Over the last few years there has been a growing recognition that working in partnership can improve humanitarian outcomes. A range of partnership models have been deployed, including NorthSouth cooperation, and partnerships among international NGOs, between them and national and local NGOs and with host and local governments, as well as directly with local communities. This article outlines MERCY Malaysias experience of working in partnership in Malaysia, Myanmar and Gaza.
While Malaysia has not been hit by a major natural disaster, annual seasonal floods affect different parts of the country at slightly different times of the year. MERCY Malaysia embarked on a disaster preparedness programme in 2007, beginning in a school in a district in the southern peninsula state of Johor. Many schools in the state had been badly affected by floods in late 2006, and some had to delay reopening for the new term until flood waters had receded. The initial programme was a school watching workshop, which consisted of detailed hazard mapping combined with awareness of disaster preparedness principles and the application of these principles to the hazards identified during the mapping exercise. Both teachers and students were involved.
The idea quickly caught on, and there was a positive response from the district and state education authorities. MERCY Malaysia then began direct discussions with the Ministry of Education (MOE) at the central level. It emerged that the ministry and UNICEF had developed a pilot project called the Safe School programme, including a UNICEF handbook with general guidelines. However, since the MOE did not have trained and equipped personnel to carry out the programme it had not been implemented. The MOE requested MERCY Malaysias support, and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed and the programme was officially launched. It has since evolved, with two distinct elements, the School Watching Workshop (SWW) and the School Preparedness Program (SPP). It has become a model for institutional preparedness programmes in Malaysia and throughout the region, and has been replicated in MERCY Malaysia programmes with local and international partners in Indonesia, Cambodia and China. To date MERCY has directly trained 2,995 students and 491 teachers. Many more students and teachers have been involved in training of trainers programmes. About 150 schools throughout the country have participated in the programme.
Some of the challenges faced by MERCY Malaysia in implementing the partnership were at the central level with the MOE, while others involved teachers and students at the local level. At the central level, it was difficult to align the programme with the ministrys overall strategy, and convincing some key members of the ministry that the benefits of the programme outweighed its costs was a challenge. As for the teachers and students, there were two main challenges initially: first, getting both teachers and students to appreciate and understand the concept of disaster preparedness and its importance for schools and their inhabitants; and second, getting them involved in training of trainers workshops. The positive impact of the first workshops meant that we had enough momentum to overcome both problems. Our teams have also worked to make the workshops and training programmes more creative, participative and interesting.
Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 was by far the biggest natural disaster to hit Myanmar in many years. The early stages of the humanitarian response were dogged with problems, not least access issues for incoming aid personnel and materials. Other challenges in the initial stages included finding reliable local partners and coordinating the response in an environment where the regime generally views civil society, especially foreign civil society organisations, with suspicion.
MERCY Malaysia deployed early in the emergency phase of the disaster response. As we were new to the country, it was necessary to find reliable and like-minded partners. The break came when an independent private company operating a river cruise service in the Delta offered NGOs the use of two of its boats to facilitate the delivery of aid to cyclone-affected areas. Several major international NGOs took up the offer, including Save the Children (SC) UK, which had had an operation in Myanmar for several years. SC in Myanmar realised that, in the acute stage of the emergency, health and medical aid was the priority. Having developed a cordial relationship with SC UK prior to Nargis, MERCY Malaysia, despite being a relatively small Southern NGO, was able to partner with SC on a hospital boat serving affected people in the Delta. Riverbank towns such as Myawlaungmein and Myawmyawmeingjun became centres from where MERCY Malaysia teams of Malaysian and Burmese medical and relief workers delivered aid, with the river cruiser being the main mode of transport. In smaller, more remote centres and villages teams set up and ran mobile clinics. Later, during the early recovery phase, this operation was expanded to include static clinics and land-based mobile clinics. SC further facilitated operations by augmenting MERCYs supply of medication and disposable medical items through its logistics team and facilities based in Bangkok. The Ministry of Health (MOH) in Myanmar also played a positive role in allowing the operations run by SC and MERCY Malaysia to continue, alongside a few other similar operations run by other international NGOs. MERCY Malaysias health and medical programmes run jointly with SC in Myanmar lasted for about six months.
One of the main challenges MERCY Malaysia faced as an organisation in this operation was adhering to standards for medication and supplies as determined by Save the Children in Bangkok. This was a good learning experience for us as we had to ensure that whatever supplies and medication or kits we used, including material not supplied by SC, were acceptable to our partner and met international standards. We have since implemented a set of guidelines and standards for all our medication and medical supplies.
MERCY Malaysia began health programming in Gaza after the Israeli offensive in December 2008. One of the areas of work is a psychosocial programme in Khan Younis. The programme is conducted in partnership with the Emaar Society, a local NGO. Difficulties concerning access and permits influenced MERCYs decision to work through a local partner. MERCY provided financial and technical support to Emaar, while insisting that the NGO adhered as closely as possible to internationally accepted delivery and accountability standards. We have implemented a technical and operational support system which includes content experts as well as programme staff at HQ, who monitor and assist our partners in their work and ensure that proper reporting is in place.
To date, this programme has successfully attended to over 1,150 families and provided specific psychotherapy to over 530 individuals. Most of these patients suffered psychological trauma as a result of the war in 20082009, although a few had psychological symptoms even before that. The Ministry of Health in Gaza has allowed and encouraged the programme, as it complements its efforts significantly.
The main challenge we faced in this programme was communications. We had to rely on regular and updated communication from our partner Emaar through our field coordinator in Gaza, or sometimes directly to HQ, and for technical issues on our content expert in Malaysia. The experience has helped to improve MERCY Malaysias overall communications with field operations.
In all three examples given here the value of partnership has been clear, and it has brought great benefits to affected communities. Without partnerships in the programmes in Gaza and Myanmar both MERCY Malaysia and its partners, Save the Children and Emaar, would not have been able to deliver medical and psychosocial aid to beneficiaries in such a timely manner. The positive role of governments either in a direct partnership or as a facilitator has also been crucial. When engaging with governments in difficult areas, the challenge for humanitarian actors like MERCY Malaysia is to maintain our humanitarian focus and encourage governments to continue supporting programmes in the long term. The school preparedness programme is an example of the importance of humanitarian NGOs engaging with local governments in long-term community-based programmes.
MERCY Malaysias experience of partnership has not been without problems, but we hope that, by sharing these experiences, we can demonstrate the positive impact that a genuine partnership can bring to humanitarian efforts, and show the added value that partnership makes possible.
Faizal Perdaus is President of MERCY Malaysia.