Humanitarian crises drive Jason Cone ’99 with a sense of purpose—and, at times, a bit of outrage, too.
When I arrive at the sprawling New York offices of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders on a Friday afternoon in late August, boxes filled with old documents crowd into cubicles and block office doors.
Executive Director Jason Cone ’99 explains that his organization is getting ready to move to a bigger suite downtown, in the Financial District, where they’ll overlook the Hudson instead of this transitional neighborhood between Midtown and Chelsea.
“When I started working here, there was nothing down there, nowhere to go for lunch,” Cone tells me, gesturing to the street below.
He’s worked at MSF for 14 years altogether, spending more than a decade in the communications department, which he ran. That’s long enough to see a repetitive pattern of fast casual chains build up along 7th Avenue, a quintessentially American parade of Starbucks and Panera that feels worlds away from the serious, international work taking place at MSF.
His own office is quiet, with little circulation. He’s stacked sheaves of folders next to a nearly empty desktop organizer; even more tower at the edges of his desk. A row of “I <3 MSF” stickers marches around the perimeter of his computer monitor, while a picture of his 9-year-old son, Leo, looks on. Tacked to the windows are Post-It notes in electric blue and yellow, the remnants, Cone says, of tackling MSF’s new strategic plan.
During the course of the interview, multiple staff members approach the plate glass that separates his office from headquarters. They look surprised to find Cone seated in front of a camera, a microphone pinned to his lapel, his door shut. One gets the sense that when Cone is in New York, he’s accessible—though his crowded wall calendar indicates that he travels for weeks at a time. This bears up in conversation.
“In May I was in Kuwait meeting with the U.S. and British military officials who are in charge of the missions in Iraq and Syria,” Cone told me over the phone during our first interview.
“We have to ensure that they understand where we’re operating in those areas and try to limit the risks of bombings and other incidents happening.”
What Cone does not say out loud—though the incident is easy to find in an online news search—is that 28 patients and caregivers and 14 MSF staff were killed in 2015, when the U.S. military bombed an MSF medical facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
This makes negotiations with military actors a critical part of Cone’s job—and negotiating issues, small and large, a near-constant feature of MSF’s work. If MSF operates in a conflict area, the organization must broker a delicate peace—at least, enough of one so that doctors can serve patients suffering from injury or trauma in relative safety. If drug companies drag their heels on lowering the costs of medication, MSF applies public pressure until prices become affordable for even the most cash-strapped of countries.
At times Cone wields a pen to gain leverage ahead of private talks. He’s censured the U.S. government for its role in the Kunduz bombing, for example, and called Israel to task for violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories.
At times, he sits across the table from the very military actors he’s publicly rebuked and asks them to keep his team—and their facilities—safe from harm.
“We’re critical when we have a reason to be critical,” says Cone. “We’re not a human rights organization. We’re a humanitarian organization, and we deliver aid. We’re not there solely for the reason of exposing injustice or human-rights abuses. We’re there to help people. That means negotiating with some pretty difficult characters.”
These “difficult characters” aren’t just U.S. military commanders intent on fulfilling their mission, either. They can also include violent state and nonstate actors, like Hamas and al-Qaeda, but that’s not part of Cone’s daily work.
“It can make for awkward and tense moments,” Cone adds, referring to past negotiation efforts with the U.S.
“But public confrontation is sometimes our best way of increasing our leverage and ability to get what we need to help our patients.”
After graduating from F&M with dual degrees in biology and government, Cone knew he wanted to explore his interest in public policy but hesitated to apply to graduate school right away. Instead, he wound up at a small biweekly paper called The Earth Times, launched by former New York Times reporter Pranay Gupte prior to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
There, Cone covered everything from United Nations policy to the AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe, picking up new subject areas as needed. Poverty. Reproductive rights. Climate change. The World Bank. Cone tosses these topics out during our phone interview, though his voice remains soft and measured.
He was mentored by some of the top journalists in the field, says Cone, but his first years as a reporter were a kind of baptism by fire. Or, as Cone puts it, he was constantly running at “sprinter’s speed.”
“It was a pretty intense two years,” Cone acknowledges. “I came out of it knowing I wanted to move out of journalism into working for organizations that were addressing concretely the issues I was covering.”
It’s easy to see how, in the intervening years, his reporter’s instinct has fused with a mission to communicate MSF’s story to the public. It’s in the way Cone describes a Palestinian family’s suffering in the Gaza Strip for Foreign Policy, how a son “vomits at the sight of food” or the grief of a daughter who “cannot finish a sentence without crying.” These are the details of a keen observer—someone who not only wants you to see what he sees, but also to feel the necessity of intervention deep in your gut.
According to former MSF Executive Director Sophie Delaunay, who preceded Cone in the role, this is one of Jason’s extraordinary talents, a difficult but necessary one for the kind of work they do.
“There is a tension between the need to bear witness and to remain politically neutral,” Delaunay told me via Skype, describing the tightrope all personnel at MSF walk.
Delaunay has retired to a house in Puerto Rico, where she spoke warmly of Cone. In the background, construction workers plugged away on her fixer-upper, and she had to stop our conversation briefly to address a question about the repairs.
“He’s very talented, and he has a very good political sense,” said Delaunay, pointing to Cone’s ability to embody “the ethos of the organization, the philosophy of MSF.”
“It’s not an easy job,” she added.
From The Earth Times, Cone went on to write for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization devoted to advancing reproductive rights both in the U.S. and abroad. Although his interests remained international in scope, Cone had reason to stay in the States. His wife, Christine Del Rey-Cone ’99, a successful employment lawyer, was in the midst of her federal clerkship and rising fast. Within a few years, the couple would also welcome their daughter, Anabella, who is now 13.
A position at MSF opened up right as the Center for Reproductive Rights lost a significant amount of grant funding. Cone’s job disappeared along with the funding stream. Once he started in the communications department at MSF, though, Cone never left.
In 2010, he teamed up with renowned photojournalist Ron Haviv, who cofounded the agency VII Photo, to shoot a multimedia documentary about childhood malnutrition. The result, “Starved for Attention,” was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy Award and is an innovative effort to document how the U.S. fails to send food aid that meets nutritional standards for severely undernourished populations.
Beyond providing a platform for artistic and journalistic integrity, Haviv most remembers Cone’s ability to use the project to effect change.
“The experience that we’ve had with Jason has been powerful, from start to finish,” Haviv told me over the phone.
“Some of the metrics that we’ve had in terms of impact—our conversation with FoodAid in the U.S., plus the petition [to the U.N.]—are not as easy to accomplish as one might think. And to do it well is spectacular.
“We are, at VII, always very proud of our collaborations with MSF.”
Despite the attention garnered by the project, which pressured the U.N. into changing its policies around food aid, the U.S. continues to step away from its influential role in world health policies, Cone says.
“The U.S. government has traditionally been a leader on global health,” Cone tells me.
“Now it’s on one hand pulling away and also trying to undermine some programs—like peacekeeping operations [at the U.N.], which obviously has an effect on stability in a lot of the places we work.
“It’s all a game of negotiation and power,” says Cone. “And we have soft power.”
Often that soft power comes from Cone’s relentless attention to storytelling, which is, he maintains, one of the only ways supporters of the organization will understand the importance of the work they do. “Part of going to help a stranger is also to tell their story, so it’s relatable on a human level,” he says.
“Being able to talk about how we’re addressing the medical need of a family, a child—that’s a critical way of telling our work on a human level and bringing it to scale.
“It’s very difficult to wrap your head around a number like 65 million people are currently refugees, or displaced from their homes,” he explains. “When you realize that that’s 20 percent of the U.S. population, or it represents a number of U.S. cities combined, then you start to wrap your head around it.”
He’s just come back from another trip to Mexico, where he worked with Central American migrants fleeing serious violence Honduras and El Salvador, so border-control policies are at the top of his mind.
At the end of the day, Cone’s family helps him through the difficult nature of his work.
“It’s never easy to be in these places, seeing people suffering at such extreme levels—then to come back to the U.S. and see the level of comfort that we have, both for myself and for my family,” says Cone.
“I think the hard part is that no matter how big we get, no matter how successful we are, there will always be much more need than we can respond to. And in our line of work that means you save people, but people die.”
For a moment, I think Cone might stop or slow down, but he barrels ahead.
“When I meet with people, whether they’re sitting in the executive offices of the White House or they’re the CEO of a big drug company, I’m talking about the patients that I’ve seen and the conditions they’re living in,” he says.
“It’s difficult to deflect arguments about policy choices when you’re confronted with the reality of what people experience.
“Those are things you don’t forget,” he adds. “They drive you with a sense of purpose—and, at times, a bit of outrage, too.”
View a short documentary featuring Jason Cone and his work.
“We’re not a human rights organization. We’re a humanitarian organization, and we deliver aid. We’re not there solely for the reason of exposing injustice or human-rights abuses. We’re there to help people.”