Medicus Mundi Spain | The empathy of five aid workers is told by Adelaide (India), Amaia (Mozambique), Cristina (Mauritania), Moustapha (Mali) and Javier (Burkina Faso). These are the faces of medicusmundi’s commitment to the most vulnerable populations.

According to figures of the Spanish Agency for Cooperation in 2019, approximately 2,800 Spanish cooperators work in 96 countries to build a fairer world. Of these, some 2,000 work in NGOs professionally dedicated to international cooperation. In addition, a study conducted by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID) in 2019 stated that its largest percentage of cooperators are women over 35 years old working on projects in Africa. For years this sector has had more women than men. In medicusmundi there are 11 cooperators, and seven of them are women.

The World Day of the Cooperator, 8 September, was made to coincide with the Declaration of the Millennium of United Nations, in which 189 heads of state committed themselves to fulfill the Objectives of Development of the Millennium. This is our recognition of the work carried out by aid workers in the most difficult areas of the planet in the areas of health, education, access to water and sanitation, rural development and food security, environment and the fight against climate change. Five workers who have crossed borders to develop their health and humanitarian work tell us their own story. Four are from Africa and one is from Asia.

All missions of Amaia

Amaia Laforga’s journey to her current destination in the south of the African continent, has been long. “I didn’t study to be an aid worker. In life one evolves personally and professionally. After 30 years of working life and more than 20 years in international cooperation, I assure you that I did not decide. Suddenly you are a development worker and you don’t know why, but you keep going, you don’t want to give up or change your life. The values, the way of being and the way of seeing life push you towards cooperation. And the internationalist life engages you,” Amaia tells us. During her studies of nutrition and dietetics at university, she used the breaks to satisfy her desire for social commitment. It didn’t take long for her to notice that her world was becoming too small, and she wanted to know more. She then collaborated with an association that carried out health campaigns during the war in Yugoslavia and with health brigades that helped the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). “It was the 90s (and) the cooperation was already taking on a big role. I decided to train myself because it wasn’t enough to have a will and a big heart, you had to be professional. And since then it has been 25 years in different countries, continents and missions and, in addition, another two postgraduate courses and two masters,” she explains. Amaia went from being an activist and militant for the right to health of vulnerable populations and victims of war to Country Representative in Mozambique with medicusmundi Mediterrània.

Adelaide’s testimony

Adelaida García Codina, currently in India with medicusmundi Gipuzkoa, considers that this profession has a high degree of complexity. It is linked to very diverse socio-cultural contexts that are totally different from our society of origin and they often face difficult and harsh realities that show the cruelty of existing injustices at a global level. “My function as a cooperator, faithful to my own principles and to the values of medicusmundi, is to work in a totally professional way with the local entities to improve the conditions of life in the defense of health and in the access to a quality health care”.

Cristina’s socio-political commitment

For Cristina Orti, it was not a conscious decision, but her personal experience and socio-political commitment that led her unconsciously and almost by chance to channel her life into the world of cooperation. In fact, she studied Management and Public Administration, along with Social and Cultural Anthropology.  But she took advantage of the first opportunity that she was presented with and participated voluntarily in the program of young cooperants at the Junta de Comunidades de Castilla La Mancha, in the Dominican Republic. This led her to specialize in development cooperation and gender. From that experience in 2002, her life has always been linked in a personal and professional way to cooperation for development.

Mosutapha: a return trip

The proof that the training to be an aid worker can be very varied is shown by Moustapha Diouf, coordinator of the agreement that AECID finances to medicusmundi in Mali. Born in Senegal, he has a doctorate in Biomedicine and two master’s degrees in International Cooperation and Surgery and Tropical Medicine. After training for more than 10 years in Spain, he worked in several organizations until he ended up in medicusmundi. “I was born and grew up in a country that receives development aid, but I was trained and grew up professionally in Europe, where some of this aid comes from. This background enables me to be useful in the field of International Cooperation, as I have become familiar with both worlds in economic, social and cultural terms. That’s why I think I’m at my best to contribute my experience since I know both realities,” he explains.

Javier and the curiosity of an aid worker

The case of Javier Ruiz Sierra is completely different. With a background in law, he entered the sector through a Basque government aid worker program 20 years ago. “I think that to enter the Cooperation you have to have a particular vocation and motivation and understand the world from a perspective of social justice and solidarity vision. However, this is not enough, and an aid worker is increasingly trained and specialized. In the implementation of a project there are technical aspects, management of very diverse groups or knowledge of the field that must be mastered”. Javier is responsible for the coordination of projects in Burkina Faso for medicusmundi Sur. “In my case, I have always been very curious, and I discovered that cooperation was a way to integrate into other realities and share their problems, their concerns and their interests. This way it became a vocation where I tried to work, and I was persistent until I achieved it”. Professionally, it has given him a more global vision of the world in which we live and to understand concepts such as migration or social injustices from other perspectives. And he adds “my contribution and that of the aid workers contributes to the very existence of International Cooperation for development and is absolutely necessary for society from an economic and social perspective, although it has also been criticized many times for its lack of effectiveness”.

However, he rejects the idea of giving greater value to the profession than it has in comparison to other professions. “The agricultural profession, the baking profession, or the portfolio, for example, brings to society benefits as positive as the cooperating one. And a development worker is not a better person than the previous ones simply because they work in a developing country.  However, our profession allows us to visualize more directly the existence of absolute poverty that affects many people, and to empathize with them. From this empathy arises the satisfaction of observing the consequences of the interventions where we work on people’s wellbeing or the frustration of the perception of the difficulty of a much deeper change, which is being pressed by a blind world with absolutely wrong discourses”.

Resilience is key  

But the romantic idea of the aid worker disappears when the risks are analyzed. The development of their work in conflict zones, in countries without political stability or in areas more sensitive to natural disasters, makes their daily life a permanent challenge, where fear, frustration and satisfaction are interspersed in equal parts. What they all agree on is that it is necessary to adopt a resilient attitude in order to face challenges and overcome bad times and adverse situations.

Uprooting and family

However, what is hardest for them, is the distance from their personal references, the uprooting. The absence of family, friends or spaces that you have shared throughout your childhood and youth, forces you to adapt quickly to your new context and to feel that it is part of your life. This ability to adapt is precisely the greatest positive consequence of being an expatriate aid worker.

Javier Ruiz recognizes himself as a lucky man since not all the aid workers are in their country of destination with their families: “I am the father of a 7-year-old daughter who has always lived with me in Africa. I have suffered from all kinds of opinions, both those that criticize with arguments that the continuous changes in the environment are detrimental to my daughter and though Javier Ruiz recognizes himself as a lucky man, since not all the aid wore that value her multiculturalism. I suppose it is still too early to know the consequences, but so far, I am very satisfied with the results. There is no doubt that African society has a very different relationship with children than ours. In Africa, children simply don’t bother anyone. They can scream, jump, run without anyone considering it inappropriate and without anyone reproaching you. The markedly communitarian life allows your daughter to enter or leave the houses of the neighbors with children of her age with absolute freedom”. At the same time, I try to ensure that she never loses the ties she may have with Spain and the people there who love her. This would be to lose some of her personal references, and I think it could be detrimental to her. In Africa, on the other hand, she is a white girl and I am concerned about the prejudices this may generate especially in the social relationships she may create over time.

Moustapha’s wife has also accompanied him for periods of time.  However, the reality is that the almost total availability for work and travel in the context of field missions does not facilitate family reunification.

Cristina has a 5-year-old son and both her partner, his father, and she are professionally involved in the world of cooperation. Reconciling family and work in this situation, in which they are constantly subject to changes in context, changes in life and quite a lot of job instability, is not easy: “From my point of view, motherhood is also an added difficulty, generating unquestionable gender inequality”, she says. “My personal experience, fed by the experience of most of my colleagues in my closest environment, has taught me that when you assume the responsibility of being a mother, it is a handicap to work in certain contexts and for more organizations than would be desirable. Fortunately, this is not the case with medicusmundi. They take into account, in a real and effective way, the equality of opportunities and ensures, as far as possible, the conciliation of work and family. This situation, however, affects in a different way when it comes to parenthood”. At this time his family is also in Mauritania, but they have not always had the opportunity to be on the ground as a family. In fact, it is the first time since their son was born that both are working in the same country, in this case, also for the same organization and within the framework of the same project.

When it comes to moving with their families, another obstacle for many aid workers is the possibility, or not, of having health coverage. In June, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to negotiate that the health insurance that aid workers have would also cover their families, one of the historical claims of the sector.

The development workers have a normative framework where their rights and obligations are regulated: The Statute of the Development Worker. Although in 1998 the Law on International Cooperation for Development established the obligation to create it, it was not a reality until 2006 thanks to a longstanding demand of the NGO Coordination for Development in Spain. For the first time, the special circumstances in which they worked, substantial aspects of their activity, and the specific rights and duties that correspond to them as development workers, such as training, homologation of services provided or the regime of incompatibilities, were recognized.

Local workers

The forgotten members within the cooperation are the local workers, essential and indispensable personnel in any field team. Without them, international cooperation for sustainable development would not be the same and certainly not viable. Their task, among many other responsibilities, is to act as a bridge between the population and the expatriate aid workers, especially when they arrive for the first time and have no experience. Moustapha explains it this way: “The local staff is the one who knows best the African culture, languages and social realities, which gives them a great advantage over the expatriate staff who arrive without country experience. This gives them a great advantage over expatriate staff who arrive without any country experience. In addition, they are the ones who give meaning to the concept of local development because it requires a collective construction at the local level, as well as the acceptance and appropriation by the beneficiaries.”

Adelaida also explains to us that their project proposals are born from the local partners with whom they collaborate; organizations that know the situation well, the needs of the area and its people, language and customs; something really essential in a country with so much diversity and that is socio-culturally as rich and complex as India.

But what they all agree on, and Amaia clearly explains, is that “our work does not depend on us, it depends on the people around us, whether they are more distant or closer, but on the people in our living environment: our team, our colleagues at the headquarters, professionals from other NGOs and cooperation agents, local professionals and local governments. We do not work alone!”

Source: Newsletter of Medicus Mundi Spain
Read the original text in Spanish here