World Humanitarian Day 2011
- © CBM/Low
The 19th of August has been designated as World Humanitarian Day by the United Nations General Assembly to raise public awareness of humanitarian assistance worldwide and the people who risk their lives in order to provide it.
People helping people
- I belong to this category of persons who has had a significant experience in the private sector before working in the humanitarian one. My desire for change was not born overnight, but after several years of questioning that may seem quite trivial. But it was crucial to find answers to move forward on a path that suited me more. How to give a meaning to my life? How not to watch it pass but be an actor in it?
While helping others was the definitive answer, it was not easy because I was determined to work only on the field. I am not a doctor or engineer. My entire career has been in the area of communication and few NGOs hire communication professionals in the field. Therefore I had to work hard on how to transfer my skills from one sector to another. For that I met many humanitarian professionals, attended several training courses, and participated in numerous forums until I found my first great mission in India and Afghanistan.
What I learned is that humanitarianism is not a job in itself. It is a set of expertise that we bring. No more the idea that some may still have about the doctor with his backpack. We can no longer simply help others with good intentions but with real skills.
- I complained a lot about the amount of work I had in the private sector! That sounds funny now. During my first experience I learned to get up early and go to bed very late, not arrive at the office at the same time, mainly in Afghanistan where it was necessary not to keep the same routine for reasons of security. As a professional of communication, there is no typical day. Sometimes I stay in the office to write, sometimes I have to go on the field. I can be in a refugee camp for taking pictures and writing an article one day or attend a social evening as public relations the day after. And while I spend most of the time in the office, my work is never the same so I would say that my days are good medicines against routine!
- My job requires being away from my family and friends. At times it is very difficult but it is a choice so I'm not complaining. I also have to spend time at the office or at home with other people I do not know, from different cultures and communication is sometimes difficult. But it is also the most beautiful thing in this job, meeting with new people. I also work in countries where security is a priority and I cannot come and go as I want. I am forbidden to walk in the streets and I am constrained to very specific hours in the evening. Sometimes it requires me to be creative to avoid boredom when I have to stay at home when a hurricane comes, for example, but creativity is positive isn’t it?
As for my family, I am very lucky because they are happy to see me happy. When I return to France they are the first to ask what is my next mission. I communicate a lot with them when I am abroad. They are very curious and interested to learn what I do and where I live. They also travel through my stories.
- I think that we should not believe that we will save the world, but we should also not think that what we do to alleviate suffering is useless. Our work does make a difference...
I stopped of course; I didn’t have much choice on this treacherous road where even the most daring driver would hardly coax this old Land Rover to speeds much higher than a horse’s canter...
I could see he was in a near state of panic - fear and concern all over his face.
“Help us, help her please, oh please help for she is in pain, she is suffering and I fear she will die!”
I followed him to the mud hut in the village. There was a crowd outside, worried villagers talking and fussing and wondering what was going to happen. The wee doorway was blocked by the bodies of people cramming themselves as close as possible to see the poor lady in such pain...
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the dimness inside the hut, but when I did, I saw the two older ladies crooning and clucking around the raggedy old wooden cot. A younger lady lay there, in torn blankets; in fact, ‘young girl’ was a more accurate description for she was not more than 16 or so. This was her first baby and it was not going well.
Not well at all. The two old village women - who had helped many young women in childbirth - told me she had been suffering for many, many hours but the baby was not coming. I could see this young woman was at the end of her strength and I knew I would have to take her to the hospital.
Oh, maybe you are thinking the hospital was a 10 minute drive, or a 30 minute drive or even, God forbid, an hour’s drive away... I would have gladly settled for even an hour’s drive, but I knew I had a full 16 hour drive through the African night on this remote forest road to get her to the nearest hospital and I prayed, how I prayed, that my old Land Rover would keep going.
She was in pain, real pain and for many hours, but she did not complain, she did not cry, she did not scream. Each bump and bang on the road - and there were many during that long night - sent waves of pain racking through her body. I apologised time and time again and she replied, time and time again that there was no need for apology, for “God was good for He had sent me along to help her just when she needed it most”.
And I prayed she would not deliver as I drove for - in spite of all the wonderful Hollywood movies where this kind of thing is done all the time - I knew I would have no idea what to do.
We arrived, she was well taken care of and a baby girl was born. But although the young mum was happy, she apologised because if it had have been a boy she would have named him after me - she smiled, she thought it best not to call her beautiful wee daughter David.
And she was one of the few, the very few, ladies in Africa who manage to get to a hospital in such times of difficulty in pregnancy. So many just do not have a chance; some die, needlessly, from complications that the old village women in attendance just cannot handle.
So many more who survive the ordeal suffer from a terribly debilitating condition. The trauma of complicated deliveries with no proper medical supervision, especially among young women, gives rise to vesicovaginal fistula.
This condition, so easily preventable if the proper care is provided during the act of birth, is simply soul destroying for a woman. It causes incontinence and left untreated, can lead to chronic medical, social and psychological problems. Women are often excluded from daily activities, family support may be withdrawn and husbands frequently leave. Many women live with the condition for decades, unable to access the medical intervention that can change their lives.
In rural Africa it is important that a woman is accepted, it is life itself. A woman rejected is a woman in real danger of death; she no longer has rights to the land to grow her food, she no longer has rights to the family home and even her own parents may not take her back.
One of CBM’s priorities is to support partners to improve the quality of, and access to, maternal health. And it is such a joy to see a counselling service that assists these women to return home; a service that helps the husband, the family and the society to accept back again the wife, the mother, the sister, the woman who went through so much pain and suffering...
I do not wish to see more of these women shunned and ostracised and suffer the pain and ignominy of this terrible condition. I do not wish to see more of these women suffer and even die because of this condition that we can so easily prevent.
- Peru November 2010 - We met Elvita, a five year old girl with cretinism. Her mother took her many times to the health centre and no doctor knew what she had. Her mother was advised not to bother too much, since Elvita was ‘not going to live for many years anyway’. The Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) team started to give her remedial medication. When taking remedial medication in time, impairment caused by cretinism is avoidable.
Peru June 2011 - Elvita improved dramatically... she became a lively happy girl. However, because of being diagnosed five years too late, she probably acquired an intellectual impairment.
- The Netherlands, July 2011 - When walking towards the church where the blind choir director Rinus Rijk was going to direct the church choir, he got harassed by 2 teenage girls 14 years young. They didn’t believe the directions he gave them on request, and stubbed a cigarette out on the cheek of the blind man.
- Guatemala May 2011 - One year old Pedro could not have an operation on his cleft lip because he weighed only nine pounds (about 4kgs). 80% of Guatemalan rural children are malnourished. Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean (WFP, 2009).
- Latin America, countless times - When ordering food with my friend Madezha Cépeda (she is CBM’s advisor on Inclusive Development in Latin America), waiters always ask me "if ‘she’ also wants to eat something". Last month she was not allowed to board a plane without giving the name of the person responsible for her in her departure and arrival country. She normally travels alone so she had to invent some names in order to be allowed to board the plane. Madezha is blind.
- Silvia Quan, another blind friend of mine used to say ‘we are not being seen as human beings’. This de-humanisation of persons with disability is the first step of justifying their discrimination. The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability, ratified in many countries where we work as CBM, is maybe the most important instrument to channelling the indignation caused by the above examples of discrimination into positive action.
- Humanitarian work is very rewarding in many ways - relationships with people, seeing positive change in people's lives, changing the balance of global injustice just a little. I have a drive to try to make the world a better place, and for me this is more of a motivation to get out of bed in the morning than if I worked for a business.
- No such thing exists! Some days I work directly with partners delivering services, for example training nurses or field-workers, or going into the field to see clients with them. There is also quite a lot of supporting the management of programmes; thinking about spending budgets wisely, making sure personnel are working effectively, or that what we do is evidence-based and has a positive impact. More and more now I am working with government departments to motivate them to invest time and resources in mental health, which is a very low priority at the moment. With a little persistent effort, a lot can be achieved with such advocacy. For example we have been very involved with policy and legislation in Nigeria, Niger, and Ghana. Today I am working with the West African College of Physicians to find a way of sending two young doctors for psychiatric training from Sierra Leone where there are currently no working psychiatrists.
- Mainly I think it is a privilege to do this work and living in Africa enriches my life and that of my family. We have a good life with a good network of friends. I am quite happy only visiting the intensity of Europe (so many adverts!) occasionally, though of course we enjoy the luxuries when we do. In this work, knowing when to stop is a problem, because there is always more to do. I travel too much and need to be more disciplined about making sure I have enough time at home.
- My main hope is that we get the balance right between humanitarian work being organised as a business (sometimes good for efficiency and professionalism) and keeping a spirit of service. It is important to give security to people wanting to do this as a career, but we also want to attract people to the work for the right reasons. My hope is for a future where there is less 'going there to do good' and more 'enabling people there to help themselves'. This involves taking the bold move of investing in developing people in the global south, knowing that there will always be a need for committed professionals in humanitarian work.
- Work which is easier, safer, less time-consuming and financially rewarding can be done by anybody and there are more people to do. But on the other side, you need a 'call'. The call to work for our fellow human beings which needs to be honoured at any cost. I was inspired by my Dad’s interest, though he was struggling hard to earn his daily bread, he thought of poor children dying due to malnutrition during 70s and 80s in slums of Bangalore. He struggled hard to get bread and milk to these children living in poverty with the support from Government run milk unit. Today it is a state-wide programme. Children who grew up, today recognise my father as their lifesaver and my Dad Mr. Mohan cherishes the moments when they come home and invite him for any family functions and where they recall his service. This is what’s more rewarding and satisfying to be born as a human.
I grew up seeing my Dad and today I feel happy that I am part of humanitarian work especially focussing on people with disability.
Christ stretched his arms for humans only.
- Being with people and living with people gives the utmost fulfilment of the day. Hence would spend my time listening to people and addressing things that is within my strength. Food and sleep becomes secondary when it comes to addressing humanitarian concerns.
- It certainly affects my family life being far from family, losing communication and unable to attend to important family commitments, but that is overcome when a smile seen among the family members who were assisted through our work.
- Today world is too materialistic and with reducing human values and a craze for individual identity and power crisis. Hence based on the values of Christ, we need to develop or sustain our human values and faith by giving importance to reach the unreached.
A 14 year old child whom we met four months ago along other people with disability while travelling in a war prone area of Northern Sri Lanka, who was unwilling to speak to us. Siyan coughing in the queue waited for his turn, but did not want to speak to us as he had lost trust in many people who had come earlier with false promises. Siyan was suffering with acute heart disease, which required immediate replacement of valves, a major surgery. He waited for the surgery for more than two years and now the situation was still getting worse, he did not believe that he is going to live.
But if we went by organisation principle of working with person with disability then we would have lost this humble soul.
My colleague and I personally decided that we will somehow support for his surgery. We had no clue how we will do it for that moment. By the grace of God, we used his story during an inclusive development training programme for our partners and to our surprise people came forward to offer financial support individually. We were able to mobilise funds for this surgery and also for his family’s sustenance during the surgery and follow-up since his father is a poor fisherman who is unable to cope with the minimum of 300 LKR he earns to feed a family of eight including his wife who is mentally ill.
Though it has many dimensions which may relate to health, poverty, social/cultural discrimination, political crisis, etc, nothing came to his rescue. We feel it is the real humanitarian assistance based on human values that sparked at the right moment to save a soul.
We again visited during previous week and could meet him in the hospital after the surgery and he was waiting to receive us in the hospital with a SMILE. This smile values a million…$ which cannot be bought from any store,
As said in Proverbs 31:9
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
And plead the cause of the poor and needy.
Why do you do humanitarian work (when you could probably be doing something easier, safer, less time-consuming and more financially rewarding)?
- It's inspiring and rewarding having the chance to work in an environment like rural Cambodia with a big population of disabled and poor people. It's quite obvious that worldwide there is an increasing gap between rich and poor - looking at the recent development here we experienced a significant improvement for the urban population but not for those people who are in need. It's sad that even in the year 2011 not everybody, especially poor and disabled people, has access to a reasonable, accessible and affordable health service. My wife and I hope that we make a difference to their lives. As an ophthalmologist I feel it both challenging and rewarding dealing with such a big number of blind patients coming to the eye hospital. Me and the Cambodian team are able to treat the majority of them and therefore contribute to the reduction of avoidable blindness and disability, so for an ophthalmologist I would say it is kind of a dream job.
- Usually we perform surgery morning and afternoon as well examining patients at the out-patients' department. I share my work together with one local fully trained ophthalmologist and a significant part of our work is the training of six resident doctors. Takeo Eye Hospital (TEH) is one of the main teaching hospitals under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health and we are especially responsible for the hands-on-training of future ophthalmologists who will work in different provinces in Cambodia after their four-year training.
- As mentioned above, for my wife and I it is a great experience to be involved in humanitarian work.
- I do hope that we will be able to continue our work, especially being able to find the needed budget, especially in a dire economic situation. I hope that people will still acknowledge the continuous need for humanitarian work - it is one of the rare things we can do to really improve life for neglected people.
- First it started as an adventure. I had always wanted to work abroad. Maybe it is in our family's genes, my grandfather and uncle (father side) had gone to South America, my uncle (mother side) worked and lived many years in the US.
I had joined CBM in 1992 to work in the Philippines. My skills as a 'master carpenter' were very useful in helping people with disabilities find work and succeed in doing it.
The longer I stayed the more I got involved. This was more than a job. Looking back, I think it was a calling. We have a saying in German 'Man thinks and God directs'. This is very much true for my life and my work. While I am of course trying to make good decisions based on what I know and what I think is possible, the unexpected, the unrealistic, the improbable has happened and things took place beyond my imagination.
I love to see and be part of the creativity of life. I love to observe and look forward to the wonders that are going to happen and I hate to be forced into routines.
Often of course I also get disappointed with the inevitable situation for people in poverty and with disability. While I’m able to improve the lives of a few, so many more I can not reach out to. In the Philippines alone, every year two million more people populate the beautiful islands. All are hungry for life. Of them, 15% or 300,000 are persons with disabilities and most of them poor with no access to resources and insufficient income to pay for their daily needs.
Again it seems unrealistic, but I still hope that my contribution makes sense. Maybe, if at some point more people realise that we are in the same boat, resources will be shared and protected to ensure that everybody has enough. Until this happens, I will try to do my part in His Plan.
- I’m glad an average day does not exist. I see myself as facilitating and supporting the plans of the people I’m working with. This means it is not my agenda that counts. I need to be open every day to listen and look, to come in where my help is needed and to encourage where it can be done without me. So every day is usually full of surprises and unexpected challenges.
- The difficult thing about working in this field is the uncertainty of the assignment. This affects the family. You cannot put down your roots; your suitcases are always packed. The children don’t know if they’ll continue their schooling or move to another place.
Friendships tend to be superficial, who will move first? On the other hand one is more open in this situation to live each day, to take advantage of the situation and make the best of it. Something I learned here in the Philippines is that I do not worry too much about tomorrow. If people here can do that, with no social security, no savings, no assurance how they will sustain themselves tomorrow, how much more should I be able to trust that my family and I are being taken care of.
- My hope would be that we see the beauty in the diversity of this world. Each individual has his or her hopes and aspirations. We can not apply 'global' standards and centralised processes to all. While all is somewhat interlinked, everything has a dynamic of its own. In this dynamic lies the opportunity for change and real empowerment.
Humanitarian organisations around the globe only have peanuts in resources compared to the tidal wave of funds being spent on other purposes, often conflicting with and opposing humanitarian objectives. We could become a little bit more humble with what we can do in general but more proud of how much we can do in our own little way.