Compassion Corridor–based agencies improve lives across the globe
Editor's note: This article is reprinted with permission from the December 2005 issue of Horizon Air Inflight Magazine, copyright 2005, Paradigm Communications Group. All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, by any means whatsoever without the express, written advance permission of the publisher.
For a week and a half after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August, a widower in his 70s, who’d been trapped in his New Orleans home when the levees burst, survived on a few crackers and a 16-ounce bottle of water a day. He was slurring his speech due to dehydration and had dangerously low blood sugar when rescuers found him and took him to a Northwest Medical Teams triage-and-treatment-unit tent in a parking lot at the convention center. The unit was the first point of medical contact for evacuees who were airlifted by helicopter to the airport. A three-doctor, three-nurse volunteer team worked out of the tent 24/7 for one week to treat 150 people a day who were injured, dehydrated or desperate for vital medications.
One of the doctors was Portland physician Tom Hoggard, who treated the elderly man and not only saved his life, but also reunited him with his family. Once the gentleman was more alert, he was able to help Hoggard contact a relative who lived outside the main disaster area. “His family thought he was dead,” Hoggard says. “They were overjoyed to hear his voice on the phone.”
The help for Hurricane Katrina victims was just one chapter in an impressive history of aid from Northwest nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations—known as NGOs—including Northwest Medical Teams, Mercy Corps, PATH and World Vision. For decades, these NGOs have been relieving suffering and improving lives around the world.
A significant portion of the organizations’ work has been funded by people and foundations in Washington and Oregon, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest philanthropic foundation in the world, with an endowment of $28.8 billion. In 2004, the Seattle-based foundation awarded nearly $1.5 billion in grants to support agencies working on global health, education and public libraries, and providing support for at-risk families in the Northwest.
Half of the $81.4 million that Portland-based Mercy Corps received as private (nongovernmental) cash donations during the last decade came from Washington and Oregon. More than half of the $76 million in private donations and grants in Seattle-based PATH’s $99 million fiscal 2005 budget came from Washington and Oregon. The agency received substantial support even though its focus on ongoing health issues and positive social change means it doesn’t benefit from media promotion of urgent disaster-relief needs.
More than 90 percent of the more than $82 million in private cash contributions made to Portland-based Northwest Medical Teams over the past 10 years came from Oregon and Washington.
While the Seattle-based U.S. World Vision headquarters office does not have a specific breakout of Northwest contributions for the $840 million it raised in the United States for fiscal 2005, World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns notes that having so many NGOs in the Seattle-to-Portland region is impressive in and of itself. “With the exception of New York, D.C. and Los Angeles, there are more NGOs based here than in any other metropolitan area,” he says. “If you count strictly per capita, we might be in the lead.”
The presence of numerous prominent aid organizations in the Northwest, and the support they receive from foundations and individual donors concerned about the plights of people in places ranging from tsunami-struck Indonesia to malaria-stricken Mozambique, caused Dean Owen, director of public relations for World Vision, to describe Washington and Oregon as the “compassion corridor” in an April interview on National Public Radio.
“People in the Northwest are less focused on personal success and more eager to do philanthropy,” he says.
Bas Vanderzalm, president of Northwest Medical Teams, notes that Northwesterners have faith that what they do matters. “The pioneer spirit, an individualism coupled with a we-can-fix-it mentality, is still very much alive here.”
The need for a determined effort is great: Three billion of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, according to World Vision, and 14 million children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s children suffer from malnutrition, according to PATH, and one out of every five children younger than age 5 dies of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Thirty-five out of every 100,000 women in the Third World die of cervical cancer, a rate seven times higher than in the United States.
Civil war has left millions of people homeless, such as the 2 million homeless people in Darfur, Sudan, according to Northwest Medical Teams and Mercy Corps.
These numbers explain why last year World Vision, Mercy Corps and nine other partners created the ONE Campaign to persuade Congress and the Bush Administration to increase federal spending for global anti-poverty measures to 1 percent of the U.S. government budget.
Meanwhile, individual, corporate and foundation donations continue to be essential. Indeed, the caring of Northwesterners and Northwest agencies has been more important than ever over the past 12 months as the world community has sought to aid victims of devastating hurricanes, tidal waves and earthquakes in addition to fighting longstanding poverty and disease.
“Sometimes you see too much in this business, resulting in horror fatigue,” says Mercy Corps co-founder Dan O’Neill. “But you use the nightmare for fuel. You take that burning interior and use it to keep making a difference.”
The most recent global-response event, as this story was being completed in early November, was the 7.6 earthquake in the northern Pakistan area. The October 8 quake reduced homes to rubble and killed more than 50,000 people; some estimates say 80,000.
World Vision, which already had a staff of 20 in Pakistan—rebuilding schools and clinics after a 2004 quake—immediately sent 10 more people. First the workers supplied tents, blankets, water, food and cooking utensils to survivors. Then they supplied burial cloths and body bags to help local Muslims fulfill their obligation to try to bury their dead within 24 hours. They also provided airlifts of relief supplies from Japan, Germany and other nations. (Distance precluded airlifts from the United States.)
Mercy Corps also already had staff in the country—121 people who had been working on clean-water, health-care and “economic-livelihoods” projects to help the hundreds of thousands displaced to Pakistan by decades of conflict in Afghanistan—and these workers stayed up all night after the quake to procure and provide antibiotics, bandages, painkillers and disinfectants. On the Monday following the Saturday quake, Mercy Corps sent eight of its staff members, including doctors and surgeons, into the remote mountains of the North-West Frontier Province to provide those victims with medical attention.
Less than a week after the quake, Northwest Medical Teams—an organization that uses medical volunteers who can break away from their practices for two to four weeks at a time—had sent $2.5 million in medical supplies to Lahore, Pakistan, and by early November, it had sent in four medical volunteers to work with local doctors.
The last year has seemed like a period of extraordinary tragedy around the globe, starting with the December 26, 2004, tsunami generated by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The tidal wave caused more fatalities—recent estimates put the figure at around 300,000—than any known natural disaster in recorded history.
Aceh Province, on the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia, took the worst hit. Observers there described the wall of water that traveled more than three miles inland as turning black with debris.
“The receding waters left piles of rubble 10 feet high,” notes Sasha Muench, a Mercy Corps project manager from Sequim, Washington, who was sent to the province in January to begin relief work. “All the houses were destroyed. It was a struggle to survive.”
Mercy Corps had a staff of more than 200 in Aceh for the first six months and expects to maintain a presence there for three to five years as it supports locals’ plans for their future.
Northwest Medical Teams deployed 50 teams—representing 22 states and five countries—who treated 20,000 people and trained 160 local medical workers in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Somalia and Indonesia in the six months following the tsunami. The organization also shipped and airlifted in more than $27 million in critically needed medicines.
One of the Northwest Medical Teams volunteers was Deanna King, a nurse from Harrison, Idaho, who worked long days in an outdoor clinic in Lamno, in the western part of Aceh Province, to treat 2,500 people last January. “What we saw most at first were gaping wounds in people hit by debris in the water,” she says. “Then it was respiratory problems, mainly pneumonia—caused by aspirating seawater—and diarrhea from unsanitary conditions.”
King, whose own children are grown, particularly remembers an Aceh woman whose eardrum had been burst by the force of the wave. The woman had been working in her rice fields with her two sons when she heard the roar of the water crashing toward them. She grabbed a son in each arm to run, but quickly realized she would have to let go of one of them. She figured the 8-year-old would have a better chance on his own than her little 3-year-old.
“She let go of him and grabbed onto a palm tree and hung on, and when the wave receded, she and her younger son were still clinging to the palm tree,” King says. “She never saw her older son again.”
Similar stories are all too common, says Geno Teofilo, a World Vision communications manager who is still working in the region. “The province’s main city, Banda Aceh, looked like Hiroshima after the bomb. Everything was wiped away.”
Including livelihoods. Teofilo’s World Vision team purchased and towed a catamaran-style boat, from an undamaged part of Aceh, to a fishing village with a few hundred inhabitants who needed boats to provide for their families.
“The village headman thanked us profusely for our help,” Teofilo says. “He asked us to sit cross-legged on the mats in his hut beside two young fishermen who would be using the boat. At the headman’s request, we all put our hands at our sides. He poured a white liquid—it seemed to be water mixed with a local crop—over our hands in a solemn ceremony and said, ‘Now you are all members of the village.’ ”
Teofilo also was particularly moved by the sadness of 6-year-old Idawati, who lost both parents and a sister to the tsunami. She was sent with her grandmother to a temporary living center.
“She was very traumatized,” Teofilo says. “She’d cry at night. She wouldn’t play with other children in the CFS.”
A CFS—Child-Friendly Space—is a supervised play area at each shelter camp, where out-of-work local teachers help with emotional recovery. Over the weeks, with World Vision staff drawing pictures and singing traditional songs at the CFS, Idawati started to play again.
“Once in a while, now, I see a little smile,” Teofilo says.
Hiring local teachers to help displaced children had the added benefit of boosting the local economy. In addition, agencies such as World Vision and Mercy Corps sponsored cash-for-work projects that paid $3.30 a day, a decent local wage, for clearing debris, and $5.60 a day for the tragic work of clearing away bodies.
World Vision also helped 1,700 displaced homeowners, many of them widows, obtain land-owner certificates so they could return to their land, and it cleared or provided farmers with the means to clear 900 hectares for planting. For instance, farmers in a community in Lamno received a one-man motorized plow. “It looked like a rototiller,” says Teofilo. The farmers’ land, one mile inland, had been flooded and the crops destroyed. “With this machine, local farmers were able to turn the salt-damaged earth and prepare the soil for rice. They were very pleased to be back at work in their fields again.”
The Northwest aid agencies help relieve human-caused as well as nature-related suffering. For instance, Mercy Corps is providing seeds and tools for vegetable gardens in Kingsville, Liberia, so orphanages can feed children victimized by the civil war that began in the late 20th century. In Afghanistan, a country with no banking system, according to Mercy Corps’ O’Neill, the agency gives microloans of $50 to $500 to help the poorest of the poor open clothing stores or flower shops, in this way seeding the local economy.
Mercy Corps also is one of the few U.S.–based international NGOs operating in Iraq. “We’ve been in Iraq since the ’03 invasion,” says Jeremy Barnicle, director of communications, “and we have no immediate plans to leave.”
The Mercy Corps staff there is almost entirely Iraqi and works closely with local communities as staff members build libraries, advocate for disabled rights in the new constitution and develop Internet centers to give Iraqi young people news from outside the country.
Mercy Corps’ work is done outside of Baghdad; still, trouble has occurred. “When I was there a year ago,” says O’Neill, “I heard that armed insurgents came into a village wanting to destroy the library our local staff had built. The villagers had such a strong sense of ownership, they refused to give up their library. They banded together and rebuffed the insurgents.”
While wars and natural disasters have generated media attention and immediate financial response, PATH has quietly continued doing what it has always done.
“Our focus,” says PATH president Dr. Christopher Elias, “is on finding solutions to the more difficult health problems facing the developing world.”
He says, for example, that many Asian children under the age of 15 live in areas with Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease related to, but more virulent than, West Nile virus. Japanese encephalitis induces vomiting, paralysis and coma, and leads to death or long-term neurological damage in 70 percent of its victims. There is no cure.
Dr. Julie Jacobson, director of PATH’s Japanese encephalitis–prevention program, remembers a 5-year-old girl brought into the hospital in Kurnool, India. “She was wearing the pink, frilly dress her parents had put on her. She’d had a seizure and then gone into a coma. Her parents held her hand and looked up at me when I walked into the room, their eyes pleading for help.”
It broke Jacobson’s heart that she had no help to offer. The vaccine available at that time, early 2001, was difficult and time-consuming to produce, and full vaccination required multiple doses for full protection. The supply was too limited to meet global needs.
Funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation allowed PATH to make much more of the vaccine available later that year in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where Jacobson had seen the little girl in the pink dress, reducing the incidence of reported Japanese encephalitis by 90 percent.
Meanwhile, a single-dose vaccine had been developed by a pharmaceutical company in China, but there was not funding to make it widely available. In 2003, PATH received a grant of $27 million from the Gates Foundation to fund production of a single-dose vaccine and distribution to Asia within the next couple of years.
With the help of more than $265 million in grants from the Gates Foundation, USAID—U.S. Agency for International Development—and other funders, PATH also has been working since 1999 to develop a malaria vaccine—considered one of the most important research projects in public health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because drugs, bed nets and insecticides have been only partially effective.
The Gates Foundation funding, $107 million of which was announced at the end of October, helps to signal the importance of defeating an illness that kills at least 3,000 people a day, says Teresa Guillien, PATH communications associate.
Malaria is a complex disease, so some researchers have not been optimistic about the odds of creating an effective vaccine, but using, among others, a vaccine developed by Belgium-based GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, PATH supported vaccine trials in Mozambique with 2,022 children between the ages of 1 and 4. The vaccine reduced infection in the children by 45 percent and reduced the risk of developing severe malaria by 58 percent. Elias estimates that an even more effective vaccine may be developed in five to 10 years.
A PATH program aimed against another killer, cervical cancer, was completed last year in western Kenya, thanks in part to a Gates Foundation $10 million commitment to an alliance of agencies such as PATH that are combating the disease.
“Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the developing world,” observes Vivien Tsu, senior program adviser in reproductive health for PATH. That’s because the trip to a district hospital for screening and treatment is long and difficult, she says. “The roads are not good, and transportation is expensive. For many of these women, the round trip could take the whole day. They could ill afford to take that much time out of the fields.”
PATH’s goal was to set up enough screening clinics so that no woman in her 30s, the most at-risk population, would ever be more than a two-hour walk from a clinic. Of the 489 women who tested positive over the three years of the program, about two-thirds were persuaded to go to the nearest district hospital for treatment. They could not be treated at the clinic because treatment requires an instrument that costs $200, too expensive to purchase for every clinic.
Some of the women didn’t want to go to the hospital because they were afraid, Tsu says. “Many of these women lack information about cancer and prevention. One rumor was that the nurses want to take out their uteruses.”
PATH worked with local women’s groups and local nurses who spoke Luhya or Ki-Swahili to develop flip charts with pictures. The flip charts included a picture of a green mango with a small brown rust spot. “The nurses used the analogy that their cervix was like the mango, and it just had a bad spot that could be easily removed,” Tsu says.
PATH’s other successes include a female condom, now in clinical trials in Latin America, Africa and Asia (“where women often can’t negotiate condom use by their partner, and AIDS is a big issue,” notes Guillien); a USAID–funded small dot on a sticky-backed paper that is affixed to vaccine vials and changes colors with heat exposure that spoils the vaccine; and a USAID–funded prefilled “auto-disable” syringe, which collapses after one use to prevent the spread of disease via reuse.
The syringe is being used to immunize Andhra Pradesh’s entire 1.6 million infant population against hepatitis B, measles, whooping cough and polio, in a program designed to allow the state government to gradually assume the cost.
The health-care products are designed in PATH’s Seattle office, Guillien says. “We then work with a manufacturer to mass-produce the item. We license the intellectual property back to them with the agreement that they have to sell it at low cost to UNICEF, let’s say, for Third World polio vaccines.” The manufacturer is then free to market the product for profit in the developed world.
“For PATH, it’s all about wanting to come up with the technology and means to help people and then getting the help to them,” says freelance journalist Lisa Cohen, who is on PATH’s Leadership Council. “If that means giving the technology away, that’s fine. There’s no ego about it—it’s not about getting credit. They are changing the world in such a pragmatic and effective way.”
As diverse as the four Northwest humanitarian organizations are, they share an unshakable belief that the disadvantages of poverty and the ravages of disaster can be overcome, one crisis at a time. The people who work for these nonprofits often give up more-lucrative careers. Many live and work in abject conditions similar to those suffered by the locals.
Why they do it is perhaps best explained by Dr. Julie Jacobson, the director of PATH’s Japanese encephalitis–prevention program: “These people look at you, wanting help, and it tears you up to know that the only reason they’re suffering this tragedy and you’re not is because you come from a rich country and they don’t.”
It is heartrending to see so much suffering, even when you’re doing all you can to alleviate it. O’Neill of Mercy Corps says part of what keeps him going is the generous attitude he’s encountered among the world’s poor.
“I was once in a refugee camp in South Lebanon where the people in the camp invited us into their hovel. They had virtually nothing, but they opened their last can of coffee to share with their guests.”
He also draws strength from a Gandhi quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
In the Compassion Corridor, many people are doing just that.
Scott Driscoll is a Seattle writer.