating safe spaces, dialogue and support mechanism for staff across MSF UK – field, offices and associative membership.  We will be supporting the process of educating ourselves, signposting to relevant literature and resources, and identifying anti-racism training, with senior managers having undertaken this training by the end of 2020. Once we have reviewed our plans, we will publish any updates to our commitments and be accountable towards them in the public domain.

In addition, the MSF UK Board of Trustees has issued a statement supported by some more personal reflections from the Chair, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim.

MSF exists because of the principle of humanity, the belief that all humankind shall be treated humanely and equally.  Institutional racism has no place in MSF and MSF UK fully commits to be part of making the change both across our wider movement and closer to home.  

Vickie Hawkins
Executive Director, MSF UK


MSF UK is part of an international movement of legal entities, commonly referred to as MSF, which are bound by a shared name and identity, and shared commitment to the MSF Charter and principles.

The statements in this article relate to both the international movement’s global field projects and to the MSF UK office.

Further reading