In 1971, a group of French doctors working with the International Red Cross during a famine in Biafra, Nigeria, decided to break off. They were led by Bernard Kouchner and Max Racamier They started their own organisation to provide quicker relief to places where it was most needed. They found that often, politics came in the way of providing relief.
And that the bigger an organisation became, the slower its response was to a disaster. The basic principle of MSF is volunteerism. Doctors may volunteer a year of their lives. Nurses take off from their regular jobs to travel to an earthquake-hit spot, providing relief for a few months.
And engineers can provide logistic support in putting up make shift hospitals or clinics.
Within a year, when an earthquake hit Nicaragua, the Doctors without Borders were ready.
They moved in to save all whom they could in this natural calamity. In 1975, when millions of Cambodians fled the brutal Khymer Rouge regime, MSF moved into the refugee camps.
MSF has handled famines in Africa, earthquakes in Central America, hurricanes, refugee crises…by the time war broke out in Lebanon, MSF had acquired enough doctors and logistic support to arrive overnight and set up full-fledged operation theatres in tents, right in the midst of a battle zone.
There have been controversies too. In 1985, in the height of the Ethiopian famine, MSF were expelled from the region by the government. Unlike a number of other aid agencies, they believe in speaking out.
And they did…accusing the government of diverting food donated by international aid agencies for the famine affected, to their army and other citizens who were not in dire need.
During the exodus of refugees leaving Vietnam in boats, the MSF split. One group believed in focussing their efforts on only providing medical help.
Another group believed in taking a more active role in the lives of those they treated. For instance, they believed they needed to not only medically treat the Vietnamese Boat people, but also help them escape, providing them better boats, provisions, etc.
Today, volunteers and donors from 19 countries support the work of these fearless doctors who live normal everyday lives most of the time. But suddenly pack up their safe practises and dash off to some disaster zone, within a few days' notice…helping people from countries they've never visited, whose language they don't speak or whose religion they don't understand.
Their only belief is that all humans have a right to good medical treatment and those who get treated first are those who need treatment most urgently.
When MSF doctors arrive at a disaster spot to treat victims of a war or natural calamity, they arrive from all corners of the world.
French and Japanese doctors, with no knowledge of each other's languages would team up with Belgian nurses, Greek medical students and Swiss engineers to save people from a cholera epidemic and simultaneously dig wells to provide alternate sources of clean, unpolluted drinking water.
The methods that MSF has developed have proved so effective in getting aid into disaster zones at the utmost speed, that governments, the United Nations Aid organisations and many others across the world have now adopted MSF methods as standard practise. In 1999, this organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Their work continues in all corners of the world. It goes on quietly, and no longer hits the headlines.
But millions across the globe owe their lives to these doctors.