1979 : The Fight Against World Hunger and the Founding of AICF (by Robert Sebbag)
The first time I met Bernard-Henri Lévy was in Toulouse, in 1979. He was giving a lecture on his two books, Barbarism with a Human Face and The Testament of God. Reading them, I had been impressed. I agreed with his critique of Marxism, his analysis of communism, and his idea of seeking the means of conceiving of and resisting Evil in the Bible. As the first western physician sent on a two-year mission to Vietnam by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, I had been able to see what a “communist” regime looked like in action, and Lévy’s analysis seemed all the more pertinent to me. In any case, that day, I listened to him. As it often happens, after the lecture a dinner was organized. We spoke. A great deal. As I recall, this all took place in the former Jewish Community Center of the city. Curious about everything and interested, in particular, in my experience, as a man and as a doctor, in the field, Bernard-Henri Lévy said he would like to see me again during one of my visits to Paris. A month later, we met at the Café Flore. He told me of his wish to create an NGO devoted to the problem of hunger in the world. He wanted to do this with a group of high-level intellectuals. And he proposed that I should join the little group.
One of the things I liked—and that I like—the most about Bernard is his simplicity. “I’m going to see Françoise Giroud this evening, can you join us?” he said that day. “Us” meant, indeed, Françoise Giroud; but also Gilles Hertzog, Guy Sorman, Jacques Attali, the future alter-globalist Susan George and others. All of them figures that I would meet that very evening and with whom I set off on a fascinating adventure.
A young provincial, I was impressed by these great intellectual personalities. My different missions in South America and Vietnam allowed me, of course, to offer my experience. I was comparing the realities in the field to their reflections, the actual experiences I had lived to the intellectual line upon which they were basing the foundations of the AICF. But after all, there was Attali, and Giroud, and Bernard-Henri Lévy who, what’s more, still had the aura of his experience on the ground a few years previous, in Bangladesh. So, honestly, I was very intimidated.
We had no offices at the time. That was according to the line of the founders, and particularly Bernard: the money was for concrete missions, in the locale, with the least possible amount devoted to “home office expenses” that too often gave rise to a humanitarian bureaucracy. So our meetings were held at Françoise Giroud’s home in the avenue de Latour Maubourg, or at Bernard’s, in the rue des Saints-Pères. In general, they took place on Sunday. The meetings of the founders, of which I found myself one, went on far into the night. The discussions were fascinating, at once down-to-earth and philosophical. Oriented towards action, but with each of us defending his theoretical point of view.
During these evenings, this alchemy which is still a bond between us, Bernard and me, today was created. This availability, this tenacity in the fight, this open attitude and this attachment to others, this natural attitude, all are some of the qualities that touch me the most in this world, and I discovered, week after week, that he distinguished himself by possessing them all. For him, helping another, supporting the starving, answering their extremely urgent needs was not just an idea—these were acts.
So the AICF was born. We registered the statutes, established the charter, by and large written by Bernard-Henri Lévy. We held a press conference where he and Françoise Giroud led the debates with maestra. And from then on—this was in the fall of 1979—we travelled all over France, together, to create “local committees”. That was the specificity of the AICF. That is what distinguished it as unique among the NGOs of that time. This decentralized aspect, absolutely decentralized, which established itself at a local level so that a locale of a rich country chose, piloted, financed, followed, in short, adopted a local humanitarian project in an area of a poor country.
The invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in December 79 galvanized us. We heard alarming reports from the first refugees in Peshawar. No tents, no food. In May and June 80; impelled by BHL, AICF launched its first appeal at a press conference held at the Sorbonne! We collected a million francs—a colossal sum. We had the means to intervene. I was the first Frenchman from an NGO to travel clandestinely to Afghanistan, by way of Pakistan, on the back of a mule, to come to assist the people there in the field. Bernard-Henri Lévy would come there later, with Marek Halter and Renzo Rosselini. Once back in France, my report, entitled «A Doctor’s Account», was published in Le Figaro of September 12th; 1980. Bernard’s was published in Le Nouvel observateur.
At the time I left for Afghanistan, Bernard was on another front, but still for the AICF. The humanitarian crisis raged in Cambodia. It inspired him, that same year, then, to work with Médecins sans Frontières to organize and participate in the March for Survival, along with Joan Baez and 150 well-known American and European figures. Gilles Hertzog was with him. So were Danièle de Betak and Jacques-André Prévost, other members of the Association. On February 5th, 1980, they were at the Thai frontier and tried to enter Cambodia with a convoy of food aid destined for the civilian populations who were victims of the conflict opposing, on one side, the Vietnamese and the pro-Vietnam government of Phnom Penh and, on the other, dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouges. They remained blocked at the border, near the camp of Sakeo. But international public opinion was made aware of the dramatic situation of these refugees. AICF, there again, fulfilled its role.
In fact, in the years to come, AICF would be on all fronts, with all the populations who were the victims of conflicts, wars, and famines. As a doctor, I participated in different emergency missions, some more difficult and more terrible than others—in Uganda, in Sudan, in Erythria. For his part, Bernard never missed an occasion to denounce them, to alert public opinion and the politicians. And he went there himself, again for the AICF, to Erythria, then to the Tigrinya, which were the two territories where the ravages of war still exacerbated those of hunger. In Erythria, he was accompanied by the future writer and member of the Académie française Jean-Christophe Rufin. BHL in the field. BHL who did not content himself with philosophizing at home but went out to the battlefield.
And then, there was Ethiopia, in 1985. Inspired by Stalin and Pol Pot, the dictator, Mengistu, was organizing the displacement of people from the north towards the south, to refashion his country’s map according to his whims. The displaced were dying by the tens of thousands. And they died, most often, of hunger. What was the role of international aid and of the NGOs present in Ethiopia? To save bodies? Or to support the totalitarian project of the Red Négus by meeting the needs of the deplaced peoples? MSF decided to withdraw. A great debate took place within the AICF too. Some thought we should continue to deliver aid to the populations, whatever the political climate, context, or afterthoughts. That was what Françoise Giroud, president of the association at the time, wished. Others maintained that we were in the process of becoming the executioners’ accomplices—and this is what BHL denounced, after a trip in the field. For my part, I wavered between pragmatism and politics. One needs both, and the two positions are reconcilable. We remained in Ehtiopia. The Giroud line won out.
Did Bernard leave the AICF then? I don’t know. You tell me. I remember heated debates within the Bureau of the Association. And perhaps, actually, a shouting match that was more definitive than the others. But my impression was that, at the same time, he never ceased to be at our side. During the missions we led, denouncing, on his side, in a more intellectual manner the modern barbarism that we denounced in a more down-to-earth manner, we have always been on the same side. And I developed a more personal relationship with him. I discovered his fidelity, his intelligence, his loyalty. And the fact that, frankly, this man is afraid of nothing. But this Association that owes him so much, this model NGO he thought of and, more than anyone else, carried to its baptism, I believe he never really distanced himself from it.
MD, specialist in tropical medicine and parasitic. Attached Hospital of Paris (Pitié-Salpêtrière – Tropical diseases, parasitic diseases and AIDS). Founding member of AICF. He is, since 2006, Vice President Drug Access of Sanofi-Aventis and holds concurrently as Administrator of the National French Red Cross and Chairman of the Business and International Relations. He is also a lecturer at the University of Paris VI for the detailed study diploma in public health “Large organizations and international health.”
(As told to Laurence Roblin)
Translation by Janet Lizop
Photo 1 : R S, 1980, FR3, AICF’s presentation (c) archives INA
Photo 2 : AICF’s charter cover (c) D.R.