Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - Small is beautiful

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1994

Relief International is a small NGO that is making a big contribution in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.

By Heather Courtney

Relief International delivers more than its name implies. This small, young humanitarian agency recently launched a quiet crusade of empowerment in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. It brings not only relief to the refugees, returnees and displaced in these countries, but also ways for them to win back their pride and self-esteem.

Farshad Rastegar, 33, founded Relief International (R.I.) in June 1990 when an earthquake in his native Iran sparked a spontaneous community response in Los Angeles to organize relief shipments to the quake victims. Four years and several relief projects later, community response and local-level involvement are still the keys to its success. And today, R.I. provides an excellent example of how a young non-governmental organization (NGO) with realistic and clearly defined goals can make a significant contribution in the worldwide effort to help refugees to help themselves. In R.I.'s case, small is indeed beautiful.

"We look at relief as developmental, not surgical, so from the beginning we have involved the community at all levels," said Rastegar, who serves as executive director of the Los Angeles-based private relief organization providing medical and humanitarian assistance to victims of natural and man-made disasters.

Rastegar, who was writing his dissertation in comparative and international education at the University of California, Los Angeles, at the time of the Iran earthquake, said the disaster brought together many different religious and political elements of the Iranian community in Los Angeles, convincing him of the wealth of opportunities and resources that existed on the West Coast of the United States.

"There seemed to be a dearth of international relief organizations on the West Coast," explained Rastegar, who has been living in the United States for 19 years. "But at the same time a large pool of people, who were part of the international community, or even former refugees themselves, were just waiting to be tapped into."

With a base of some 50 volunteers, R.I. organized additional relief shipments to the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1991, and to Azerbaijan in 1992 to aid the victims of the conflict between that country and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. "We felt that these areas, particularly Iran and Azerbaijan, were not receiving the international attention they deserved," Rastegar said, "and that these gaps in the relief pipeline could be filled by the community on both ends."

In September 1993, R.I. shifted its focus from organizing relief shipments in the United States, to distributing supplies and organizing relief operations within countries of need. After conducting a needs assessment in Azerbaijan, R.I. realized that the traditional relief delivery system there was not reaching a large number of the displaced. Many of the 900,000 refugees and displaced people in Azerbaijan have never reached organized camps, but rather are living in their own makeshift shelters in remote areas.

"When R.I. started in Azerbaijan, we had to take a different approach than some traditional relief agencies," explained Rastegar. "Instead of waiting for refugees and displaced peoples to come seeking help, we went out to find them."

And "finding them" is what R.I. does best. Through mobile health units, R.I. provides primary health care to some 25,000 displaced people a month in Azerbaijan. Reaching some of the most inaccessible regions in the country, R.I., which recently became an implementing partner with UNHCR, also transports and distributes up to 300 metric tons of donated food and non-food items monthly.

"To get to some of these places, you really rely on the motivation of your staff ... they have to think of it as more than just a job," Rastegar said.

A key element of R.I.'s in-country operations in both Azerbaijan and Tajikistan is the hiring of local staff to fill key positions at all levels of the operation. Sixty-one of R.I.'s 65 staff members in Azerbaijan are Azeri, and many of them have managerial positions. Because of this, many staff members think of R.I. as an Azeri organization, rather than an outside international agency, and therefore are willing to "go the extra mile," says Rastegar.

That commitment is evident in the Azerbaijan town of Yevlakh, where every morning several mobile health teams composed of Azeri doctors and nurses set out from the R.I. compound bound for remote camps and settlements of people displaced by the war. Altogether, R.I.'s roving teams provide medical care at 160 centres for displaced people in eight districts of Azerbaijan.

"These are all Azeri doctors and medical staff and they are highly professional people, many of them specialists," said Jill Hoffmann, of R.I.-Azerbaijan. "Because of the war and the economic problems, many of them were unable to use their skills. So this programme is good for them, good for the people, and good for Azerbaijan."

Another key element of R.I.'s operation in Azerbaijan allows the displaced population to earn not only money, but also self-esteem. Through R.I.-sponsored workshops last year, displaced Azeris produced more than 10,000 heaters and some 10,000 water canisters for distribution to other displaced persons. The heaters cost one-tenth of what UNHCR would pay to import them from Western Europe.

Relief International will sponsor similar income-generating activities next year in Azerbaijan, and in its most recent venue, Tajikistan. R.I. has been operating in Tajikistan since April 1994 with a staff of 12, running mobile health clinics to areas where recent returnees are rebuilding whole communities. In other parts of Tajikistan, R.I. trains local medical assistants and midwives in existing rural clinics.

R.I. chose Tajikistan because of what they saw as a paucity of services and a plethora of needs. Again, the philosophy driving R.I.'s efforts in Tajikistan is one of development and local capacity-building. "You want to do more than just put a bandage on a wound," said Rastegar. "You want to resolve their long-term problems by involving the local community at every step."

"You don't always have to bring international aid in," he continued. "Often the resources are already there, and much money could be saved in the process."

Rastegar believes this sort of thinking has been the key to his young organization's success so far. Just four years old, Relief International currently has a budget of $1.5 million, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Soros Foundation, UNHCR, and various private and corporate donors.

But, he says, R.I.'s short history has not been without its share of obstacles and frustrations. One instance in particular has really stuck in Rastegar's mind as illustrating the frustration his organization and other relief agencies unavoidably face from time to time.

On one particularly cold and wet day last year, Rastegar was traveling with a mobile health unit distributing a limited number of blankets in a remote part of Azerbaijan. They were down to their last two blankets when he came upon a dilapidated, makeshift shelter. A very old woman, her husband and their two grandchildren sat shivering inside, but he had only one blanket to give them. He said being able to leave only one blanket was one of the most difficult things he's ever had to do.

"We are doing something, but there is still so much more we could do," he said.

R.I. hopes to do more in the coming year, including building schools and training teachers in Azerbaijan, and strengthening its rapid emergency response capacity by preparing teams of doctors to be ready at a moment's notice.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)