Thoughts from the field
We have the privilege of working with and being supported by many amazing people. Some of them recently stepped out of their comfort zones to visit our projects in Northern Uganda. These are the thoughts they shared with us.
Having just returned from Northern Uganda, I am further impressed with the work of GRI to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable and desperate persons on our planet. The local GRI medical team works tirelessly and much more efficiently than others in the area to treat the medical needs of refugees and impacted locals. They are true heroes!
While GRI may be limited at times by sticking with private funding only, the impact of each donation can be maximized with their innovative approach which treats each patient as infinitely valuable and is always ready for the next patient with staff and appropriate medicines. Further, a visit to an area GRI has served for many years also showed how well meeting physical needs opens the door to meeting spiritual needs.
I am even more excited for the potential of GRI to make a real difference in the lives of many people going forward.
I’m so glad I was able to personally make the trip to Uganda with fellow board members Tom Mills and Doug Caldwell. It was a short trip (1 week) with 30-40% of the time spent traveling to and from country, but it was well worth it! I think it was critical to my role as a board member to see first hand the work that GRI was/is engaged in. Since coming home I’ve had ample time to reflect and to share with others, but there are a few things that rise to the top of the list. I have plenty of stories and impressions about Uganda and what I saw, but almost all of the ones at the top of my list have to do with GRI and the direct impact that GRI is having.
The first thing that always comes to mind is the efficiency or effectiveness of the way in which GRI operates. GRI, unlike most other NGOs, operates independently from the UN and the associated bureaucracy and waste. It was simply amazing to see GRI with well stocked pharmaceutical storage rooms and to understand that the UN facilities often ran out or simply didn’t stock certain medicines and that they would often come to GRI to obtain what was missing from their own inventories! We went to several UN run facilities and the story was always the same. I could go on about the inherent benefits of a privately supported system versus government supported but the point is that GRI constantly delivers and has earned a reputation for doing so!
It should be noted that because of that reputation, GRI is able to accomplish and do things other NGOs can’t do. This of course brings me to the next portion of the highlight reel. You see, Jaden is one of those guys that you just trust and it’s a good thing because we often ended up going places without fully understanding what was going on. This isn’t to say that Jaden didn’t attempt to explain, but with the limited experience that we have from our perspective as Americans, it was often hard to fully understand what was happening on this little trip to Uganda. One such scenario involved a pit stop at a District Minister’s office before we completed a planned trip to the Ugandan/Sudanese boarder. We three board members dutifully sat in the vehicle while we waited for Jaden to come back out. After thirty minutes or so Jaden exited and we drove off. Eventually we encountered a police check point where we were stopped and re-directed to a UN run center just a bit back down the road. Of course GRI’s reputation has proceeded it and upon our arrival (with a little explaining and phone call back to that Ministers office) we were a) given a VIP tour of the facility and b) allowed to proceed up to the Ugandan/Sudanese border where we were able to experience a bit of the refugee’s plight as they first came across the border. The number happened to be down that day but we saw and understood enough to better appreciate the situation and GRI’s impact on improving the lives of those in dire need. Clearly, it’s not what you know but who you know and who you know better have a good reputation for getting things done in Uganda.
The last thing I’ll share is that GRI continues to “pivot” as mechanism to maintain maximum impact and respond to the need of refugees, IDPs and affected nationals. The new healthcare facility that was built the week we were there and the week following was an amazing thing to behold, especially with the knowledge that it represented the best health care facility in all of Northern Uganda. Historically, GRI has eschewed permanent facilities in favor of temporary facilities that allowed it to respond and move with the need more quickly. However, the population in this area was somewhat permanent (some had been there 16 years!) and in need of real medical care for everything from child delivery to malaria and everything in between. With the help of Builders without Borders, GRI now has a facility where it can triage and care for thousands of patients with greatly needed medical care on a monthly basis. The 3,000 square foot facility represents a serious pivot from the historical approach but it’s just what that area needed in order to fulfill the mission. I know many Silicon Valley funded companies that wouldn’t challenge themselves much less succeed in making the type of adaptation that the facility represented for GRI.
Given more time and space there are many more things that I would highlight, but bottomline I’m thankful to be a part of GRI and I’m proud of the team and what it’s accomplishing as the Lord’s hands and feet in Uganda. Bottomline, in the words of parable (Matt 13:3-8) GRI is one of those organizations producing a crop that is many, many times that which was sown...
I was fortunate to be able to travel to Uganda with GRI during the last week of July. The trip allowed me to see firsthand GRI's significant presence there, from the hard-earned respect GRI enjoys from the Ugandan government to GRI's state-of-the-art medical clinic nearing completion at Rhino Camp. This facility will change the face of medical care in the region. Ugandan residents, as well as Congolese and Sudanese refugees, will experience life-changing improvements in the quality of care that they can access.
Beyond that, we got to meet with a group of 17 Ugandan pastors that began their ministry programs under GRI's guidance and remain heavily influenced by GRI's presence. It was a profoundly moving experience. GRI is positively influencing the lives of thousands of people that have otherwise been forgotten by the outside world. With continued financial support, GRI's influence will continue to grow. It is already the world's most efficient and respected aid provider; all that remains is increasing its reach to other regions. That day is coming, and it's exciting to see. It's humbling to witness God's work in action, and He is using GRI to carry out His vision.
Reports suggest that the number of refugees around the world today is larger than at any time in recorded history. Refugees are basically people displaced due to disruptive oppression that makes it difficult or impossible to remain in their established homes. For most of us, refugees have either been a political football kicked around or just out of sight, out of mind. I recently visited the refugee situation in Uganda where thousands of Southern Sudanese people arrive every week. Here is what I saw:
First, I saw that there is great physical suffering in being a refugee. The basics physical needs of life are threatened - safety, shelter, food, sanitation and health care.
Second, the needs of refugees also threaten the same needs of the local people in the territories that the refugees occupy. The land, food supply, and health care are all put under some form of stress. People who are "thrown together" highlight how differences in culture and religion can make anyone insecure.
Third, psychological needs are the unseen tragedies of relocating thousands of people into an existing population. Freedom and hope are two fundamental areas where heightened uncertainty can affect motivation to accomplish life's basic necessities. Aid programs disrupt local economies and can create entitlement mentalities that also have negative impact on how a local area survives and thrives.
Fourth, refugee relief is a big business. Billions of government money is "thrown at" relief efforts to provide shelter, security, food, sanitation and health care. The United Nations is a major player. Local governments also provide money and services. Through grants, the UN solicits participation from non-government agencies (NGO's). Many non profits apply for grants from the UN to supplement and specialize services. The economies of many third world locations that receive refugees are stimulated by the influx of people and money from the outside. Hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses are supported by the temporary presence of outside money. The downside is that many businesses flourish temporarily while the long term economy and sense of well being of the local population can be damaged by the surge and then withdrawal of economic activity.
The fourth issue is the one that struck me the most. Is the way the developed world responds to the first three issues the best we can do? I saw first hand how ineffective and inefficient the current government-based approach tends to be. Prolonged aid of food reduces the motivation of the relocated population to seek self sufficiency. Rules and regulations set by government bureaucrats fail to grasp the needs on the ground and money is spent automatically and needlessly, while failing to meet needs that are real.
Here's an example related to this that I witnessed in Uganda. The UN sponsored health care clinics, many run by NGO's would spend money on expensive vehicles and pay employees more than local wages, while restricting access to care available and being out of many vital medicines the people need. While carrying larger staffs than needed, the clinics set up for refugees would only be open during regular hours of the day and closed on weekends. The UN sponsored clinics would not care for local Ugandans, who lived among the refugees and had to sometimes walk further to get to a Ugandan government clinic. This created more tension between the locals and the refugees. Temporary latrines were mandated by the UN at the intake and processing camps. When there were a surge of refugees at one time, the facilities became woefully inadequate raising a serious risk of cholera. A cholera outbreak could quickly wipe out a refugee camp and threaten the locals living in the area.
I visited the work of a private relief organization, Global Refuge International (GRI). With 1/10th the budget and 40% of the staff size, GRI was providing the best health care to more people. The GRI clinic was seeing more than twice the patients of a UN sponsored clinic with less than half the staff. GRI's clinic always had the needed medicines, especially for malaria which is the most common cause of illness and death in this part of the world. The GRI clinic could build a permanent latrine at a refugee camp, but only because they do not take government subsidies. The only privately funded services for refugees that also cares for the soul of the refugee are Christian ministries. Using local Christian staff, GRI clinics give people hope and help them feel respected and valued. GRI attracts the best local healthcare professionals at 1/4 the wages of the UN sponsored clinics because they see the effective and efficient way GRI meets the needs of the people. GRI is not restricted to only refugees so the local people are more integrated with the refugees as they can receive quality care from GRI too. GRI is available 24/7 as the staff boarding is onsite with the clinic.
A sister Christian ministry, Builders without Border, came while I was there and built a new facility, using local workers as helpers. A building was constructed in 2 weeks that will now allow GRI to be the premium health care provider to both refugees and nationals for all of Northern Uganda. This includes the Ugandan hospital in Arua. All care is free to everyone. It is a love gift to the refugees and citizens of Uganda from the hearts of Christians in the US and Canada.
In summary I saw that as an individual, I cannot solve the refugee situation. It will continue to be big business and a political "lightening rod." One thing I can do though is give to organizations who will never be restrained by government regulations. I saw that while good intended organizations like World Vision and Samaritans Purse are there, they are fully engaged in using grant money to operate in refugee relief and are no different in their operations than the UN. So many organizations have been "sucked into" the big business of relief, resulting in self-serving benefits of UN money. However, there are some, like GRI, who can remain true to their mission of serving the dying and the needy with respect and love. The gift of grace lives well beyond a bowl of food and a prescription of medicine. They believe that lives can be restored out of disaster.
It's certainly worth pondering. I saw it for myself .....