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Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, remains the gold standard of medical relief. Fiercely independent, highly self-critical, resolutely professional, and able to mobilize at a moment’s notice, for many people it represents the best of the humanitarian ideal. The organization is surrounded by a number of myths and stereotypes: the oppositional spirit of ‘medical hippies’, the rebellion against the Red Cross, the heroic doctors in Biafra, the ‘unshaven, cigarette-smoking Frenchmen’ moving from crisis to crisis surrounded by fag ash and disruption. But despite a smattering of academic articles and a number of edited collections from MSF’s own think-tank, the story of MSF has not been examined in a lengthy scholarly study, at least not in the English language. With the publication of Peter Redfield’s book, which has been over ten years in the making, our knowledge of this influential organization and the literature on humanitarian aid has been significantly enhanced. A glance at the book’s subtitle would seem to suggest a work of moral philosophy or intellectual history, but this text is embedded in anthropology. Drawing on interviews, participant observation, and documentary analysis, it contains ethnographic sketches that cover key themes in MSF’s history. Chapter Three, for example, studies MSF’s famed logistical capacity, examining how it maintains global reach through …

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Book review

Publication Date



26 (2)


319 - 321