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Business leaders see first-hand how simple things can make a major difference in Africa


Business leaders see first-hand how simple things can make a major difference in Africa

UNHCR's Council of Business Leaders have returned from their first trip to Africa filled with respect for the "resilience and courage" of refugees, and inspired by how "simple interventions" can dramatically improve the life of refugees.
22 March 2006
Jeffrey L. Sturchio of pharmaceutical giant Merck and UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin look at the Merck Manual, the most widely used medical reference book in the world, in the library of a refugee hospital in Tanzania, as hospital staff look on.

LUKOLE CAMP, Tanzania, Mar 22 (UNHCR) - Any time you can't find a doctor or nurse at the NPA Hospital in this refugee camp in western Tanzania, just check the library.

"If somebody has the chance, this is where they come - even for 15 minutes on their tea break, or 30 minutes during lunch time," says Fauster Munyankambi, matron of the hospital run by Norwegian People's Aid (NPA). "They are always studying to improve their work."

The big attraction is an unusually up-to-date, well-stocked medical library donated by pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), working in collaboration with the International Council of Nurses (ICN). The library at Lukole was part of the pilot phase of the Nursing Libraries for Refugee Health project, inaugurated recently with the ICN and UNHCR. The ready-made portable libraries are designed to deliver the latest nursing knowledge and training to health professionals working with refugees in Africa.

"Simple interventions can have a powerful impact," said Jeffrey L. Sturchio, MSD's Vice President, External Affairs, who last week got a chance to hear first-hand from Munyankambi and other doctors and nurses how much they prize his company's contribution.

He travelled to refugee camps in Kenya and Tanzania with the Council of Business Leaders (CBL), top executives of five of the world's largest corporations, who are advising the UN refugee agency on how to streamline its operations to stretch limited funding to the maximum benefit for the 19.2 million refugees and others it takes care of around the world. The group was led by UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin, and is also looking at building bridges between the business world and humanitarian agencies.

Sturchio and his fellow CBL executives got their first opportunity to learn from refugees what their needs and hopes are. "Seeing how much the nurses and doctors here value the library makes me want to expand our efforts as quickly as we can," Sturchio said. Plans are currently under way to distribute 50 additional libraries to refugee camps and local district health centres in Tanzania and Zambia, and to provide training to the nurses serving the refugees and local population.

MSD believes the knowledge shared by the Nursing Libraries for Refugee Health Project can spell the difference between patients living and dying in under-stocked, over-stretched hospitals like this one, where two or three patients are forced to share one bed.

"If we can demonstrate that making this knowledge available to the front-line health workers really does make a difference in the health of refugees, our hope is to expand the project quickly to all refugee camps in Africa, which would benefit several million people," Sturchio said.

In another refugee camp near Ngara, in western Tanzania, the business leaders visited a vocational training centre where as many as five enthusiastic students were sharing each desktop machine in the computer instruction centre which is a hugely popular spot despite problems with electricity and no Internet connection.

As a representative of software giant Microsoft, Patrick De Smedt, who is Chairman of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa, was besieged by refugee students asking for his autograph.

"I was impressed with the creativity and innovation they are using to deal with the challenges they have," De Smedt said later. "When we give software, curriculum and funds, they will go a long way. Microsoft is committed to helping refugees, and now we will examine how we can better tune the global programmes we have to meet their specific needs."

After visiting some of the 127,000 mostly-Somali refugees in the desert at Dadaab, eastern Kenya, as well as following Burundians going back to their own country after a decade or more in refugee camps in Tanzania, "the words 'resilience' and 'courage' keep coming to my mind," said Hannah Jones, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility for sportswear giant Nike Inc. "The refugees are making the most of their time in the refugee camps, and the young people talk openly of their ambition to become presidents and prime ministers when they go back to their own countries," she added.

"We came away with a sense of how crucial education, sports, leadership and peace-building skills are," said Jones. In Dadaab, Nike has built classrooms, special latrines to encourage girls to come to school, and is funding sports programmes to build girls' confidence - all measures designed to "level the playing field between boys and girls."

"By putting in more classrooms, more desks, by bringing in sports to the camp, by designing special veils so the Somali girls can play sports, we see the impact it is having on the girls," said Jones.

Richard Golding, UN Relationship Partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers, said he was "shocked in a positive way" by the attitude of the refugees and the dedication of "truly inspirational" UNHCR staff working in hardship posts. "I am amazed that in such desolate places, you can produce such good results," he said.

Golding, who is working with the entire UN system on its reforms, said the trip to Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi was a good opportunity to see how UNHCR is spending the money it raises, mostly from donor governments.

He said the Council of Business Leaders could use their companies' core competencies - management consulting, pharmaceuticals, technology support, marketing and branding expertise - to help UNHCR streamline its own operations and open up new sources of funding. Currently 93 percent of the agency's funding comes from government; UNHCR needs $1.3 billion this year, but is under-funded by millions of dollars.

"We want to work with UNHCR management on reform that hopefully will lead to the right things happening in the field, here in refugee camps," Golding said in Tanzania.

The leaders were joined at the end of their trip in Nairobi by a fifth member, David Arkless, Executive Board Member of employment agency Manpower, who pledged "to leverage our customers, suppliers and employees to multiply our efforts to raise funds for and support UNHCR."

Earlier last week, while they were in Dadaab Refugee Camp, the CBL members were dismayed to learn the World Food Programme was forced to reduce food rations to the refugees below standard acceptable levels because of insufficient funding.

"Even the concept of basic needs is barely being met," said Jones. The cut in rations "is walking the road to malnutrition and starvation."

"I am taken aback by our ability as the international community to let aid slip below basic needs," she added. "Why is a standard not a standard?"

By Kitty McKinsey in Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi