MSF – Mapping, Knowledge Sharing and the Limits of Humanitarianism

Last week, I attended the first of two Medecins sans Frontieres’/Doctors without Borders (MSF) ‘Scientific Days’. From my snap poll (aka stealthily reading peoples’ name badges) many of the attendees were MSF employees or volunteers and so this conference gave me a privileged insight into the challenges, dilemmas and opportunities facing one of the world’s biggest humanitarian response agencies. True, some of the talks went a little over my head (‘A potential revolution in type 1 diabetes care: heat stability of insulin in tropical conditions’ anyone?), but there was a lot to absorb and take in, particularly as an outsider. What was refreshing was to see an organisation reflecting (sometimes critically) on the way it works and to have a more open discussion of some of the issues and challenges that it faces – many of which do not have easy answers. It’s the sort of discussion that normally takes place behind closed doors, so to see it happening in front of relative strangers was impressive and credit to MSF for doing it. So, for what it’s worth here are some of my takeaway thoughts:

  • Digital mapping has huge potential, but doing it well and making sure it meets real needs can be incredibly complex. The first of the day’s sessions focused on digital mapping and how it can be used to support humanitarian response work. Indigo has some experience in this field, having recently awarded a grant to MapAction to support the roll-out and testing of their digital mapping platform. Digital mapping in normal circumstances is difficult enough, but in humanitarian emergencies the challenges are often amplified. On-the-ground staff may lack sufficient internet access or bandwidth to access digital maps – indeed, during the Yolanda/Haiyan typhoon that hit the Philippines, MSF’s mapping team had to print out maps at HQ and send them by plane to local response centres. Even with access, mapping may only present a partial view of the real situation. Population movements and migration can rapidly make maps outdated, new and volunteer mappers may lack the necessary skills to be able to carry out accurate and detailed work and getting the involvement and buy-in of local communities in digital mapping can be very challenging. One of the more interesting challenges is deciding where to map. In an ideal world, mapping would be completed before any disaster. But often mappers are only deployed to areas once a disaster hits. In this instance, humanitarian responders are always one step behind. A key challenge for humanitarian mappers is to become more proactive in their approach to mapping, but doing so will require more resources and data – two things that are not always easy to come by.
  • Knowledge sharing is a challenge for many organisations – big and small. MSF’s Scientific Days are on way in which MSF staff get the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas, but there was a clear demand for greater knowledge sharing opportunities among MSF teams and workers worldwide. Not reinventing the wheel is an over-used phrase, but does capture the dilemma facing many organisations when it comes to tech projects in particular.
  • The limits of humanitarian emergencies and response are increasingly complex. Many people would view humanitarian response as a short-term fix to acute problems. Once the immediate threats have been dealt with, it is up to government, charities and others to complete the task of rebuilding and development. But many of the deployments that MSF now faces involve chronic, long-term situations. Consider the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. Having been forced to leave their homes, many now face uncertain futures in foreign countries. While their immediate needs for shelter and food may have been met, they may well face ongoing health and welfare challenges – chronic diseases, psychological scars and a whole range of related conditions. In such situations, what is the ‘proper’ response of a humanitarian agency? Where should MSF and others draw the line? These questions have no easy answers, but they are questions that humanitarian organisations face and they’re unlikely to go away anytime soon.

These are just three topics that interest me, but there are many others I could have written about. What’s clear is that the range of challenges and complexities facing humanitarian agencies is vast, but there is clear evidence of innovative approaches being adopted and an increasing role being given to all forms of technology – whether mobile-based data collection, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), remote sensing or telemedicine. Who knows what the future looks like.