People with Purpose: Finding humanity through medicine

Posted on 05 Dec 2023

By Greg Thom, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Jennifer Tierney mask

Delivering help to some of the most desperate regions of the world is what drives the executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières Australia (Doctors without Borders) Jennifer Tierney.

What sparked your passion for humanitarian affairs and human rights issues?

In 1996 I spent a semester studying abroad in Thailand.

It was there that I interned for an income generation cooperative with services supporting people living on what was then the Thailand/Burma border.

It took Hmong, Karen and other ethnic minority weavings and sold them in a wider market to support community development activities and ton give the women an income.

One time, on a camp visit, I met these two doctors working on resistance to anti-malaria drugs.

They were smart and determined and irreverent, and I thought "I want to be surrounded by people like that in my work." They of course worked for MSF.

Jennifer Tierney
Medecins Sans Frontieres executive director Jennifer Tierney.

How did you come to join Médecins Sans Frontières and what is your current role?

After my time in Thailand, I plotted a course to work in the international sector.

I thought that fundraising and communications was a great entry point to the not-for-profit arena, and I started my career in fundraising events for a cancer organisation.

I then moved to a not-for-profit industry tech support organisation and then into microfinance. That was an intellectually engaging and fascinating sector that married the finance world and not-for-profit and I enjoyed it a lot.

When I was offered the role of marketing director for MSF USA, it was tough to leave, but I’m happy I made that choice.

I then worked as development director there, working in MSF projects in our countries of operations South Sudan and for Syria project.

Having the opportunity to work on MSF projects in countries of operations is a key element of progressing professionally in MSF.

I departed MSF USA to go back to South Sudan for nine months but was diverted by another nine-month appointment to incubate my first baby!

I ended up working at that stage for the Synergos Institute and then moved with my Aussie partner to Sydney where I worked for UNICEF as head of fundraising and communications.

Then the role of a lifetime came up and I was chosen as executive director of MSF Australia. It has been a privilege every day since.

Jennifer Tierney Coxs Bazaar 2
"At its core, MSF is about one person reaching out to another in their greatest time of need."

Why is the work carried out by MSF so important?

At its core, MSF is about one person reaching out to another in their greatest time of need.

That may be when a person in caught in conflict or just diagnosed with tuberculosis, but either way it is about human connection, empathy and care. 

That is so important to foster these days when so often we get entrenched in our ‘sides’ of debates or conflicts.  

To find the humanity through medicine, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, is what our six million supporters across the world really connect with and support. 

With the world confronting so many challenges, what inspires you to go to work every day?

Our colleagues working on the ground in Gaza, in Sudan, in Bangladesh and in the 70 countries around the world where MSF works. 

Every day they brave the terrible circumstances they are forced to face as local people caught in conflict, or as refugees themselves, and they still bring medical care to those who need it.  

They are resilience personified and they inspire me every single day.

And we have such amazing alignment around that ethos in the office. The people I work with in Sydney are brilliant and inspirational. 

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