Abstract – “Nationals” and “expatriates”: Challenges of fulfilling “sans frontières” (“without borders”) ideals in international humanitarian action

Olga Shevchenko and Renée C. Fox
Health and Human Rights 10/1
Published June 2008


The international humanitarian organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is strongly committed to principles of universalism, egalitarianism, and equity, in both its internal and external relations. Nevertheless, the organization distinguishes between so-called “national” staff members (those who are indigenous to the countries where MSF projects are located), and “expatriate” staff (those who are involved in projects outside their countries of residence), in certain ways that it has self-critically termed “discriminatory,” “colonialist,” and even “racist.” It has resolved to rem – edy such practices. Through a first-hand case study of MSF activities in Russia, this article demonstrates that the dynamics of the “nationals”/“expatriates” divide is a more complex phenomenon than MSF’s self-accusatory diagnosis implies; that a fuller recognition and utilization of nationals’ local knowledge would mitigate some of the conditions of inequality and inequity that they experience; but that it would not necessarily be desirable to expunge all differences between the two groups of staff. Furthermore, because they are intrinsic to the structure and conditions of international humanitarian action, some of these differences could not easily be eliminated by MSF, or by any other organization engaged in this kind of action.