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.

About Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is an Associate Researcher on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Matthew holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which was ethnographic study of HIV/AIDS treatment programmes to displaced communities in northern Uganda. Over the past five years he has conducting research in inner-city Johannesburg on themes of migration, religion, health and housing. He is beginning new research looking at African migration to Brazil.

Matthew has published widely in different books and journals including Medical Anthropology, Critical African Studies and the African Cities Reader, and a number of newspapers and journalistic publications including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Chimurenga Chronic and the ConMag. He is the lead editor of the book 'Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg' to published by Palgrave-MacMilllan.