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The power of a helping hand

 Street News Service 13 January 2019

Southern Sudan's future is being decided through a long awaited referendum. Is it easy to provide assistance to this troublesome region, which could soon become the world's newest country? An interview with the head of a leading Polish charity proves that there is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer, and that the willingness to offer a helping hand to ordinary people overcomes a mountain of obstacles and barriers. (1082 Words) - By Barbara Kaznowska

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EU_ Janina Ochogska2

A small village school in Bor. The only thing the 150 pupils have is a blackboard. Photo: Polska Akcja Humanitarna

EU_ Janina Ochogska1

A small village school in Bor. The only thing the 150 pupils have is a blackboard. Photo: Polska Akcja Humanitarna


Barbara Kaznowska: Southern Sudan is one of the most under-developed regions in the world. There is a lack of water, food and medicines. Only a quarter of children there have access to education and the rate of post-natal mortality for women is the highest in the world. The average lifespan is around 40 years. What can you do here to assist with such a huge task?

Janina Ochojska, chair of Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH): Firstly, we are concerned with access to water. Secondly, we are starting a sanitation project. The third area is education for adults and young people, who, as with children, are taken into the army. To this end we run an educational centre, where Sudanese people can learn to read and write as well as do vocational learning. We run courses in the four educational levels in the Malual Chad Centre for Adult and an Accelerated Learning Programme in the city of Bor. During the last semester 125 people studied English and Mathematics. There is much enthusiasm, but, as with everything, there is much demand, which we are unable to completely meet. In March I visited a small school in Bor. There were 150 children in one building. There were two classes, there was no floor and the only equipment was a table. We would really like to build a well for this school and furnish it with the most important equipment.

BK: One of the Millennium Development Goals is the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger, the other is the emphasis on access to water. What has PAH achieved in relation to these?

JO: In relation to the first goal, our agricultural program has had a significant impact. Through the distribution of seeds and tools, fishing equipment, provision of fruit trees, training and demonstrations, a great many families have been able to accumulate adequate amounts of food. Another example could be the village of Malek - I speak here of 50 households - where we have built wells, brought in fishing equipment, seeds and agricultural equipment. Thanks to this work the amount of available food in the village has risen by 40%. In relation to drinking water in the Sudan, over 120,000 people daily drink water from the wells we built in 2006. An even larger number of people drink from wells which we have repaired.

BK: Of course you would like to do more…

JO: Naturally, but I am aware that each well helps save several thousand lives. When I returned to the places where we built the wells I could see the impact of our work on the faces of the children there. According to an independent report by the organisation Tearfund, mortality caused by diseases resulting from poor sanitation and drinking water has fallen by 30% in these areas. A report by Doctors without Borders has confirmed this data. This gives us motivation for further efforts.

BK: Sudan's problems have a political context. We have here an influx of refugees from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, we lack the established infrastructure, there arise disputes about supplies amongst ethnic groups and violence takes place. Drought and flood have led to low harvests and this has been in evidence in the last few years. In such situations are aid organisations able to count on the support of the Sudanese government?

JO: We have been told to leave Darfur. President Omar al-Bashir, currently under investigation for genocide, is extracting revenge on European charitable organisations. This was a huge blow to us, because we already had in place the machinery for drilling a well. We have lost this equipment as well. This happened two years ago, in April. We do hope to return, but it seems unlikely. If there is increased pressure from the international community, we could perhaps manage to retrieve the situation for those thrown out by al-Bashir. We are struggling with other difficulties also. Our workers are tied up in Southern Sudan with extensive bureaucracy, which makes things very difficult. The authorities find ways to make us bribe people to get things done. It should have been the case that the arrival of more organisations would make things easier, but that has not happened. The authorities want to exploit the situation as much as possible. This is an unpleasant situation. Nevertheless, we cannot give up, because who will suffer? Not the authorities, just the ordinary people. And we hope to be there for their sakes.

BK: And the working conditions? Are they encouraging, or discouraging for employees and volunteers?

JO: Formalities, charges and taxes are one thing. The other is the conditions in which we are working. Our people need to construct a camp, erect a toilet, cooking facilities, all of which need to be functional. For office premises we require an antenna for internet access and a generator for electricity. We are making our camp during a time of significant rainfall. We can only send volunteers on missions like these who are able to coordinate projects. Unfortunately there is a lack of people with such skills. So we send workers in, even though there is a lack of people used to working in such difficult and stressful circumstances. Additionally, we cannot afford to pay them much at all.

BK: What co-operation have you had from Polish authorities?

JO: As regards financial assistance for projects connected to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MSZ), or funding for equipment, the problem relates to the fact that the wet season in Sudan ends in November. Then we can enter with drilling equipment only. From necessity our conclusions are very general, because we need to complete the project and close off the accounts for the year. The wet season begins in May. Between January and May we are able to build lots of wells, but there is great competition at this time. The other problem is that despite the existence of the Paris Declaration, whose powers Poland has been obliged to call upon to escalate the provision of equipment to the sub-Sahara, this has not helped at all. So this means a lack of supplies and leads to competition, so we have to fight for funds from government organisations, the business sector and other donors such as the European Union or the UN.

BK: What is the value of the activities of the PAH? Can the completion of project have measurable outcomes, and can they demonstrate the value of humanitarian work and can they be used to promote the value of the humanitarian and development sector in terms of resolving countries' problems?

JO: Each of our projects has three aims. The first one is direct assistance for people living in war-torn areas, or suffering persecution. We give them the chance to return to a normal existence. The second one is educational, to inform people more about the world, and we are involved in that process. The third is to build relations between Poland and other nations. It has been wonderful that in more than 40 countries where we have provided assistance for more than 18 years, that people are given information about our country. We are building of relationships also, because valuable friendship is often the result of assisting people afflicted by poverty.

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