MSF president Dr. Joanne Liu on Ebola, Syria and Kunduz

Dr. Joanne Liu, a former Montreal physician who now heads up the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, reflects on 2015’s humanitarian crises and why she stays optimistic.

Former Montreal physician says political will is key to ending large humanitarian crises

Joanne Liu, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, was born in Quebec City. (Doctors Without Borders)

Not so long ago, Joanne Liu was a Montreal doctor at Sainte-Justine Hospital. 

Now, the Quebec City native and McGill graduate is the international president of Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

This week, she spoke with Sue Smith, host of CBC Montreal's Homerun, on the humanitarian crisis the organization faced in the past year and why she stays optimistic. 

The biggest challenges of 2015

Health care workers suit up in the fight against Ebola in West Africa. (MSF)
Making sure that we finish the job with Ebola was one of the major challenges. We're still working on that and it's still an open file right now.

The World Health Organization declared the end of Ebola in Guinea at the end of the year, and we hope on Jan. 15 that Liberia will be declared Ebola-free for the third time. It's really key that we make sure that next time we will not repeat history and that we respond in a timely fashion. 

MSF is a frontline actor and will continue to be a frontline actor, but at the end of the day what needs to be done to fix bigger problems is political solutions.

On the challenges of being in Syria

A Syrian refugee child looks on, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 4, 2016. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)
Right now Syria is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, humanitarian crisis, and unfortunately we are not deployed at the extent that we would like. We're not able to carve in a safe place to work.

We had a colleague who got abducted in 2014, and they were released, but since then we haven't been able to negotiate a space. We have what I call in-and-out visits, but we don't have teams that are staying in Syria on a full-time basis.

On having to negotiate with the Islamic State

Islamic State billboards are seen along a street in Raqqa, eastern Syria, which is controlled by the Islamic State. (Reuters/Nour Fourat)
It's a really delicate and touchy negotiation. Everywhere we've worked in the 45 years we've been existing, we do talk to all the parties in any conflict.

In the past it's been the rebellion in Angola, Boko Haram, and in Syria it can be the Syrian army or the Islamic State. Everywhere, we need to talk to everybody.

It's difficult and sometimes we have to just say that we're unable to negotiate a safe space for our staff and our patients.

On the bombing of MSF's Trauma centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan

MSF General director Christopher Stokes stands near the charred remains of the organizations' hospital, after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. (Najim Rahim/Associated Press)
We talked to everybody, we gave our GPS coordinates, and despite that, we were targeted. At the emotional level for MSF it was a devastating event — 42 people were killed, 14 of our staff died — this has never happened in our history.

But beyond that, what is at stake for us is to safeguard a neutral and impartial medical space in war zones. In 2016, everyone understands that when you're fighting for your life in a hospital, you don't expect to get a bomb on your head. I think that if we let this go by, as if it was a non-event, we're giving a blank cheque to anyone who's at war today.

On how she stays optimistic

Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, at an Ebola centre in Sierra Leone. (Doctors Without Borders)
Today a million people don't have access to the trauma center in Kunduz, and I know there's millions of Syrians that don't have access to basic healthcare and trauma care in war zones, and I think it's worth fight.

And if I'm not optimistic, who will be?

The interview has been edited for clarity.