Dear Friends of Surmang,
It’s very meaningful to enter this year-end report, since it gives us the opportunity to reflect on 2014 and the years before.
2014 was a year that brought several things to fruition that had been cooking on the stove for the past 20 years. I often say that Surmang Foundation is like a rock and roll band that played small clubs in central California for 15 years and then one day became an overnight success.
Connecting to Tibetans
Maybe there’s a kind of inner Steve Jobs in me. When we were asked in the mid-90’s how we knew that the Tibetans would want a clinic, I responded in effect, “they don’t know they want it yet.”
Tibet is one of the most remote places in the world and Surmang sits at the center of that.
One of the marks of that success is risk taking connected with openness and communication with the Tibetan people of Surmang. Unlike the fans of the mythical rock and roll band, the Tibetans are not Californians. They lead traditional herding and farming lives are not into experimentation. So they are slow. There are few if any people wearing watches in Kham. In 1996 Tai Situ Rinpoche told me that going there would be like going back 500 years in time. He said, “For every 10 discursive thoughts an American has, a Tibetan has 1.”
So these are not people who are experimenting in lifestyle. The ideas that we had as a group came out of our admiration for these people as survivors, as people who are very warm, as people who are very genuine. I think that when you connect to people on that level, you can connect with your own warmth and genuineness.
When we opened full time in 2000, there was a question about how to charge for services, since these people make about US 12¢/day. It was clear that we couldn’t judge people based on their appearance since nomads who have 500 horses dress exactly like those who have 5. Also they didn’t seem to know they were poor. Was I going to be the guy who told them that?
So we provided the services for free. And that’s the way it’s always been. It was only 10 years later that we found out –thanks to the Peking University assessment—that our cost of providing services per patient visit was about 1/7 that of the public health hospitals. In doing this, we stumbled across what is perhaps their #1 cultural value: jinpa, which in Tibetan means “generosity.” In about 2008 one of the high Tibetan lamas wrote a memorial, which declared our clinic a Medicine Buddha center.
Another element of connecting directly to our beneficiaries is the lack of orthodoxy: neither medical, public health nor development. This means we, in essence, learned to cook from scratch, meaning we weren’t taking anyone’s word for it. In some ways this open view put our direct experience with Surmang on the front burner and as a result it became actually easier to take on appropriate public health, medical or development advice. It wasn’t always so natural or easy for me, like back in 2006 when Mauritz Van pelt told me that our foundation is about “empowering women.” I’ll never forget that. It was a defining moment; that advice would become our victory banner 9 years later, reducing maternal mortality in a place where it is the #1 killer and in writing a proposal about empowering women and girls in Tibet.
It made it possible to hear the sage advice of Dr. Ray Yip, regarding Chinese PH policy during his many trips to Surmang. It made it possible to see that clinical delivery was the most advanced form of the assisted delivery our Community Health Workers were giving. But whatever we learned was based on the foundation of our own openness and experience.
We had 4 very great medical volunteers: Board member Dr. Julie Carpenter, back for her third rotation. Drs. Laura Kimbro, Trudy Singzon and Sisi Zhao. Dr. Kimbro is an OBGYN who has done many such international rotations as is Dr. Singzon. Dr. S is also a teacher of an international OBGYN protocol, A.L.S.O.
2014 was the year we became –with the help of the Chinese Government, Yushu Public Health Bureau—a registered charity in China. It was the year we began the journey with supporters and donors from inside China. Why not? We are a Chinese organization. It was the year of our engagement with the Danish Chamber of Commerce China, resulting in the construction of a birthing center on our Surmang campus and the installation of birthing centers at 4 partner township hospitals.
So it seemed natural, after our 4th Annual Fundraiser in Beijing, that we figure out how to use that birthing center to maximum advantage. The answer was articulated in a proposal written by Suzanne Smith and myself over a two-month period. The guts of the proposal lie in empowering women and girls in Tibet. And the means to achieving that goal is to reduce maternal and infant mortality. Dying in the process of creating life is the greatest challenge Tibetan women face. We proposed doing this through incentivizing mothers, community health workers and our doctors in pre-natal exams, birthing, post-natal and well-baby exams.
And why not? Already our salaries to community health workers are 1/3 of their family income. Since the government has stopped the collection of cordyceps sinesis (“worm grass”) due to possible extinction, it makes sense that increasing income would make clinical delivery more attractive.
Through the help of Director Chris Devonshire Ellis, 2014 was the year that we partnered with Dezan Shira to get the benefit of their expertise in financial reporting. Not only that, they did 3 articles for us in their 40,000 member "Asia Briefing." 2014 was the year that our website, www.surmang.org, was redone largely with the help of the marketing firm, Shanghai Jungle. In our last reported week our requests for pages went from an average of 3500/week, pre-re-do, to 15,000 a week, post.
In addition Did I mention that 2014 is the year when our Surmang Clinic achieved status as a government clinic? That means that we are the beneficiaries of meds, supplies and can register births (and deaths).
Part 2 of the proposal is the creation of an income stream –a weaving co-op so we can re-introduce traditional yak cashmere blankets and shawls, a skill lost during the cultural revolution. Usually in the NGO business success is monitored according to measurable outputs and indicators. But for this project –as well as mothers and babies not dying in birth—the non-measurable outputs are really the strongest. These are: how a woman feels about having a baby. Joyful or life threatening? And how a traditional sacred craft like weaving reassures Tibetans of their place in this world. In a book on Balinese weaving, someone said, “the patterns in this cloth are the lens which brings the power invisible world into the visible.” I hope that the cloth of our foundation could as a whole could have a similar wholesome impact, as we enter 2015.
I welcome you to join us.