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Erwin van ‘t Land is the General Director of Leger Uten Grenser, a position he took over from Anne-Cecilie Kaltenborn. Originally from the Netherlands, over the past 19 years Erwin has worked in the MSF offices in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sydney, Geneva and Brussels respectively, before now settling in Oslo. His work for the international humanitarian organisation, mainly as communication specialist, has brought him to emergency medical projects in dozens of countries. He was part of the first-response teams in, among other crises, Kosovo in 1999 and Aceh, Indonesia immediately after the tsunami in 2004.
When I was in Pakistan at the end of 2001, the most frequent question I was asked about MSF was: Who is funding you? Following the September 11 attacks, the United States and their allies were carrying out an intense bombing campaign on Afghanistan. As a result, people in Pakistan were extremely suspicious of anything Western, assuming that organisations that have their headquarters in Northern America or Western Europe were part of the broader US-led coalition and pursuing a hidden agenda of retaliation, or even cultural and economic expansion. The suspicion was anything but short-lived. In 2009, while I was on assignment in Kabul, that same question came up time and time again in the conversations I had with Afghans.
Who is funding you? The answer is important for so many people because they assume that organisations align their objectives and priorities with those of the governments that give them the means to do their work. Often this may be a misperception, but for correcting this it is not particularly helpful if Western military leaders speak of non-governmental organisations as their “force multipliers” or United Nations coordinators promote “integrated approaches”. In such thinking the humanitarian imperative of simply helping those people who need it most urgently becomes secondary to broader strategies, such as a war on terror, peace-building or economic development.
«…my answer to Afghans and Pakistani was crystal clear: all our work in your country is funded by ordinary people, citizens like you, whose sole desire is that you and your family can see a doctor if you need one.»
MSF chooses to rely largely on private funds: donations from the public, grants from foundations and support from corporations. We accept some funding from governments (over recent years around 10% of our budget), but not in situations of conflict where those same governments play a military role, however small that role may be. In 1999 this meant that we turned down financial support from the Norwegian government for our work in Kosovo, as NATO started a bombing campaign on what was left of Yugoslavia. In the examples above, my answer to Afghans and Pakistani was crystal clear: all our work in your country is funded by ordinary people, citizens like you, whose sole desire is that you and your family can see a doctor if you need one.
Being funded by private donations is a safeguard against interference from political, military or economic motives in our work. Our aim, in any emergency, is simply to establish who needs our help urgently and bring them the assistance they require to survive and get healthy again. Full stop.
There are of course other emergencies during which we gratefully accept support from governments. This is particularly the case in sudden crises for which nobody can really be prepared. Think of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean at Christmas in 2004, or the earthquake in Haiti early in 2010, or the devastating Ebola outbreak that swept a trail of death through West Africa last year. In such situations, as for projects in more stable environments, funds released by governments such as the Norwegian remain an essential complement to private donations. Actually, among the many reasons why I am excited to lead the Norwegian section of MSF is the knowledge that both the Norwegian public and their government are strong supporters of the principled approach that we bring to humanitarian assistance.
But relying on private funds so strongly for our medical work in over 65 countries, while keeping our spending on administration and fundraising low – traditionally, around 80% or more of our budget is spent directly on assisting people in distress and advocating for their cause – requires a delicate balancing act. The unpredictable nature of our work as first responders to new health emergencies only makes it more complex. This is why we invite members of the public to support us on ongoing basis.
And this is also why support from the corporate sector is so crucial. Building relationships with companies has important benefits for both of us. For corporations it means having a secondary motivation alongside the commercial objectives that inspires employees and gives them an additional source of pride for the company they work for. It provides a bedding for organising meaningful activities (we are always very happy to come and do a presentation about our work). For MSF, it means strengthening our base of private funding; in the end it means that you help us reach people who are struggling to survive faster, better, and with less interference.
We are extremely grateful for the support that Amesto is giving us already and hope to build on this in the years ahead of us.
Erwin van ’t Land
Generalsekretær, Leger Uten Grenser
General Director, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Norway
+47 940 12 874