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For decades, Doctors Without Borders has been admired for bringing desperately needed medical care to crises around the globe and pioneering modern-day humanitarian aid. It’s an organization with radical roots, promising to do whatever it takes to deliver lifesaving care to people in need. But now, it’s struggling to address institutional racism.
The organization, also known by its French acronym MSF, has about 63,000 people working in 88 countries. While foreign doctors parachuting into crisis zones get most of the attention, 90% of the work is done by local health workers.
In the summer of 2020, more than 1,000 current and former staffers wrote a letter calling out institutional racism at MSF. They say MSF operates a two-tiered system that favors foreign doctors, or expat doctors, over local health workers.
On the eve of MSF’s 50th anniversary, reporters Mara Kardas-Nelson, Ngozi Cole and Sean Campbell talked to about 100 current and former MSF workers to investigate how deep these issues run. We meet Dr. Indira Govender, a South African doctor who in 2011 accepted what she thought was her dream job with MSF in South Africa, only to get a front-row seat to the organization’s institutional racism. Even though she’s officially the second-in-command of her project, she says it feels like a select group of European expats and White South Africans are running the show.
Then, Kardas-Nelson and Cole take us inside the inequities MSF staffers experienced during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. While expat doctors had their meals together and socialized, local health workers were left out. But inequities ran deeper. If expat doctors got sick, they would be evacuated out of the country, while local workers didn’t get that care – they were treated at the same center where they worked. Kardas-Nelson and Cole reported the story from Sierra Leone in the spring of 2021 and spoke to former national MSF clinicians.
Finally, we talk about what can change in humanitarian aid. Govender is part of a group of current and former MSF workers called Decolonize MSF. While she and others are pushing the organization to commit to changes that address racial inequities, some are skeptical about what will actually change.
This week’s episode was created in partnership with the global news site Insider.
Read: Doctors Without Borders saves lives every day. Some insiders say it is also a racist workplace where non-White workers get worse pay, less security and inferior medical care. [Insider]
Lead reporter: Mara Kardas-Nelson | Reporters: Ngozi Cole and Sean Campbell | Editors: Queena Kim and Brett Myers | Lead producer: Katharine Mieszkowski | Producer: Pamela Kirkland
Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Steven Rascón and Claire Mullen | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode photo: Ngozi Cole | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson
Special thanks: John Cook at Insider, Ariya Ahrary and Daniel Gross.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Queena Sook Kim is a senior editor for Reveal. She was previously at KQED, where she supervised the weekend desk. Before that, she headed the Silicon Valley desk and hosted a statewide daily news show, The California Report, for the station. Kim was also a senior reporter covering technology for Marketplace and covered homebuilding and toys at The Wall Street Journal. She has spent much of her career starting up shows and editorial projects for local public radio stations. She most recently edited an eight-part documentary, “The Political Mind of Jerry Brown.” Kim is also the head of audio at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her stories have appeared on NPR, WNYC’s The Takeaway, Here & Now, BBC’s Global Perspective and The New York Times’ multimedia page.
Brett Myers is a senior radio editor for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “Marketplace.”
Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.
Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She’s also been a senior writer for Salon and Fast Company. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Slate and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Her coverage has won national awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award two years in a row, an Online News Association Award, a Webby Award and a Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Mieszkowski has a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.
Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master’s degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles’ LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.
Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.
Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.
Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.
Sullivan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.
Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.
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