Jennifer Tierney started in the role of Executive Director for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Australia in December 2019, taking over from Paul McPhun who was in the role for nine years. She shares her thoughts on the humanitarian aid sector and MSF Australia’s focus.
How did you come to be interested in international humanitarian work?
I grew up in the northeast of the United States in Connecticut, and went to private university in New York state, where I studied international relations and women’s studies. I was the head of the women’s studies group and did a lot of women’s activism work, so that got me into both human rights and gender-based issues. My interests are strongest where women and international issues intersect, and it's not just women but also children, and any vulnerable population really.
From university I went on a study abroad trip, in 1996. I worked on the Thai-Burmese border with a refugee organisation for my internship, where I met two doctors who worked for MSF. They gave a talk to us about their work on malarial drug resistance in that area, and they were smart, funny, driven and exhausted. And I just thought, "That's the thing I want to do."
I knew from that point that I wanted to work in the international sector. I thought to myself, “what do I need to do to get there?” I started out small in my own backyard, with a job at a human rights poetry magazine, and worked out my path from there.
What is your professional background?
Most recently, I worked with UNICEF Australia as their Director of Fundraising and Communications. I also held the role of Senior Director at Synergos, where I oversaw fundraising and communications activities, and I’ve worked as a strategic consultant with organisations including Amnesty International, Orbis, Concern Worldwide and the Clinton Foundation.
I landed my first role with MSF as Marketing Director at MSF USA, and later took up the position of Fundraising Director. During my time in the USA office, I was very keen to work in our projects on the ground and really understand our work better. In 2011, I did a field assignment as Project Coordinator in Pibor, a remote town in South Sudan, and in 2012 I travelled to Lebanon as Program Liaison Officer.
From 2014 to 2016, I was also an Adjunct Professor at New York University, where I taught ‘Theory in Practice and Fundraising’ at the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.
What does working for MSF now mean to you?
The word that comes to mind is ‘privileged’ – it is a total privilege to be here. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do since I was 20 years old. When it comes to the values of MSF, I’m particularly passionate about humanitarian testimony: speaking out, how we do it and when. It’s a puzzle to be solved and it’s not ‘one size fits all’. But it’s something we need to constantly consider – how does MSF use our medical expertise, our experience in the field and our voice to speak out on behalf of the people caught in humanitarian crises, and bring abuses and intolerable situations to public attention?
“When it comes to the values of MSF, I’m particularly passionate about humanitarian testimony: speaking out, how we do it and when… how does MSF use our medical expertise, our experience in the field and our voice to speak out on behalf of the people caught in humanitarian crises?”
What do you see as immediate ‘hotspots’ in 2020 in terms of MSF’s activities?
Ebola continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is not getting better from what we're seeing. While it's not covered in the press as much as it was, it's still a very worrying context, and the DRC is coping with multiple crises right now including a major measles outbreak and high levels of displacement.
In our own region, it was shocking to see how rapidly the measles outbreak in Samoa spread, in an environment with such low vaccination coverage. Certainly, keeping our eyes on potential humanitarian crises in this region is a top priority.
The Rohingya crisis is another interesting and challenging context. There remains no safe and sustainable solution for those who have been forcibly displaced, and many are still totally reliant on humanitarian aid.
What most excites you about the role?
I’m most looking forward to the breadth of the role. From communications and medical efforts around refugees and asylum seekers, to our high-quality field workers and the staff who support them, to field resource accountability, to Board meetings, there’s a huge diversity of areas to work on, and I find that to be an exciting challenge and motivation.