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Natural disasters

From large-scale catastrophes to local emergencies, MSF’s network of aid workers and supplies around the world means we can quickly respond to disasters. With more than 40 years’ experience, we are experts in rolling out emergency responses in complex settings.

We put highly skilled medical staff, logisticians and water and sanitation experts into disaster zones. 

Nearly 90 per cent of our funds are raised from the generosity of private donors, which gives MSF an unrivalled level of independence. Because of this, we can respond immediately without having to lobby governments or institutional donors for aid. We only appeal for extra funds if the disaster is very big and we really need extra support from the public.

Immediate response

In 2017, Mexico was rocked by two earthquakes, leaving hundreds dead, thousands injured and many people homeless. MSF deployed seven teams providing more than 1,000 medical consultations, 674 individual mental health consultations and 661 group mental health sessions in an intervention that lasted more than two months.

The 2012 earthquake in Haiti remains our largest natural disaster response to date. The earthquake killed 220,000 people, left 1.5 million homeless and destroyed 60 per cent of health facilities, including two of our own hospitals.

We responded by recruiting thousands of new staff, mostly Haitians, who worked in 26 medical centres – including an inflatable hospital on a football field.  In 10 months we treated 350,000 patients, performed 16,000 surgeries, and when cholera broke out we treated 60 per cent of cases countrywide. In the long term, we needed to contain and limit the spread of infectious diseases, re-establish health care systems and support people who had lost their homes and were living in temporary shelters.

Emergency preparedness

Because we already run projects in over 70 countries around the world, we often have aid workers already nearby when a natural disaster strikes. They are supported by ‘Emergency Teams’ on permanent standby in headquarters, who are experts at doing quick assessments and organising immediate response.

Medical and logistical supplies, in the form of pre-packaged kits ready for rapid deployment, are stored in warehouses in key locations worldwide, and a roster of experienced staff willing to drop everything and leave immediately to work in a disaster means we can be there where people need us as quickly as possible. Urgent medical cases cannot wait.

Emergency funding

As an organisation, we pride ourselves on the incredible support of our donors. Our funding structure relies on lots of regular donations from hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world who generously contribute each month.  This gives us the flexibility – and the ready cash – to respond to emergencies as they happen rather than setting up individual funding ‘pots’ for each separate crisis.

It is rare for us to solicit funds from the public for a single crisis – we take the decision to do so collectively and very carefully because we have offices in over 20 countries around the world and we want to make sure that we responsibly only raise what we will need to spend.

In 2004, following the Indian Ocean Tsunami, MSF found itself very quickly over-funded for the work we needed to do.

This was despite closing our appeal after just a few days. We are now very cautious about matching ‘earmarked’ funding with operational budgets. We judge very carefully how much we’ll need for our work and how much the public might give us.

In an emergency this is hard to do and sometimes we get it wrong, for example, with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when we ended up needing, and spending, a lot more than we allowed ourselves to raise. But our donors can be confident that we think very hard about asking for any extra support – if we do ask for additional funds for a crisis, it’s because the scale of the needs and our response, really warrant it.