Crossing the Borders of Humanitarianism: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Inner-City Johannesburg
Wilhelm-Solomon, M. and Pedersen, J. (2016) Crossing the Borders of Humanitarianism: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Inner-City Johannesburg Urban Forum [DOI:10.1007/s12132-016-9285-9]
This paper is an account of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Brussel’s projects in Johannesburg from 2007 to 2013, drawing on the ethnographic research of an external researcher (Wilhelm-Solomon) and MSF health worker and project leader (Pedersen). We argue, based on this case study—spanning responses including interventions targeted at mass migration, xenophobic violence, cholera and finally involving health, waste and sanitation interventions in inner-city unlawfully occupied buildings—that urban humanitarianism in inner-city Johannesburg evolved from reworking contested humanitarian principles in dense and diverse urban spaces. We argue here that humanitarian interventions in urban spaces not only require a departure from short-term biomedical operations and evaluations but also a questioning of the politics and principles of humanitarianism. In particular, this requires emphasising solidarity over neutrality, and committing to long-term engagements without immediate and verifiable medical outcomes, in which sustaining relations of trust are paramount and adaptation is a key. In the case of MSF in inner-city Johannesburg, we argue that operations crossed the present borders of humanitarianism, and that this was tied to their achievements but also eventual limitations and project closure.
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