“The experiences and interactions you have with national and international colleagues help you gain a better idea of life, and what inspires people to work with MSF”

Every year, Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recruits thousands of field staff to deliver medical assistance to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural and man-made disasters and exclusion from healthcare. As the Head of Human Resources for South Asia, Dr.Farhat Mantoo oversees recruitment from the region. In this interview, she sheds light on who MSF needs and what it takes to become a part of the organisation.
What criteria do you use to recruit doctors?
We look for doctors who have valid registration and substantial hands-on experience. Work experience in other countries also brings an added value to a portfolio. Apart from technical skills, we also look for people who have the willingness and ability to work in multicultural teams, flexibility, and the ability to build capacity/transfer knowledge. We also look for people who can be ambassadors of MSF and who believe in the work the organisation does.
Do you only look for doctors with an MBBS degree or do you also recruit those with specialisations?
The profiles we look for depend on the needs in the field, so we recruit a wide range of specialists- from plastic or orthopaedic surgeons , to paediatricians, HIV/TB physicians, gynaecologists, psychiatrists etc.
You take doctors on a volunteer basis. How do you think this makes an impact on the portfolios of volunteers?
One of the core principles of our remuneration policy is that volunteerism is a central part of the MSF experience, so we are looking for people with the same ethos. We provide an indemnity, a small stipend that takes care of expenses. After one year completion in the field, they get an employment contract and are paid a salary, though admittedly it doesn’t compete with the market. It’s not just about a financial package though. MSF strives to be a socially  responsible organisation – we try as much as possible to cover all the costs associated with volunteering, such as costs of travel, visas, accommodation in the field, per diem, vaccinations, a comprehensive insurance package and holidays ( paid 1 week every 3 months in field). This is so the assignment comes at no personal cost to them. We act as a means for people with the intention and motivation to serve beyond their borders, and so try to attract people with those values.
What do doctors get out of working with MSF?
Volunteering with MSF offers a very stimulating and multicultural learning environment where people can learn and practice in resource-poor settings, serving those who can’t offer anything in return besides gratitude. Doctors find themselves enhanced both professionally and personally as they work alongside colleagues from all over the globe. Many people share a huge sense of satisfaction in doing so after their return from MSF assignments.  
Besides medical doctors, what other profiles do you recruit?
We also recruit financial and project coordinators, people with HR, management or logistics experience, water and sanitation experts, mental health officers, pharmacists and people who have training in laboratories. MSF also looks for people who have worked abroad with organisations similar to MSF.
How do you prepare staff being sent to conflict zones?
MSF has, over the years, developed security procedures and protocols that are shared with the staff which is a part of preparation. Before someone even gives their consent to work somewhere, we see if we can connect them with someone in the field so they can better understand the context and enable them to make an informed decision about deployment. We send them all situation reports related to that context, give them detailed briefings and connect them to returning expats. All this allows the volunteer to make a learnt choice about where they may be going, which is very important to us. We want to make sure people are aware of what they are getting into. Before departing, they are extensively briefed on the context and on the dos and don’ts of working in such an environment. Ebola was one of those examples, which even though wasn’t a conflict, was a context in which we illustrated the risks.
You have worked in South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, and Kashmir. How have those experiences shaped you?
When you go to the field you do not come back as the same person. The experiences and interactions you have with national and international colleagues help you gain a better idea of life, and about what inspires people to work with MSF. While I was there I realised I had creativity within me. I learnt that there is not just one way of doing things. I also learnt that patience is a virtue!
When people work outside their borders, their support system is different. When you go to a different context, you have to understand that context, working very closely with your international and national colleagues. My experiences in the field have made me a calmer person – nothing fazes me anymore! We are an emergency organisation, but we are not always in an emergency. Being in closer proximity to MSF’s operations has strengthened my belief in what we do, and helped me recognise my limitations and strengths as a person.
How do you think platforms like MSF Scientific Day South Asia help bring the medical community together?
Platforms like MSF Scientific Day South Asia are an opportunity to share the operational research that MSF practices in the field, which is often unique, given that we work in remote or insecure areas with gaps in medical services. This platform offers an exchange and is a great way to share with the wider medical community some of the projects we’ve had in the field and look for ways to scale them. By encouraging researchers to come forward, it has massive added value in the field of public health.
Why do you think Scientific Day is relevant for South Asia?
Given the significant medical challenges that exist in the region, the medical community has been evolving and innovating ways to respond. MSF Scientific Day South Asia offers a way for MSF to learn about the work people in the region are doing, and for the medical and scientific community in South Asia to learn about MSF’s work. It is intended to be a two-way learning channel. In South Asia, MSF is known more as an emergency organisation, but the conference helps show another face of MSF – as doing research and promoting networking and knowledge exchange in the medical and scientific community. Hopefully, it will also help recruit future volunteers.

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