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:

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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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Keizer August 31, 2009 at 4:07 pm

For me, the issue is not only in the ad but also in the way MSF UK mishandled its communications around the add (“metacommunications”, if guess). Their website manager’s appearance (and subsequent disappearance) under the guise of only representing his personal opinion and not MSF’s might or might not be true, but it reflects extremely negatively on our credibility next time we try to do advocacy. I tried to broach this subject on Duckrabbit, but only received abuse from the blog manager(s) — being called “patronizing”, “petty”, and “a piece of work”. That, of course, will do a lot of good, too (irony intended).

Pete Masters August 31, 2009 at 11:52 pm

Hi Jon, sorry to disappoint, but it has been a bank holiday in the UK and I have spent a long weekend away without an internet connection. I’m sure you can understand that we do not have teams of staff handling comments and social networking on a day to day basis. My part in this debate has happened, for the most part, in my own time and was an attempt to discuss an ad that I thought would be controversial. I admit that the debate has been bigger than I expected and I have struggled to keep up with it at times, but I have a job to do as well. I respect and welcome your opinions and I sincerely hope we can learn something from them. My aim in joining this debate was to engage with people who have an opinion about MSF, not to garner some sort of ‘splash’ online in the hope that our recognition will rise…If you’ll do me the favour of hanging on a bit I will respond to your points on the NYU blog

@Michael Keizer, please see the above… My disappearance has been a long weekend away, not an embarassed retreat. As for our ‘metacommunications strategy’, there is no guise. My opinion is my own, not MSF’s. This ad was released in the cinemas to the general public anyway and I am surprised that you think my discussing it will have a negative impact on our future advocacy

As I said, I will respond to Jon’s points on the NYU blog as soon as I can.

duckrabbitblog September 1, 2009 at 1:05 am

@Michael …

Hi Michael … your comments on duckrabbit blog seemed offensive towards the web editor of MSF calling him disingenuous) who I invited to write something for us. You then went on to insinuate that he should be disciplined for doing so. For that reason I suggested that you were coming across as a nasty piece of work (not that you are one). You should understand how people might perceive your attitude.

The logical conclusion of your argument is that MSF should not debate this advert. If you had looked later on the blog you will see that Pete followed up on the comments, but he cannot be expected to follow up on all of them.

Please try and show a little more understanding and respect. If you do then something good might come out of this, otherwise its back to the ivory tower …

Michael Keizer September 1, 2009 at 2:02 am

@duckrabbitblog: The logical conclusion is not at all that MSF should not discuss the ad — in fact, I would strongly suggest that they finally come out and do so, officially. What I am saying (repeatedly) is that:
a. Pete is perceived by many as representing MSF, and consequently is representing MSF. This will almost always happen when MSFers speak out, which is why the organisation has such strict regulations on the matter. This is exacerbated by Pete himself suggesting in e.g. his first posting on Osocio that he is representing MSF. (The fact that you invited him as web editor of MSF, as you yourself repeat here again, makes it doubly clear that he is not there ‘à titre personnel’.)
b. That having somebody representing MSF (in the sense as I explain under a.) while saying that he isn’t has grave repercussions on our credibility, and hence on the advocacy work that we do. In other words: this is damaging our work. Directly.
c. Pete does not seem to realise this (as is again illustrated by his reply here) and apparently should be encouraged a bit more strongly to realise the consequences of his actions. If the only way to do that is by disciplinary action, well, so be it — although I sincerely hope it does not need to get that far.
The main conclusion here is that MSF should come out and discuss this ad, and if Pete would be the ‘official’ face of MSF to do so I would be more than okay with that — in fact, I would say that in view of the fact that he has been the ‘unofficial’ face for this entire debate, MSF could do worse than to assign him as spokesperson on this issue.

Finally I would definitely say that whatever I wrote showed a lot more understanding and respect towards Pete than your name-calling did towards me.

@Pete: see my reply above for the reasons why I feel that you really should reconsider your communications. I would strongly suggest that you discuss this with your managers within MSF UK before you continue any further.

Pete Masters September 1, 2009 at 2:09 am

@Michael Keizer

I appreciate your comments and understand what you are saying. I will take your suggestion on board.

duckrabbitblog September 1, 2009 at 7:37 am

surreal …

George Darroch September 2, 2009 at 2:08 am

I am not appalled or incensed, and really struggle to think why you would be.

A boy is in pain. He is being treated by doctors. They are not “fabricating suffering”. This is the reality of MSF, and represents what they do in a completely honest fashion.

Jon Thompson September 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Thank you very much for your feedback. The reason I dislike the video so much is because it was fabricated from start to finish and does not accurately represent the realities of the field. I feel it is unfair to our supporters and to my fellow MSF volunteers to distort what we experience.
My concern is that people will now begin to distrust MSF’s motives and question their marketing material thus rendering it ineffective.
I have used your comment in my latest post.
Thanks again and best regards,

sideways September 2, 2009 at 3:46 pm


I thought this debate was about the MSF video, not about what MSF should or should not do with Pete.
Sorry Michael, but, as a reader, I couldn’t care less about your opinon, regarding MSF’s idiosyncracy or regarding what you think about Pete’s behaviour . He has been kind enough to leave his comments and we all interacted for the debate’s sake. Let it be.

Besides this, you mentioned that he suggested in Osocio that he was representing MSF but the only thing he said was his job title: “My name is Pete and I am the web editor here at MSF UK”. You also said that his testimony is affecting the credibility (I don’t know if you put this in the paragraph a, b or c). Michael, people reading this stuff are grwon up so let them decide about Pete and MSF’s credibility. You are not our spokesperson, thank God.

Focusing on the main topic, still the video, I would like to say that I find it manipulative and not honest as they have used the child’s voice out of context. This is what happens when you are more interested in shocking people than in telling real stories.
However, I will stick to what Pete said in different websites(Osocio, duckrabbit, this very one) about keeping all these comments in mind for future adds. MSF is an amazing organization and I am sure it will use this flood of opinons to grow bigger and stronger.

Paul C September 3, 2009 at 4:47 am

I left this comment on the duckrabbit blog, but I’m going to leave it here as well. The advert sickened me not because it shows the “reality” of MSF’s work – MSF’s work is not shown – but because it’s a throwback to the kind of advertising that made me angry even when I was starting to work in this field.

“There’s a little thing that MSF may have heard of (although they don’t subscribe to it) called the Red Cross Code of Conduct. Point 10 of the code states: “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.” This advert very clearly depicts hopeless objects rather than dignified humans, It also reinforces the stereotype historically peddled by British charities that They (the poor, the dark, the Other, however you want to view it) are helpless, and We are the only ones who can provide help.

“MSF does good work in the field, there’s no doubt about that, but by allowing this advert to be shown, you have shown that you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Why not try to engage and educate the British public, rather than patronise them with this throwback to the worst 20th century fundraising tropes? These people are not just victims waiting for MSF to save them, and to pretend that they are is to sacrifice the reality of their lives for the sake of your media profile.”

Michael Keizer September 3, 2009 at 5:51 pm

@sideways: I would disagree with you on principle, but the whole discussion has become moot now that MSF UK finally has come out with an authoritative voice, and I think to continue this discussion only for principle’s sake would be counter-productive. So I will take your suggestion and “let it be”.

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