Getting candid with MSF

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Foreign Policy’s list of “500 Most Powerful People on the Planet” has just been announced. Featuring among these 500 influential people is a distinguished Indian, Dr. Unni Karunakara, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières – MSF (Doctors Without Borders). An interview with this prominent yet simple personality.

Unni Karunakara and Luc Didon (director AF Pune) during Bonjour India 2013 in Pune

You are on the list of the “500 Most Powerful People on the Planet”. What does this list mean to you, and moreover, to MSF? Can we talk of this as a recognition of your work and a legitimacy for MSF?

Appearing on the list was something of a surprise. In delivering humanitarian assistance, MSF often finds itself at odds with those who hold real power – governments, armed groups, or corporate interests like pharmaceutical companies.  But we certainly aim to influence those in power to strengthen our ability to reach people in need and to deliver these people with good quality healthcare.

Being on the list can be seen as a recognition of the need for humanitarian medical action and the work we do. Any power or influence we may have comes from the hard work and dedication of 35,000 humanitarians from over 100 countries working to alleviate suffering in 70 countries. And, we benefit from the support of more than 4.5 million donors.

As of today, in which part of the world is MSF the most active ?

Today, MSF is the most active in the continent of Africa, where two-thirds of our programme funds are spent. In 2011, many of our largest programmes were in the Democratic Republic of Congo, followed by Haiti, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Even if MSF is an International Organization, pursuing goals on a worldwide scale, is it manageable for you, as President of this International Organization, to put forward local issues, like the ones happening in your country, India ?

Home visit to a MDR-TB (Multi Drug Resistant – Tuberculosis) patient in Mumbai. India, 2011. Copyright: Claudio Tommasini

MSF is an associative movement. Doctors, nurses, logisticians, and others who work for MSF, or have in the past, can choose to be a member of an MSF association. We currently have 23 associations across the world, which serve as the engine for debate within the movement.  Each association sets broad directions for its executive. It holds them accountable and safeguards the identity of the movement. Local associative chapters can make their own decisions, but for movement-wide decisions at the international level, the associations discuss issues before bringing them to the International General Assembly for vote and endorsement. The International General Assembly is the highest associative body, and as International President, I chair the International General Assembly. If the MSF movement believes a local issue is important for all of us, I will be asked to address it.

The tenure of the president of MSF is a three-year mandate, renewable once. Are you planning to run for re-election for this position ?

No, I will not be seeking another term.  I will be returning to India for a while after being away for more than 20 years.  It has been an honour and a privilege for me to have served as International President for the last three years.

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