MSF UK – Your Silence Is Deafening

by Jon Thompson on August 31, 2009

I have been trying to sit this one out. I really did not want to write about the new MSF Boy video but I feel I have to now that the people who made it have disappeared from the online discussion. By not continuing the comment threads on various blogs the Comms team at MSF UK has just spawned many new discussions.

Here is the video but I WARN YOU THAT IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO WATCH. Please think about whether or not you really want to view it before you click play. If you are like me, an aid worker and a parent, my guess is that you are going to be incensed and appalled. Ok, I warned you:

It is so sad that an organization that I am so proud to have worked for could stoop to such a low level. I don’t think that this is indicative of MSF as a whole, every MSF volunteer I have spoken to has immediately condemned this video, I think it was just the Comms unit going it alone. Sadly, I don’t think that any of them have the field experience they should have if they are going to be producing pieces like this.

The other problem is that they bought the pitch from some apparently famous outfit in London called McCann Erickson. It looks like the ad agency comp’d MSF some hours, which is a noble deed, but the product they turned out crossed the line.

I am not going to get into the ‘even bad press is good press’ discussion right now but it suffices to say that if you are playing these cards then you are losing the game. There has been a lot of debate about this ad here, here and here. The Road To The Horizon has just posted their opinion here.

There is a lot of stuff that we see every day out there that the average person cannot possibly understand. I’ve seen enough wounded, sick and dying kids that I really don’t need my own organization fabricating suffering just to charm a few bucks out of me. Clearly others haven’t and they are obviously MSF’s intended audience. How is this approach any different than the beggar on the street who shows you his deformity so that you’ll give him more money? He may need to do so but we don’t. We are aid workers – we don’t go there.

Contrast that video with this one:


The story of charity: water – The 2009 September Campaign Trailer from charity: water on Vimeo.

I believe Scott Harrison. He has made me feel good, not awful. He didn’t need to horrify his donors to raise funds. No, he just asked people to help him and they did. Of course we don’t know what his field impact is but I can see what Charity: Water‘s online impact has been:

Picture 9

This may show the reason for MSF’s desperate approach. Too bad they cannot figure out that going positive pays better dividends than going negative.

In the field we do our best not to debase ourselves. We work in some of the most brutal environments imaginable with corruption and brutality a part of our daily routine yet we somehow manage to avoid getting sucked into that mess. We are not angels, far from it. We have just learned that by taking the high road we can usually save more lives. I think that is what has riled so many of us: We stick to our guns, no matter what, and so should the people we work with.

I have questioned the authenticity of the video here. To me it appears that they have layered multiple pieces of content to affect a certain outcome. Sadly, what the piece doesn’t show, and what you cannot hear, is the MSF staff member, nurse, etc walking in, putting their arm around the kid and telling him that he is safe now and that we are going to take care of him.

I have yet to receive a response to the questions I linked to above. There is something telling in the way a silence has descended over the MSF UK web team in the days since they asked for our feedback. I don’t think they meant ill, I just don’t think they understood the price we have paid to build this world and that we would never let them tear it apart.

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