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Wednesday October 10, 2007

Rebuilding lives


MERCY Malaysia, an internationally recognised medical and humanitarian relief organisation, has “metamorphosised”. In its eighth year, it is riding the waves of change with “a major restructuring exercise”. 

“Mercy Malaysia is not just a response organisation,” said president Datuk Dr Jemilah Mahmood. This realisation came during the Afghanistan crisis (in October, 2001), when members decided it would be more prudent to look towards providing Total Disaster Risk Management (TDRM) to ensure that affected communities become more resilient after a disaster.  

A friend in time of need: In 2001, Mercy Malaysia provided relief to flood victims of Kampung Cham in Cambodia, and specialist support in Siem Reap.
TDRM is an approach introduced by the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre (ADRC) and the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kobe (UNOCHA). It considers all the phases of a disaster: prevention/mitigation; preparedness; response; and rehabilitation and reconstruction. 

“We realise that we need to work with the communities and ensure they are more prepared and resilient to face whatever challenges,” said Dr Jemilah in a recent interview.  

“It’s (Mercy Malaysia) not about giving response but taking disaster victims through the recovery and rehabilitation stage, the preparedness phase and building local capacity. That way, we can train, build capacity and monitor the people, but we don’t necessarily have to be there in the long term.” 

It takes two to three years to rebuild a community, she added. “The challenge is on human resource because some people have never had exposure, experience or enough knowledge on building capacity. We send our people to train them or bring them back to Malaysia for training.”  

The benefits of building capacity were felt during the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. The doctors and people trained by Mercy in Afghanistan could move faster to Pakistan than a despatch team from elsewhere.  

“They spoke the language and were working in our field hospitals. After we’d ‘built’ them, they were in a better position to help others,” she said. 

Relief work in Afghanistan was “very difficult” as there were illiterate people and communities suspicious of one another.  

“In Afghanistan, we trained our local staff of 35 on health, water sanitation and hygiene and how to empower the community. We built a comprehensive health centre in Kandahar which focuses on women’s and children’s health. It’s the only centre that is free-of-charge for women and children and it’s open 24 hours.” 

Although working in Kandahar was very difficult, the organisation was “very well protected” because of partnerships with the local government, stakeholders and other communities. 

“We never had threats and we’re still there, six years down the line. We have very credible locals working for us. We have well projects so that people have drinking water and water for irrigating their fields. We have a school for children in the compound of the health centre.” 

The tsunami in December 2004 was a major tipping point for the organisation. “We were the first international organisation to arrive (in Aceh) and it was publicised by the international media. Suddenly, people realised there was Mercy Malaysia,” Dr Jemilah said. 

She beamed with pride when talking about the organisation’s “very hardworking and tolerant” volunteers who give and take, and build very strong relationships with the Indonesian Government, the United Nations, the local communities, and the people affected by a disaster. 

“Mercy Malaysia is still in Indonesia and, to date, has 19 projects. It also has projects in Sri Lanka and Sudan.”  

After the tsunami, Indonesian health officials said that they had lost 500 nurses and asked for a similar number of replacements to assist them. 

Dr Jemilah Mahmood
“I told them we couldn’t send 500 nurses from Malaysia, but we could send some to train their nurses. Alternatively, they could send their nurses to be trained in Malaysia. We took people from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) to look at their curriculum and roped in people from nursing colleges to help. 

“Today, they have 625 nurses who will be graduating within two to three years. We’ve not just responded by providing help and shelter, but we’ve also built a new nursing college in Aceh.”  

Mercy Malaysia’s team of architects and engineers also advised the locals on the need for stronger buildings – houses, health centres and schools that are earthquake-resistant (using anti-seismic technology).  

”We teach about warnings (on disasters) and how to take them seriously, and how to institute a preparedness programme for schools,” Dr Jemilah said. 

On a recent trip to Cambodia, Mercy’s volunteers were welcomed to start and expand its projects on health and water sanitation and hygiene. 

Valued partnerships 

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is another interest area of Mercy Malaysia, which regards that as “a value partnership, not just in terms of assistance but also development of human capital”. 

“We have more than 10 corporations that are part of our programme – Khazanah, UEM, Malaysia Airlines, Petronas, amongst others. We need to expand. We don’t just take money from corporations but try to involve them in our programmes,” Dr Jemilah said. 

“For example, under the Petronas Volunteer Opportunity Programme (PVOP) and UEM Alert, we train their staff on disaster management so that they know how to respond in a disaster and support our staff. Hence, we take the corporation to the field. They went with us to Aceh and Nias (in Indonesia) and Pakistan.” 

With this, Mercy foresees “a need for more good staff, more money and more offices in the region” (such as in Indonesia and Cambodia, where it needs to start central and regional offices). 

Dr Jemilah said: “It is very challenging to find good people to work with us. The NGO (non-government organisation) sector does not always pay the best salaries compared to the corporate sector, but we have very good people on board. We have offices in Nias, Afghanistan and London (a liaison office to look into funding from Europe) and plan to open offices in Jakarta and Cambodia and expand into Timor Leste and other parts of Asia.” 

The organisation also sealed partnerships with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR; looking at refugees and displaced populations) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA; looking at gender issues and women’s reproductive health). These partnerships strengthen the organisation and it believes that it can always depend on them to give guidance, technical support and assistance. 

Mercy Malaysia has scored some firsts along the way. 

It is the first NGO in Malaysia to publish its financial report in major newspapers and the first NGO to win the ACCA Mesra award from the Association of Certified Chartered Accounts (ACCA Malaysia) for “our social reporting and transparency” (Mercy Malaysia’s Annual Report 2005), said Dr Jemilah. 

It is now in the process of audit by Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), a Geneva-based organisation that will accredit it on its accountability to beneficiaries. Serious about the issue, it has an accountability team and an accountability officer. 

She explained: “Your accountability is not just to your donor but also your beneficiary. For instance, were your beneficiaries involved in deciding what food to buy? Did they receive it in time? Was there any bias in your distribution? Are you ethical in the way you work? Do beneficiaries have a channel to voice complaints?”  

In July last year, Mercy Malaysia became the first Malaysian organisation to be given special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This allows it to participate in economic and social areas of concern (humanitarian, property and so forth) and express opinions on behalf of its beneficiaries. 

“We have a real duty to advocate for our beneficiaries – to tell the world what they are going through and how the world should react to them and treat them,” said Dr Jemilah. 

Here to stay 

“We’re a leading Asian organisation in disaster management and we’re a recognised international organisation since 2003. With the United Nations ECOSOC accreditation, we are even more recognised. We’re with the big players and we’re representing our country and people. We’re also a resource for our nation to use and consult,” said Dr Jemilah. 

Mercy has eight chapters throughout Malaysia and each has its own projects, with local government agencies supporting the initiatives.  

Locally, it wants to support government initiatives on community-based disaster preparedness because this is where its strength lies. It wants to remain committed to its cause as a multi-ethnic organisation that heals across borders. 

With this tagline, it goes everywhere it is needed regardless of race and religion, and it wants to remain independent, impartial and transparent, Dr Jemilah said. 

Reflecting on the past year, she said: “Thankfully, Mercy Malaysia has had a quiet past one year in terms of disasters and this has reinforced our belief that our work is not just about disaster response. We are going to focus on two core ‘business’ areas in disaster response – health and water sanitation and hygiene through recovery, rehabilitation and preparedness stages. 

“We have 4,500 volunteers and staff and a few hundreds of them have been on missions. If anyone has seen major disasters upfront and worked with communities over disasters, it’s our organisation.”  

Where funds are concerned, she added: “Malaysia is not a major donor country. We’re (the public) very much reactive to the media. Whenever there is lot of media exposure, such as during the tsunami, you get people donating. 

“People don’t realise that small disasters happen all the time, and we respond to them.”  

Indeed, the organisation springs into action whenever it is needed. It has a role to play in Cambodia, where children are suffering from diarrhoea, and women are dying from childbirth. It also responds to floods in Sudan and problems in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. 

“We also go out and teach communities in Malaysia. All these activities need funds, too,” said Dr Jemilah, adding that disaster response is never enough and “it’s a bad way to spend money”. Instead, “people should spend money on response and you should reserve money to make sure the communities are stronger to respond to future disasters.” 

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