June 17th 2020

Beyond the limits.

MCI Livetalk with Laura Leyser, General Director of Doctors without Borders (MSF) Austria


Laura Leyser (right) in conversation with MCI Rector Andreas Altmann. Photo:MCI
Laura Leyser (right) in conversation with MCI Rector Andreas Altmann. Photo:MCI

The Austrian social and cultural anthropologist Laura Leyser, General Director of Doctors without Borders Austria since November 2018, explained the challenging working conditions at Doctors without Borders at the MCI Livetalk. A great deal of intrinsic motivation is required, she said, and yet, limits are constantly reached. Bottlenecks were at the core of the audiences’ interest as well as values and principles of MSF and the possibilities of working with MSF.

MSF, founded in 1971 in Paris, is an independent aid organization that offers support in situations where other organizations or even states are unable to help. Worldwide, a total of 65,000 employees are part of the organization. Today, MSF is a network of 24 national or regional member associations linked by a common charter and an international office in Geneva. Crisis situations require very clear structures and the teams work according to a strict protocol. Nevertheless, the entire organization is characterized by flat hierarchies. It is a network structure which integrates people into decisions and processes. Only about half of the staff have a medical background. The other half consists of a wide variety of professionals. Currently MSF is looking for logisticians, mechanics or electricians in addition to doctors from various disciplines. This is necessary, as the prerequisites of crisis areas often need to be facilitated prior to medical staff being able to provide assistance as well as to ensure the supply of those places of operation.

MSF's mission statement declares that everyone in need has a right to help, regardless of their origin, ideology or religion. Aid programs are set up where the survival of people are threatened by conflicts, epidemics, natural disasters or lack of medical care. Projects are selected according to clear principles and are always based on thorough on-site research. The highest principles of MSF are neutrality, impartiality and independence. "The fact that we act independently and are also perceived as independent means security for our teams. Our work in crisis situations is only possible if we are accepted by all sides in a conflict," explains Laura Leyser. The financing of Doctors without Borders makes a significant contribution to this independence. Worldwide, 98% of the donations come from private sources, in Austria it is even 100%.

MSF employees are aware that they work under dangerous conditions. Particularly difficult situations arise when the lives of employees are threatened. Laura Leyser: "Sometimes, when our people on the ground are in great danger, we have to withdraw from there. It almost breaks your heart to leave people who really need support ". In May, for example, there was a bloody attack on a maternity ward in a hospital in Kabul. The organization had to suspend all of its activities. All that remains at this point is at least to talk about what was seen on site, another principle of MSF's work.

Back to the bottlenecks mentioned at the beginning: The biggest personal bottleneck for Laura Leyser is the time factor: "I juggle with time. I'm very intrinsically motivated, I do a strenuous job, but I still try to have a family life. My work-life balance doesn't work out the way it should." But for the organization, the biggest bottleneck is the shrinking humanitarian space. Human rights are seeing an increase of disrespect around the world, while humanitarian actions are being politicized. As an example she cites the large waves of refugees in recent years.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – Doctors without Borders

Médecins Sans Frontières was founded in France in 1971 by a group of doctors and journalists after the war and famine in Biafra. Their aim was to create an independent organisation focused on providing rapid, effective and impartial emergency medical aid. In Austria, committed doctors founded the Austrian section of Médecins sans Frontières in 1994, which is integrated into a worldwide network of 24 member associations.

Laura Leyser

Laura Leyser has over ten years of international experience in complex crisis situations. After working as a strategy consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, her focus was primarily on development cooperation, for example in Mozambique and Nepal, where she managed development projects for the Austrian Development Agency and the British Ministry for International Development DFID (Department for International Development).

During the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 she also supported emergency measures in the disaster area. Laura Leyser was most recently Deputy Head of the Department for Governance, Open Societies and Anti-Corruption at DFID in London, before moving back to Vienna to become General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors without Borders Austria in November 2018.

She holds Masters degrees in Development Management, International Development and Social and Cultural Anthropology.

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