MSF is often associated with doctors who risk their lives when they treat war injuries in dangerous situations. Certainly it is difficult and challenging to provide primary health care in complex emergencies, but the work is not always as spectacular and heroic as people think.
Before you fill out an application to work with MSF, you should take the time to consider why you are making this important decision. Do you have a romanticized view of what this work means to you? Are you making an informed choice? Are your motivations and values consistent with the MSF principles and values?
It is important that you know what MSF staff face and how it is to work and live in unfamiliar environments under circumstances that are extremely difficult and stressful.
This checklist is not a psychological test. It is designed to help you think about your motives, your professional aspirations and your emotional well-being. This is an opportunity to reflect on yourself and your interest in humanitarian assistance. It is also an opportunity to better understand some of the challenges you may encounter when trying to provide such help.
BEFORE YOU SEND YOUR APPLICATION, WE WANT YOU TO THINK CAREFULLY THROUGH THE FOLLOWING
When considering working with MSF, you should be aware that the organization strives to provide health care to the most vulnerable groups in countries where:
- Extremely serious violations of human rights occur
- People do not enjoy the rights that are widely recognized in Western societies because of their social, ethnic or tribal origin
- Rape is used as a weapon of war
- Contagious diseases and epidemics are common
- People do not have access to vital medicines
It can also be difficult to work in countries where:
- Homosexuality may be punishable by law
- Prostitution is common
MSF is looking to recruit mature professionals who have the personal, technical and professional skills to easily adapt to different cultures, difficult living conditions and stressful environments. Flexibility and adaptability are two important properties required to function in a humanitarian project. MSF needs individuals who thrive in environments that are constantly changing.
MSF prioritizes staff safety. You may be assigned to live and work in insecure environments where your life is at risk.
Safety instructions, plans, guidelines and protocols have been developed to manage risks and are included in all projects.
MSF staff must understand that they represent MSF 24 hours a day, 7 days a week while working in a project, even in their leisure time and on their holidays. Team members have a responsibility to safeguard their own safety and that of the team.
MSF safety regulations may limit your freedom of movement and/or contact with the locals in your free time. There may be curfews, and you can be forced to remain in the MSF area when the working day is over. You should consider this if you, for example, like to be out walking or jogging. It may also be a concern if you find it difficult to imagine being restricted to one place for long periods.
To work overseas with MSF, you must get used to food, housing, pace of living, entertainment, languages and societies that are different from what you're accustomed to. It means a different lifestyle in which your privacy and leisure time may be limited. You may not have access to a private bathroom, but instead share a latrine and a makeshift shower with the other team members. Perhaps you will not be able to exercise in your favorite sports during a mission.
MSF projects can be localized to areas with severe weather conditions (extreme heat or cold, high humidity and heavy precipitation or dry desert climate). You may need to live in a mud hut or a tent, without fans or air conditioning, endure irritating insects or manage with limited electricity and a limited range of food for months on end.
It may also be that you'll stay in a spacious house with all the amenities along with kitchen and cleaning staff, while the people you're helping must survive under the simplest possible conditions. Some international mobile staff can find it difficult to manage this paradox.
You should ask yourself how important material comfort is to you before you seek employment with MSF.
Humanitarian work in disaster situations can be very stressful. There are many things that can cause stress and cause you to lose the incentive to work: for example strained relationships with team members, health problems, lack of contact with friends and relatives back home, lack of security, constant changes in the project, problematic contact with local authorities, tough living conditions and poor nutrition.
Think about how you handle stress in ordinary cases. Be honest with yourself. If you are afraid of trouble, and at all costs try to avoid it, MSF is definitely not for you. Being part of a programme staff team means that you always have to be prepared to solve problems.
Consider the following:
- Have you lived with and worked in groups of 3-10 people for lengthy periods?
- Are you good at communicating and making things work?
- Can you ignore your own problems to get your work done?
- What things stress you and how do you handle it working in a team?
Personal relationships and family
Working abroad means being away from your loved ones for a long period, usually 6-12 months. Some people see humanitarian work as a way of healing themselves or escaping from personal situations. It is never a good idea. Think about what it would mean for you to give up your normal life in Sweden for up to a year.
Also, think about how it would affect you psychologically to work in a foreign environment. Travelling on an assignment can be exciting, but having witnessed traumatic events on an assignment may be difficult for you and/or family members who might not understand what you are talking about or how it has affected you.
Working in a foreign culture inevitably means communication problems and misunderstandings. You may be assigned to a country with an entirely different view of things such as coming to work on time, taking responsibility and respecting others' privacy.
Previous experience living and working in low resource settings is always an advantage but it is no guarantee that MSF's placement will be successful.
To be tolerant of people who do not behave or think like you is of utmost importance. Think about whether you can live close to and respect people with different views and traditions than your own.
This page is intended to give you some idea of what working in foreign environments can be like. We hope you have considered these things carefully. There are thousands of people who have worked for MSF over the years and who have found programme work stimulating and rewarding. For many, it has been a life changing experience.
Working for MSF is more about making a gesture than seeking adventure or looking for a job. By joining MSF, you are aligning yourself with a solidarity towards people in need.
Being there with men, women and children in distress sends a deeply meaningful message to them: "You are not forgotten."