Dried-up pastures – emaciated animals – starving people

Vétérinaires Sans Frontières help people help themselves

by Heini Hofmann

Médecins Sans Frontières MSF is larger and more well-known than Vétérinaires Sans Frontières VSF. But in recent years Vétérinaires Sans Frontières VSF has also developed into a powerful organisation. Currently it consists of twelve national units, which not only provide emergency aid as its humane partner organisation, but also offer sustainable help for self-help.

Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Suisse is a non-profit association of Swiss veterinarians based in Berne, which successfully relies on the One Health strategy. They do not only work in an emergency-curative way, but in a multi-faceted and interdisciplinary way, because the health of humans and animals as well as the integrity of the environment are much more interconnected than one might think. An example of this are the transferable diseases between humans and animals (zoonoses). Also, when farm animals suffer, people go hungry.

Overcoming obstacles to achieve success

This “borderless” aid began almost half a century ago with the founding of the humanitarian aid organisation MSF International in Paris in 1971. This sympathetic principle of help “beyond the backyard” was then adopted by veterinary medicine as VSF International, based in Brussels. While the Swiss human medicine branch MSF Suisse was founded in 1981, the Swiss veterinary section VSF Suisse was founded in 1988, at the veterinary faculty in Berne following a motivating lecture by the director of VSF France. After difficult early years for the founders, success came: in 1999, the Zewo-certification mark, and in 2004, a business volume of 5 million Swiss francs. But suddenly, from 2010 onwards, negative annual accounts led to a crisis, and they even considered dissolving the association. In 2013, a dramatic wake-up call went out to the Swiss veterinary profession: Save VSF Suisse!
  This had an effect: a new power team headed by Ueli Kihm (professor of veterinary medicine and former director of the Federal Veterinary Office) achieved the turnaround with great commitment and persistence, with positive business results since 2014 and continuous growth. In addition to professional management, an increase in the project portfolio, the optimisation of processes and control systems as well as a gratifyingly increased willingness to donate have contributed to this.

A clever business model

Today, the Brussels-based VSF International coordinating office has a network in more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Its national members coordinate their activities geographically and exchange experiences. VSF Suisse currently concentrates on six countries in the West and Horn of Africa: Mali and Togo as well as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. By supporting smallholder family farms and nomads who depend on livestock farming, the poorest among the poor are helped.
  In sub-Saharan Africa, almost one in two people lives below the poverty line, and almost one in four suffers from malnutrition. According to Kihm, aid campaigns with a multiplier effect, such as the one in Kenya, are therefore in demand: “The whole village now benefits from the project of providing camels to needy families and supporting disadvantaged women’s groups in processing and marketing the milk; because from production to consumption, breeders as well as small farmers and milk sellers are involved.”
  VSF Suisse follows a smart business model: based on projects that are internationally tendered and solicited by governments, large aid organisations and private donors. They include veterinary assistant education and training as well as agricultural training. Currently, there are 45 such ventures per year with a turnover of around 7 million francs, with administrative costs accounting for less than 10 per cent.

Sick livestock = starving people

In arid regions of the Horn of Africa, where farming is not an option, animal husbandry on large natural pastures is the most sensible principle of land use. But in times of drought, when the sparse grass withers, the water sources dry up, the emaciated animals hardly give any milk, become susceptible to disease and their market value plummets, while, vice versa, food and feed prices explode, the people soon go hungry too – a vicious circle. The result: carcasses of dead farm animals everywhere and exhausted nomads in reception camps.
  Emergency aid is needed first: distribute water to the population and nutritious food to families with malnourished young children. But even this emergency aid is not only designed to save lives, but also to protect the livelihoods of the needy in the long term, i.e. distribution of animal feed to save the breeding stock of cattle, sheep, goats and camels in order to rebuild the herds, which takes years. In addition, local pharmacies are supplied with veterinary medicines and animal owners with treatment vouchers.
  And because natural disasters are expected to be even more severe in the future, it is important to support the population in rebuilding their livelihoods on a broader basis. Therefore, VSF Suisse is involved in repairing water points and irrigation canals, introducing the cultivation of forage and vegetables, and strengthening markets for animal products. This increase in the resilience of people and animals helps nomads and small farmers to control both, yield and income as well as their own health.

One-Health – the key to success

What makes sense tends to prevail: In recent years, the One Health strategy has spread like wildfire as a fashionable term among all major governmental organisations such as WHO, FAO or OIE, but also among NGOs and institutional donors such as the World Bank and USAID. VSF Suisse has been working according to this networked principle at the interface of human, farm animal and environmental health since its inception, without making a big fuss about it.
  The One Health Principle is particularly appropriate where interactions between humans, livestock and the environment are high and public services are scarce. This is the case in the areas of operation of VSF Suisse in Africa. Here, complex situations must be managed: namely disease transmission via food and water and/or transmission between animals and humans. Furthermore, the impact of environmental problems must be managed. Therefore, cooperation between human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental sciences is called for, and veterinarians are sensitised to this.
  “In addition to the One Health strategy, it is important for VSF Suisse,” the management emphasises, “to treat those affected as rights holders and not merely as victims, and to maintain good contacts at eye level both with beneficiaries and with partners and authorities.” Therefore, the staff in all projects are local people and not Swiss. Human proximity and communication in the local idioms are the key to success in helping people to help themselves. This is also confirmed by long-serving staff members.

A touching example

Bearing in mind that one seventh of the world’s population suffers from hunger and that a child dies of malnutrition every few seconds, the fight against hunger is something that concerns everyone. It is true that development cooperation is often criticised for controversial procedures or inflated administrative costs. “But the principle,” Kihm is convinced, “of supporting the poorest of the poor – even in small units – by helping them to help themselves, as VSF Suisse does, is not disputed by the majority.”
  Europe’s affluent society, which can afford to dispose of about half of a carcass, buy drinking water in plastic bottles, freeze food stocks, enjoy seasonal fruits all year round and help itself at any time in overflowing shopping temples, can hardly imagine how contrary the living conditions are in countries plagued by drought and war. To illustrate this, Ueli Kihm tells the story of a South Sudanese boy: his name is John Lomoi: “His father was killed in gang warfare and his stepfather beat him. When he ran away from home in despair, the army picked him up and recruited him as a child soldier. He saw his friends suffer and die. When he was freed, VSF Suisse gave him two sheep and a survival kit with fishing rods, mosquito nets, soap, a cooking pot and vegetable seeds. Today, John lives independently and even attends school; he wants to become a veterinarian.” For the aid workers, this is one of many examples that inspire them to keep going.  •

(Translation Current Concerns)

How to help

h.h.VSF Suisse is currently active in 8 countries in Africa: Ethiopia, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Togo. In these countries, 45 projects are being implemented in parallel. The VSF Suisse network is growing continuously. The same is hoped for in terms of support. Information about donations, membership or the Friends Association: www.vsf-suisse.org

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