MSF is often associated with images of doctors risking their lives while performing war surgery in dangerous contexts. Providing primary healthcare to populations in complex emergencies is undoubtedly difficult and challenging, but it may not always be as spectacular and heroic as people imagine.

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Before you fill in an application to work overseas with MSF you should take time to reflect on the reasons why you are making this important decision.

  • Do you have romanticised notions of what this work entails?
  • Are you making an informed choice?
  • Are your motivations and values a good match for the mission and mandate of MSF?
  • Are you prepared to have your expectations and ideas challenged?

Working in the field

You should be aware of some issues MSF workers often face in the field with respect to working and living in unfamiliar environments under extremely difficult and stressful conditions. 

This exercise is not a psychological test. It is designed to help you assess your motivation, professional aspirations and emotional well-being.

In other words it is a space to think about yourself, your commitment to humanitarian aid in the types of contexts where MSF is present and about some of the constraints you may face while providing this aid.

An MSF doctor treating a child in a hospital ward in Kenya

Before you apply

Please consider the following information carefully before you submit your application.
By applying to work with MSF you should be aware that the organisation strives to provide access to healthcare for the most vulnerable populations in countries where:

  • Blatant human rights abuses may take place.
  • Homosexuality may be punishable by law.
  • Women, children and men, depending on their social, ethnic or tribal origin, may not enjoy rights commonly accepted and recognized in Western societies.
  • Rape may be used as a weapon of war.
  • Infectious diseases and epidemics are common.
  • People may not have access to essential drugs.

MSF is looking for field workers with personal, technical and professional skills that allow them to easily adapt to different cultures, difficult living conditions and stressful environments. Flexibility and adaptability are two essential qualities for work in the field. MSF needs individuals who thrive in constantly changing environments.

Security

Staff security is a top priority for MSF. You may live and work in insecure environments where your life may be in danger. Security briefings, plans, guidelines and protocols have been designed to manage risks and are part of every project.
You will represent MSF twenty four hours a day, seven days a week while on a project, even during off-duty hours and holiday time. You and your team members are responsible for protecting your own security and the security of the team.
MSF’s safety regulations may restrict your freedom of movement or your ability to interact with local populations outside of working hours. You may be under curfew and required to remain in the MSF compound when your working day is over. Consider these possibilities if you enjoy going out regularly or if you have difficulty being confined to the same place for long periods of time.
Please read the Safety & Security page for more details.

Living Conditions

Going overseas with MSF will require you to adjust to unfamiliar food, living quarters, pace of life, forms of entertainment, languages and companions. It will be a different lifestyle in which your privacy and leisure time may be reduced. You will not have a private bathroom and may not be able to practise your favourite sports for the duration of your mission.
MSF projects can be located in places with severe weather conditions (i.e. extreme heat or cold, high humidity and heavy rains or dry desert conditions). You could be living in a mud hut or a tent with no fan or air conditioning, have to tolerate annoying insects and be forced to cope with limited electricity and a poor choice of foods for months at a time.
Conversely, you might live in a spacious house enjoying some familiar luxuries and even cooking and cleaning staff, while the people you are assisting try to survive under the most basic conditions. It can be difficult for some people to live with this paradox.   You should ask yourself how important material comfort is to you before applying to work for MSF.

Stress

Humanitarian work in emergency contexts can be highly stressful. A wide range of issues can cause stress and drain your motivation to work: strained relations with teammates, health problems, lack of communication with your friends and relatives back home, insecurity, frequent changes in the project, difficult relations with local authorities, poor living conditions and diet.
Think about the way you handle stress in your daily life. Be honest with yourself. If you fear problems and seek to avoid them at all costs, then MSF is definitely not for you. Being part of a field team requires you to always be in a problem-solving state of mind.

Consider the following:

  • Have you lived and worked in teams of three to ten people for extended periods?
  • Are you a good communicator and facilitator?
  • Can you put aside personal issues in order to complete your work?
  • What causes you stress and how do you cope with it in a team environment?
  • Are you resilient to challenging circumstances and situations? How do you know?
  • Are you able to reflect on and adapt your behaviour to manage a situation?

An MSF doctor treating a child in a hospital ward in Kenya

Personal / Family

Going overseas means leaving your loved ones behind for long periods of time – usually nine to twelve months. Some people see humanitarian aid work as a way to heal or escape from difficult personal situations. This is never a good idea. Give some thought to the impact of putting your personal life in the UK on hold for up to a year.
Also consider the impact of working in a difficult environment on your state of mind. Leaving for a mission may be exciting, but returning from a field assignment during which you may have witnessed  traumatic events can be quite difficult for you and your relatives.

Cross-culture

Working in an unfamiliar culture may involve miscommunication and misunderstandings. You may be in a country where people have a very different understanding of issues like punctuality at work, responsible behaviour or respect for personal space.
Although past experience in living and working in developing countries is always a bonus, it does not guarantee a successful placement with MSF.
Being tolerant of people who do not act or think like you is of utmost importance. Reflect on your capacity to live closely with, and show respect to, people with beliefs and cultures that differ from yours.

Conclusion

The issues mentioned above are meant to be a reality check  on what working in foreign environments sometimes entails. We hope that you have given them serious thought. Thousands of people who have worked with MSF over the years have found their experiences in the field to be challenging and rewarding. For many, going on a mission has been a life-changing event.
Working for MSF is about making a gesture rather than just seeking adventure or wanting a job. By becoming a field worker you are acting in solidarity with populations in need. Your presence alongside these men, women and children in times of trouble sends a deeply meaningful message to them: "You have not been forgotten."

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