Gino Strada: Bringing Healthcare to the Desperate

The founder and driving force behind Emergency, the NGO providing medical care in war-torn regions, has died aged 73. We look at his impact.

Gino Strada
Gino Strada. Photo: © European Union 2012 EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari.

The world has being tributes to Gino Strada, whose humanitarian organization Emergency has treated more than 11 million people across almost 20 countries, from Rwanda to Yemen. He died on August 13, leaving behind an outstanding legacy. Here, we take a look at his impact. 

A life devoted to those who have suffered

Strada dedicated his life to a sole purpose: to deliver free healthcare to people affected by war and violence in the most remote corners of the world. After graduating from the University of Milan — studying medicine and trauma surgery — Strada joined the International Red Cross, providing medical treatment across Pakistan, Ethiopia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Peru, Djibouti, Somalia, and Bosnia. In 1994, he founded Emergency, a medical and humanitarian NGO based in Milan, which ultimately made his name.

It didn’t begin with such success. At the founding event, Strada and 20 colleagues (including his wife Teresa) managed to collect only £12 million (about €6,000 euros) in support of humanitarian aid Rwanda, where at least 800,000 were slaughtered in genocide.

However, later, thanks to the support of the famous Italian journalist Maurizio Costanzo, Strada managed to raise a incredible sum (£850 million, about €400,000) in the following 60 days. Emergency used these funds to establish new hospitals in Africa. Under the flag of the NGO, his successful project in Rwanda was followed up by other missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Somalia.

Strada and Afghanistan

Gino Strada left an indelible mark in all the countries his organization operated. Yet, there is no doubt that Afghanistan represented the area where he focused the most of his energies. He personally spent seven years in the central Asian country — and Emergency still maintains a presence in the country. 

Emergency entered the country in 2000, to rebuild and make operational a hospital in Kabul that had been destroyed by bombs. While in the country, Strada negotiated with the Taliban to expand the NGO’s operations. This was something that NATO had warned against and even said was impossible. Yet, Strada did it anyway, treating thousands of civilians — while NATO failed to set up even one civilian hospital.

Ultimately, his effort to provide healthcare in Afghanistan won the respect of everyone, the Taliban included. This in itself is a striking achievement for the NGO and its founder. Yet, his legacy in Afghanistan is wider: Emergency opened three hospitals and 40 clinics, successfully treating more than 7 million people in the country. Remarkably, the Surgical Centre represented the only free, specialist war surgery hospital in the Afghan capital. 

His opinion on the war

Yet, Strada’s remarks on the western war in Afghanistan gives an insight into his thoughts on war general.

In his very last article, he wrote about how the Taliban would reconquer the country. Here, he stated without hesitation how the U.S. military campaign was in contravention of every conceivable international regulation, as the west bypassed the United Nations in what Strada called “an autonomous and illegal invasion.” After 20 years of war, almost 250,000 casualties and 5 million refugees have been registered — and the reputation of the west is in pieces.

Generally speaking, Gino Strada was opposed to war in all its forms. “I am not a pacifist,” he once said. “I am against war.” And, crucially, his actions speak loudly. Strada once stated that he hadn’t voted in national elections for 30 years, since all political parties supported foreign military missions abroad.

Meanwhile, he was also a fierce critic of Italy’s policy on migration, which relied upon the Libyan coastguard to stop migrants travelling to Italy. His stance came from a highly moral position based on the Libyan military’s history of violation of human rights.

Gino Strada’s legacy

Gino Strada’s NGO now treats a patient every minute across the world. Emergency’s sustained humanitarian actions  speak of an honorable mission: to provide free healthcare for everyone. 

Yet, Strada’s impact has not just been humanitarian. Operating on the front line of high-risk, conflict-affected areas, alongside international military, Emergency has given Italy tremendous political capital abroad — for better or for worse. In many places, the NGO has replaced western institutions, providing medical care or training for local personnel, while in its negotiations with the Taliban, it played an almost diplomatic role too. These actions, alongside Strada’s personal reputation, have boosted Italy soft power abroad, in tandem with Italy’s highly praised expeditionary force has been operating for decades.

In a way, Strada was a non-religious saint. He had faith in ideas that everyone would have called utopia — that medicine is a universal human right, or that global health inequality should not be a necessary part of the world. Ultimately, he deemed that every person on Earth should have the same dignity and rights — and he bent over backward to make it a reality.

As the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, tweeted some days ago, we have just lost a “maestro of humanity.” He’s right. Strada’s example towards a fairer and just world lives on — not only in Emergency but also in all the NGOs and volunteers providing for those who most need help.

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