Doctors Without Borders Employees Sign Letter Calling For End To Institutional Racism

Jul 15, 2020
Originally published on July 15, 2020 5:13 pm
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Worldwide mobilization against racism has reached a Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid organization, Doctors Without Borders. That organization has provided critical care to people in some of the world's most desperate and dangerous conflict zones for decades. But over the past month, more than 1,000 current and former staffers have signed a letter charging the organization with racism and white supremacy. Tomorrow, the group's international board plans to vote on a raft of measures to begin dismantling what even top officials there agree is a pattern of institutional racism. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: One of the staffers who signed the letter alleging racism within Doctors Without Borders is Margaret Ngunang. She's a Cameroonian immigrant who had a long career in the U.S. as a social worker before she joined the aid group in 2017.

MARGARET NGUNANG: I thought it was a great organization, given the work that they were doing in countries that have experienced war and famine.

AIZENMAN: The possibility that she'd face racial discrimination from them...

NGUNANG: It did not cross my mind at all.

AIZENMAN: But Ngunang says the microaggressions began literally the moment she reached her first posting, a hospital run by the aid group in South Sudan. Suitcases still in hand, Ngunang and another new arrival, also an American of African descent, walked into the office of a top official.

NGUNANG: A white female, you know, talking to two people. And when we said hello to this woman, she ignored us. You know, she turned, looked at us and continued talking.

AIZENMAN: Over the following weeks, again and again Ngunang would notice white staffers treating white colleagues one way - warmly, respectfully - while for people like her with Black skin and an African accent, when they weren't being ignored...

NGUNANG: You have everything that you do being put under the microscope. Everything that you do is questioned.

AIZENMAN: But Ngunang says the situation was far worse for local South Sudanese staff. For them, a job with Doctors Without Borders was too precious to risk complaining, even when white staffers would talk down to them and berate them.

NGUNANG: You know, it was just very traumatizing to see that, to hear that because coming from Cameroon, it brought back the colonial mentality.

AIZENMAN: Christos Christou is president of the international board of Doctors Without Borders. He questions how widespread incidents of outright racism are across the organization's many missions. But he says there is no question the organization is built on a problematic model - essentially the idea of the white savior.

CHRISTOS CHRISTOU: The white doctor going and providing assistance to the people there in Africa and especially to little African kids.

AIZENMAN: And so Christou is calling for a total rethink.

CHRISTOU: The whole way of distributing the decision-making power, also the resources.

AIZENMAN: But how much of this talk will translate into progress on the ground? Africa Stewart is the president of Doctors Without Borders' U.S. board. She points to her own election back in 2017 as a sign of the appetite for change. Consider, she notes, who raised her.

AFRICA STEWART: A surgical scrub tech - my mom - who could not go to nursing school and her bastard daughter and - with a Black Panther dad named Africa. I mean, this is - was I not born for this?

AIZENMAN: But she also notes that earlier measures that she and others have pushed, like a plan adopted by the international board to increase the pay parity between international staff and local staff - it's taken years to actually implement.

STEWART: It feels like it's - we're part of the solution. But it also feels like, well, damn it. How long does it take to wear down a mountain?

AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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