The establishment of International Medical Corps in 1984 was a development that had global significance, not because it added another name to the pool of international relief agencies, but because it boldly declared the emergence of a new kind of relief agency. By providing health care through training, International Medical Corps challenged— indeed, changed—the very definition of relief.
The emergence of a new kind of humanitarian agency
International Medical Corps was founded by Dr. Robert Simon, who, as a young emergency-room physician at UCLA Medical Center, was moved to take action after reading of the tragic plight of the Afghan people as a result of the 1979 Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation. All but 200 of the country’s 1,500 doctors had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled, and all relief agencies had been ordered out of the country, leaving ill and injured civilians, pregnant women and developing children with essentially nowhere to turn for basic health care.
Simon began making trips to Afghanistan to provide medical assistance directly to civilians. But he also saw that the problem was much too big for one person to tackle, and he spent much of the summer of 1984 contacting international humanitarian agencies about setting up operations in Afghanistan. To his dismay, each explained that their mandates did not allow them to work in country. So in September 1984, he founded International Medical Corps, knowing that it would need to take a different approach to relief. “I saw right away that a few little clinics weren’t going to amount to much,” Simon recalls. “The real problem for the Afghans was how to reconstruct their entire medical system. Something more had to be done.”
International Medical Corps quickly shifted its focus a few miles to the east, where, amid the relative stability of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, it could set up a full-time Afghan medic training center. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) liked this strategy and gave International Medical Corps its first grant for training. International Medical Corps recruited trainees from the most remote and underserved areas of Afghanistan who, at the end of their nine- month training, would travel back to their communities with a stock of essential equipment, supplies and medications to set up clinics, which were resupplied every six months. At the end of one nine-month training, our Afghan medics could diagnose and treat 75 to 80 percent of the injuries and illnesses they encountered in the field.
In 1986 Nancy A. Aossey joined International Medical Corps as President & CEO and has led the organization since. “At that time, almost everyone in the relief community said training in a war zone couldn’t be done,” says Aossey. “The prevailing opinion was that you couldn’t simultaneously provide relief and build local capacity in such an unstable environment. International Medical Corps challenged that notion.” Under Aossey’s leadership, another USAID grant soon followed, and with this steady stream of support, International Medical Corps went on to produce astounding results. By 1990, International Medical Corps had graduated more than 500 medics who helped established 57 clinics and 10 hospitals in 18 provinces throughout rural Afghanistan—serving more than 50,000 patients per month.
International Medical Corps has gone on to provide lifesaving care in 70 countries worldwide, responding to almost every emergency in the last quarter of a century. It deploys quickly in emergencies and then stays on to teach lifesaving skills so that people locally can become self-reliant. Its training assures continuity and a new level of care for those impacted by conflict, tragedy and extreme poverty.
Over the years, International Medical Corps has responded to the world’s most devastating man-made and natural disasters, including:
- Famine in Somalia
- Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia
- The Rwandan genocide
- Atrocities against children in Sierra Leone
More recently, International Medical Corps was a first responder after the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. International Medical Corps is also among the dwindling number of humanitarian agencies still working in Darfur and Iraq.