Previous blogs have described how each of our Country Programmes has developed a definition of what it means to be disadvantaged in their country context. That is, who is it who is generally left behind in development initiatives, and why? Some of our staff have found this easier to relate to their particular tasks and responsibilities than others. Christian Steiner, our Country Programme Director in Madagascar, writes about an initiative that both placed a focus on some of those “left behind”, and engaged staff at a personal level – bringing them new insights and strengthening their commitment to this aspect of their work.
Much of rural Madagascar, including many of the areas in which HELVETAS works, is very inaccessible. Rural roads are poor and only seasonally passable, and the public transport that exists is usually heavily over-used and expensive relative to daily wages. The nearest hospital often lies several day’s journey away, so many health problems that might be quickly rectified in urban settings are not addressed. The result is a relatively high incidence of children and adults who are handicapped – from birth, as the consequence of poor nutrition, or following an accident.
HELVETAS is not an organisation that specialises in working with handicapped individuals. However, there are organisations that do so, and it is possible to play a crucial role by linking with them. In this case, a collaboration with the charity Mercy Ships was initiated. Mercy Ships operate around the African coast, providing free surgical support to individuals who are otherwise unable to pay. The organisation is only able to provide this support to those who arrive at their ships – the cost of transport to and from the individual’s home is not included. To extend its services to those living far from the ship, the organisation started looking for sponsors to cover the transport costs of would-be patients.
There was no HELVETAS Madagascar budget foreseen for collaborating with Mercy Ships, so staff decided that they would contribute to such an initiative personally. They focused on patients selected from the northern region Diana, 1,500 km from where the ship was then anchored, at Tamatave. Together with their extended family members, staff raised enough money to pay for 107 handicapped individuals plus their care-givers to travel to and from the Mercy Ship. These individuals, many of whom are children, were specifically identified from HELVETAS project areas, and would otherwise most likely have remained handicapped for life. The entire HELVETAS team visited the Mercy Ship at Tamatave to see some of the treatment at first hand (apologies for the poor quality of the group photo). Angèle Rafiringason, coordinator our programme funded by the Commune of Mùnsingen, noted of her impressions:
“On entering the ship, the change of environment was total – it was like arriving in another land… And yet the organisation is firmly rooted in the reality of the host country. All the volunteers on board are there to give hope to Malagasy men and women rendered disadvantaged by their disability, or by that of their children.”
Based on this very positive first experience, the programme MATOY, financed by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC), decided to repeat the collaboration and to sponsor the transport of all patients selected in the western region Menabe. Again this initiative was partially funded through personal contributions from staff members.
There are always certain individuals whose story touches a particular cord with others. For the HELVETAS team, it was a four year old boy named Jean Krinel Rajomalahy who had severely deformed, bow-shaped legs. Pictures of his smiling face before and after the successful operation have become “pin ups” for the team.
The result of this initiative has gone well beyond the changed lives of the 107 individuals treated. For a start, having a handicapped member in the family has a major impact on family dynamics overall. Staff saw that successful treatment transformed the outlook and life opportunities of the other members. Care responsibilities were greatly decreased – often especially for women – leaving them free to participate in other activities. Also, attitudes towards the family amongst other members of the community often changed in a positive way. Beyond this, Christian writes that the collaboration served as “an eye opener” for the team in the debate “where and who are the vulnerable?” This has become a much more meaningful and serious discussion following the interaction with Mercy Ships.