Partnering to build hope, capacity, and community

by Operation Mercy
Partnering to build hope, capacity, and community
Partnering to build hope, capacity, and community
Partnering to build hope, capacity, and community
Partnering to build hope, capacity, and community

In community development, the most significant types of change (change that transforms lives) is often the most difficult to measure.  At Operation Mercy we get most excited when we see changes in attitudes and world views... both in our program participants' lives and in our own.  We call this transformational development... when something changes so much it needs a new name to describe it, like when a caterpillar transforms to a moth or a tadpole to a frog.  In our case it is when deep despair transforms to hope, fearful anxiety to peace, abandonment and aloneness to belonging or gut-wrenching grief to stillness of soul.

I remember when Cheryl was called to the village of one of her severely disabled students in Central Asia.  She was already nearby and so arrived shortly after getting the emergency call.  Her student had 'fallen' into a well.  Cheryl arrived at the scene seeing her student wet, unconscious and purple on the ground surrounded by on-lookers.  Cheryl immediately fell to the ground and attempted to resuscitate her for 20 minutes, all the time quietly praying, "Please God, Please God. Now is the time to intervene"  ... but he didn't.  Finally, a local elderly woman put her hand on Cheryl's shoulder and said, it is too late. It’s over.  Her time has come."  Cheryl burst into tears.  She was angry, confused, disheartened, and grieving. She hurt.  Cheryl had so many unanswered questions: "How could her student fall in the well when it was seemingly impossible to do so because of her disabilities?  Why didn't any of the villagers attempt to resuscitate her?  Why did God ignore her prayers?  Where is God when you need him?"

That night in a tearful phone call with her parents 5,000 miles away Cheryl unloaded her frustration and grief.  Her main question to her father (a pastor of a small church) was "Where was God?  Why didn't he show up?"   "Darling," her father spoke softly, "God was there all the time. And when you showed up you also brought him with you.  You were the fragrance of God to that girl and her family. I don’t understand it all myself, but as hard as it may seem, God showed that he cared for the girl through you."

When Cheryl returned to the village for her student's funeral, the girl's family treated Cheryl with special honor.  In fact, the whole village and the people of surrounding villages began to treat Cheryl in high regard from that point onward.  They began to invite her to weddings, circumcisions and other celebrations in the villages.  Cheryl was also invited to discuss issues that were of special importance to the villagers in ways that never happened before or to any of her colleagues.  You see, Cheryl had transformed from being an outsider to being an insider, from visitor to belonger.  Operation Mercy seeks to engage in community development initiatives that transform lives, including our own.  Changed lives change lives.

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As the director of Operation Mercy there are two things that make my job particularly strange. When I am not traveling to Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or the other eight countries where Operation Mercy works, I live and work in Örebro, arguably one of Sweden’s most beautiful cities. The contrasts between where I live and the places where most of my colleagues live, are startling. For example, Sweden is ranked 3rd (i.e. top 5%) in the Corruption Perception Index. The countries where Operation Mercy works are all ranked in the bottom 10% (with Iraq 161st, Sudan 165th, and Afghanistan 166th of 167). The Global Peace Index ranks Sweden in top 10% (13th) of the most peaceful country on earth but ranks almost all of the countries Operation Mercy works in the bottom 10% as the most violent and dangerous countries on earth (with Yemen 147th, Sudan 156th, Afghanistan 160th, Iraq 161st out of 162). The same general pattern is true whether we look at life expectancy, literacy, or happiness indexes. The contrasts between Sweden and Operation Mercy’s project countries are extreme. I find it strange traveling back and forth between these contrasting places.

The second strange thing about my job is different but related to the first. It also has to do with finding a balance between two contrasting realities. It has to do with the contrast between things needing celebration and things needing mourning. At any given moment, there is always something to celebrate and something to mourn. For example, Operation Mercy has helped lower the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan, but still infant mortality in Afghanistan remains one of the worst in the world. Operation Mercy has facilitated many hundreds of children with disabilities in Tajikistan to have hope for a better life. Yet still many hundreds continue to be in seemingly hopeless situations. There are many great things going on that should be celebrated. Lives are changing, and progress is being made; but not everywhere and not for everyone…probably not for most. My job is strange because there is always something to celebrate and something to mourn.

I love my job. I'm not afraid of strange. Maybe it is not so different for any of us who want to remain hopeful and optimistic without putting our heads in the sand. Maybe "strange" is necessary to simultaneously be an optimist and a realist.

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The Iraq Community Based Rehabilitation and rewarding start to 2019 preparing our patients for a visiting team of volunteer surgeons and nurses.  25 patients received free surgeries and we are currently following up with them, removing sutures, and beginning follow up therapy.  This week we are also beginning a family and peer group program to empower our clients and their families with more tools to care for themselves, each other and their communities.

The operations performed ranged from relatively minor to quite complicated.  One of our precious patients had extra digits removed from all both hands and both feet.  When the casts and bandages were removed her father held up his hand so that she could put her 5 fingers to his 5 fingers, and she cried with joy as she realized that this minor procedure would enable her to be seen as a normal member of her community!  

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Almost every top international football organization consists of 100s of staff who aren't players.  For example, in 2018 Manchester United employed approximately 922 people, only 81 of whom are players.  The other 841 are doing administration, media, commerce, coaching, and technical support.  That's approximately 11 support people to every 1 player.  In the military, an average of 9 (or more) non-combat troops support each frontline soldier.  We have much different ratios at Operaiton Mercy.

At Operation Mercy's International Office we have eight non-field staff supporting approximately 300 field staff in ten countries.  I'm not saying this ratio is idea.  We could do more if we had more support staff.  However, it is VERY hard to find donors who are excited about funding the back office operations needed to support our field programs.  Thank you for being one of those rare donors.

I am extremely proud of our back office and leadership team.  A virtual team of people working from Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Jordan, and Australia.  Supporting over a hundred field projects by processing funds in dozens of currencies, debiting, crediting, balancing, traveling economy, enduring jet lag, leading meetings, writing emails, analysing issues, fixing problems (occationally causing them), Skyping at odd hours, proposal writing, fund raising, encouraging, reporting, monitoring, coffee drinking... to name a few.

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Lessons leaned
Lessons leaned

At Operation Mercy, we expect lives to be transformed as a result of our project work.  Not just the lives of program beneficiaries and participants but all we expect the lives of our staff to be transformed too.  Here are a few of the things that Operation Mercy Country Directors recently told me they were learning.

Iraq  - The greatest investment you can make is time spent with people, especially those you see regularly. Therefore, one of the best investment’s you can make is through the local staff that you hire. 

Kazahkstan - One of the biggest things that I have learnt over the past year is to keep pressing on in the small things. It is nice to see a big project succeed but I am learning that over time, repeatedly doing things – even without the glamor –  progress is made and people grow for the better as they seek to learn from each other.  I have also learnt the value of partnership. There are many others that are also working towards the same goals we are working towards here. Receiving support from our close partner organization so that we could continue for another year was encouraging.

Jordan -  Have a clear policy for warning and firing staff. I had to fire a local employee in February. The policy I concluded on was: 1st verbal warning with explaination of the policy (and record the incident). 2) On 2nd repeated offense, issue a written warning (two copies) with the person’s signature, and save it in his/her personnel file. 3) Third repeated offense, issue a letter in a short meeting with the person explaining briefly they are being fired and the reason.

Afgahanistan -  A key lesson for us all has been seeing how committed our local staff have been to the needs of their communities and their desire to continue working in the face of extreme challenges and risk. 

We have been extremely proud of their perseverance and very encouraged to see their vision for transformation and change

Macedonia - Another lesson is not to allow mission-creep into a project before adequate funding is secured.  Actually and paradoxically, I don’t know how we could have avoided this.

Iran -  Our in country Operation Mercy Management Team is working well to maintain better communication for managing, leading, developing new projects and empowering staff, and maintaining, revising and making new policies as needed.  We continue to need to work on virtual team work management and follow agreed rules of the road for ongoing communication, decision making and accountability.

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Organization Information

Operation Mercy

Location: Orebro - Sweden
Facebook: Facebook Page
Project Leader:
Andrea Vogt
Orebro, Sweden
$14,425 raised of $60,000 goal
124 donations
$45,575 to go
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