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dr Wojciech Wilk, Maria Sobuniewska  30 października 2020

Helping Africa will pay off

dr Wojciech Wilk, Maria Sobuniewska  30 października 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 14 min
Helping Africa will pay off Capri23auto / pixabay.com

Development aid is rightly seen as a humanitarian duty. However, if used skilfully, it can also help Poland to establish positive diplomatic contacts. Poland’s foreign policy underestimates the soft power of aid given to developing countries. Poles have a lot to be proud of in this regard, but unfortunately these actions are not appreciated enough. Maria Sobuniewska speaks with Wojciech Wilk, president of the Polish Centre for International Aid (Polskie Centrum Pomocy Międzynarodowej – PCPM), about the unexploited Polish potential and the events in Beirut.

Photos from Beirut show the enormous scale of the devastation after the recent explosion. What was the situation like from the perspective of someone who was there at the time?

The natural tendency is to show only the most gruesome and touching aspects of a given situation. We are focusing on the huge damage that has obviously happened, but we may get the impression that the situation is worse than it really is. And this was the case in Beirut. The damage within a kilometre of the warehouse in Beirut’s port is indeed massive, comparable even to artillery fire. The truth is that nearly 200,000 homes are damaged.

However, the remaining buildings are still standing and, apart from the broken doors and windows, bear no structural damage. Thousands of people have indeed lost their homes because their buildings have collapsed (or are at risk of doing so). However, if the apartments are properly secured, even with temporary doors and windows, hundreds of thousands of residents may sleep peacefully. Within a two-kilometre radius of the explosion, a one-off aid of several hundred dollars could quickly restore a single apartment to a state of relative use.

Referring to the direct damage in the Beirut port, it should be noted that the container section started operating just a few days after the explosion. The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) allocated funds to resume the handling of bulk goods. We all want the transshipment of food for Lebanon to be as little disturbed as possible. It should be remembered that the country has two more port centres which, even in the present situation, do not even operate at 50% of their capacity. The rapid response of the United Nations World Food Programme was also important, with its head, David Beasley, pledging substantial food aid until Lebanon was back on its feet.

How does the Polish Centre for International Aid help in Lebanon?

The PCPM has been active in Lebanon since July 2012, which is over eight years. As for the activities of the Polish organisation, we conduct large projects there, not only in Beirut but also in the north and east of the country. The PCPM has historically worked in the poor suburbs of Beirut, home to a large number of Syrian refugees. In the Burj Hammoud district, we conducted a project to provide refugees with a roof over their heads, and in cooperation with UN-Habitat – to revitalise the entire district. Currently, the PCPM, together with UN-Habitat, deals with the detailed study of the population’s needs. We are carrying out a building-by-building reconnaissance, determining the safety and the state of collapse in apartments.

The explosion in Beirut happened in the evening, so we started working the next morning. A group of doctors and paramedics of the PCPM Polish Emergency Medical Team travelled to Beirut. We sent the first detachment of emergency aid from Poland (including foil for windows and temporary doors). The Medical Quick Response Team acts as a unit in crisis situations to reach the region in need as soon as possible. Thanks to the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland and the State Fire Service, the group was on site the day after the explosion. Now, together with the World Health Organization, our main task is to help with COVID-19. Polish doctors and medical staff from the PCPM Emergency Medical Team support two of the six hospitals for COVID-19 patients in Lebanon.

The PCPM offers rescue, humanitarian and development aid. Where does the organisation operate on the largest scale and where is the implementation of aid most difficult?

The PCPM deals with humanitarian and development aid, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. In terms of humanitarian activities, the PCPM focuses mainly on providing assistance to refugees, primarily in the sectors of providing housing and health care.

In terms of development aid, PCPM operates on three levels. The first one is the support of local governments and authorities. With EU funds, we are implementing a programme in Iraq and Lebanon to support local governments and local development. This covers a number of areas – from water supply and sewage treatment plants, to traffic engineering and land development. We are also active in the agricultural sector – we support agricultural cooperatives, for example, in Lebanon and Palestine. The third form is training and equipment support for crisis response units, i.e. training of fire brigades and ambulance service.

In Kenya, we run the largest development aid programme financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has allowed us to improve the effectiveness of fire brigades in a region inhabited by nearly 23 million people. In Lebanon, we gave training on forest fires, which is a huge problem for the country. UN experts observing the activities of the Lebanese fire brigades on the debris of the grain silo destroyed in the August explosion in Beirut noticed that the Lebanese fire brigade uses equipment from a Polish company that had previously been donated as part of the PCPM aid project.

What are the major challenges for development or humanitarian aid? First of all, they concern the perception of the relationship between our country and foreign countries. Polish foreign policy focuses on hard instruments, traditional diplomacy, alliances or summits. For years, I have had the impression that Polish decision-makers have been underestimating soft power completely, i.e. soft instruments that Poland has but does not develop. Development and humanitarian aid prove to be very important in this regard, but it is not supported by Poland in any way. There are no funds earmarked for this purpose in the state budget.

The second challenge is connected to host countries. No matter how many projects were to be implemented in a given country, sustainable development will often not be achieved without coordinated action with other organisations. Therefore, our foundation participates in multi-dimensional humanitarian aid strategies under the aegis of the United Nations. For example, in the UN’s international strategy for aid to Beirut, the PCPM is responsible for a large component of securing temporary housing for victims.

In which sectors does the foundation cooperate with the governments of the host countries?

In countries where we work long-term, we are operating through registered representative offices. We hire local employees who share their knowledge and experience with us. Since we are officially operating on-site, we can cooperate with the United Nations and other global partners. This is a big change because until recently, many Polish organisations would mainly send employees from the country and only implement ad hoc projects.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is funding the largest project to support the fire brigade in this country of 50 million. It is being implemented by the PCPM. This is a unique undertaking because in this part of Europe we are the only ones who have developed a system of training fire brigades, although the value of this project for the entire country is one-quarter of Belgium’s aid budget for only one Kenyan city. In Lebanon, we have specialised in supporting Syrian refugees in renting apartments in small towns. The UNHCR and humanitarian organisations usually focus on refugees living in camps, and those from medium- and highly-developed countries do not want to stay there – they prefer to spend their last penny on any type of accommodation, even a basement. This is what 75% of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon think. For eight years, we have been focusing on helping residents of cities such as Homs, Hama or Damascus, who have left their homes in Syria, and often live in very difficult conditions in Lebanon. Over the past eight years, we have provided assistance to almost 150,000 refugees from Syria.

How are aid strategies implemented so as not to lead to dependence on external help?

Humanitarian aid is not a handout; from day one, it is a relationship between a donor and a recipient. When starting aid projects, we should immediately have in mind what their final results will be and whether they will bring more harm than good. Looking at the matter individually, it should be said that each project should end with strengthening the person, and not leaving them at the level they were at before the help started. The basic principle of humanitarian action is to do no harm, i.e. do not act in such a way that would bring harm eventually. It sounds simple, but in practice, it’s not.

Humanitarian aid should have a clearly defined objective that is achievable from the outset, as well as a clearly-defined timeframe. In the case of long-term projects, there is an aid dependency, extremely harmful for recipients – people get used to the thought that they deserve it and will be receiving it indefinitely. The PCPM activities are being coordinated by the United Nations, which further reduces the likelihood of causing harm.

The activities of the PCPM Foundation are broken down into humanitarian and development aid. The latter is assumed to be long-term, often includes long-term projects, and its aim is to support social and economic development, as well as to respond to global processes such as climate change and progressing droughts. Humanitarian aid, on the other hand, is delivered in very fragile regions, where the situation changes frequently, which is why we usually plan it for the year ahead.

Humanitarian aid provided by the PCPM Foundation is part of the UN’s aid strategy for countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. These important documents, coordinating projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are broken down into sectors such as providing shelter, increasing employment, or providing refugees with basic resources for winter. Strategies are a powerful tool for coordinating such aid, as they are prepared by the United Nations and funded by the European Union, the US and other major donors worldwide. In the event of the Syrian refugee crisis, the UN’s strategic goal is to allow them to remain at their current location until it is safe in Syria.

Working for the PCPM Foundation seems to be an extremely difficult challenge, so one cannot help but ask about the people who work there. What is their main motivation? Ethos? Funding?

The main motivating factor to work in the PCPM or other humanitarian organisations is the willingness to help others and the belief that, with time, one’s work will make a difference.

Quite often, I am asked if the people working for the PCPM Foundation are volunteers. Activities can be carried out with the support of volunteers who are on-site in the short term. However, when implementing long-term strategies (for example, our eight-year presence in Lebanon) or specialised projects (such as the spatial development project implemented in Lebanon and Iraq), we need specialists.

The PCPM Foundation also has the ability to respond to sudden crisis situations and epidemics. Last year, the PCPM Medical Emergency Team was certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the so-called Type 1 Emergency Medical Team. At that time, we were the 29th such team worldwide and the 7th one led by an NGO. Over 100 doctors, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, and humanitarian aid specialists participate in it. In previous years, PCPM medical missions reached out to the victims of the Nepal earthquake (2015), where we arrived 43 hours after the earthquake; the Islamic State offensive in Iraq (2016); or the largest refugee camp in Africa (2018). This year, our team carried out as many as six medical missions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, we supported the Military Medical Institute in a medical mission to Italy, where Polish doctors helped to launch the sixth intensive care unit in the city of Brescia. In April and June, we were sent by the WHO to support hospital preparation and treatment of COVID-19 patients in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Currently, almost 25 Polish specialists are in Lebanon and Ethiopia. In Lebanon, we support the operation of two of the country’s six COVID hospitals, and in Ethiopia – the largest COVID-19 treatment centre in East Africa, housing nearly 1,000 people.

What are the prospects for the future?

Currently, I have much hope in initiatives of individual, bottom-up aid. I am comforted by the positive reaction of Polish society to the explosion in Beirut. Within a few days, we managed to collect almost 220,000 euros, which allowed us to implement roof protection and medical operations. This is also the case with a UN-funded project that provides a home for thousands of disadvantaged families. It was carried out thanks to the wonderful approach of Polish society and the help that humans bring to humans. This is an excellent example of how humanitarian aid should work.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.