Positioning, Politics and Pertinence
Natalie Roberts

This article explores the actions of Médecins Sans Frontières during the 2018–20 Ebola outbreak in Nord Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Based on the experiences of practitioners involved in the response, including the author, and on the public positioning of MSF during the first year of the epidemic, it argues that although the actions of response actors were usually well intentioned, they could rarely be described as lifesaving, may have exacerbated disease transmission as much as limited it and had the perverse effect of fuelling corruption and violence. The article documents and analyses contradictions in MSF’s moral and technical positioning, and the complicated relationship between the organisation and the international and Congolese institutions leading the response. It argues that the medical and social failure of the response was the result of an initial belief in a strategy designed at a time when the only realistically attainable outcome was to relieve suffering, and of the later inability of the organisation to convince the authorities in charge of the response to adjust their approach. It suggests that for future success new protocols must be elaborated and agreed based on a better social and political comprehension and a better understanding of the tools now available.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs