Debating Racism - Suggestions Kit

Read/Replay debates Outcomes

Suggestions for MSF discussions about racism

Download the document in ENGLISH - in FRENCH  - in SPANISH - in ARABIC 

These suggestions are not meant to be prescriptive but rather to answer requests we have been receiving from you for guidance on how to engage with this topic. Please feel free to discuss in whatever way works for you and is most relevant for the context where you and your colleagues are.

Racism is not an abstract problem. It effects people in MSF and it effects the patients we treat. Understanding racism, beyond its dictionary definition, is important for us in building a cohesive movement, in engaging with communities and social movements and in understanding barriers in access to health care. This means that understanding structural racism is not only important for our teams but can also help to build better operations. We need to learn how to be a better anti-racist organisation, and your thoughts about how to do this are important.

Discussion about structural racism in MSF has been taking place for a long time. Many of us in MSF have been part of these discussions in our communities, with social movements and with our patients. Others in MSF have remained relatively isolated from this conversation and may feel ill-equipped to engage in these discussions today.

In any discussions about racism in MSF, it is important to first acknowledge the problem. MSF is not immune from the structures of racism that exist around us and that have shaped society at large and the humanitarian sector since its inception. The problem in MSF has indeed been acknowledged, as you can read in the list of key reading documents below.

We also need to recognise that for some of us, the topic of racism is an important discussion, while for others it is their lived realities and experiences. Approaching this as a normal point of spirited debate will not create a safe space for people to express themselves. This is a topic that needs to be addressed carefully and seriously.

Many people are tired of talking and want to see action being taken. There are a number of initiatives underway in MSF to address ‘Diversity and Inclusion’. However, as acknowledged by the core Excom, these initiatives have moved too slowly.

At OCB a joint working group between the executive and OCB board has been set up to develop an action oriented agenda for tackling racism. The working group will be focused on mapping the forms of racism in OCB, developing a roadmap to address the various barriers that exist to participation, decision making and recourse and will create safe spaces for discussions on racism to happen in OCB. This will happen in complementarity to the work being done by the GAREC to improve its ability to deal with cases of racism. The working group will have the support of an external consultant to map racism within the organisation and to propose a roadmap for addressing this.

Suggestions for organising a discussion

There are a number of principles that we want to propose regarding the organising of discussions on racism among colleagues:

Listening and respect are vital. We need to foster a spirit where all MSF members can feel free to speak up, to express their opinion and be treated with respect. Opinions may be divergent but we need to ensure that MSFers listen to each other and consider their words so as to not to cause harm. Discussions on racism require active listening, especially from those who have not directly experienced racism. Be sensitive to the fact that some people might not feel comfortable expressing themselves.

Not being defensive. Some conversations may be uncomfortable for some of us. However, being defensive can limit the discussion and is a barrier to the creation of a meaningful space for people to express their experiences. Please try actively listening and acknowledging hurt or harm before, or instead of, taking a defensive position.

Focus on the topic. In our experience, discussions on racism can quickly become about other forms of discrimination. This is normal, many of us will bring to this discussion our own experiences of discrimination, whether it is in the form of sexism, homophobia, classism etc. And indeed, all of these issues intersect with racism and often require a collective response. However, when we talk about racism we also need to give space to focus on the specifics of this problem.

Often the discussions on racism are derailed by a lack of common understanding of the words being used.

To avoid misunderstandings based on terminology, this might be a useful glossary of terms

Practical matters

In cases where there have been direct acts of racism experienced by an individual, OCB has a mechanism through the GAREC to report such abuses. We want to make sure that all employees of OCB in the field have access the GAREC and we encourage you to report any behavioural issues.

At the same time, a working group has been set up that will also look at the more structural dimensions of racism in OCB. It will be important for this working group to receive the input of as wide a variety of perspectives as possible. We therefore encourage you to provide feedback directly to the working group on the discussions among your colleagues.

Useful contacts:

Here is a (non exhaustive) list of background reading you might find useful

OCB Members Contributions

Un prisme différent ou de la pureté de l’immobilisme, by Jean-Paul Jemmy, OCB Board member

I am black and I too am MSF, by Agnes Musonda, MSF SA President

Where am I? With Who? by Jackson K. P Naimah, OCB Board member

Response to the Open letter on racism within MSF Brazil, from the Board and management team

Open letter on racism within MSF Brazil
The MSF Brazil association shared this open letter written by members about racism in Brazil.

MSF still has a racism problem, by Jonathan Whittall

Letter to OCB Codir

Let us in! It is 2020: Reflections on racism and discrimination in MSF, by Karsten Noko, FieldCo in South Sudan, and Nitin George, June 2020

OCB Board and executive contributions

Addressing Racism in OCB, by Meinie and the Codir

OCB Board recording and minutes


BLM, recognise the truth, listen and act, By Christos Christou and Samuel Bumicho, Members of the People Standing Committee of the International Board.

Other International Contributions

It's not Ok, so let's plant a tree

A reflection on systematic inequality, racism, and what it means for each of us, By Javid Abdelmoneim, President of MSF UK.

De l'inertie bureaucratique à la "fragilité politique" - Une interview de Jean-Hervé Bradol

For more through overview please refer to synthesis on the Souk  
(Login: msf - Password: asso)


By: Sophie Guillaumie