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 June 2008 

Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.Non-Government Aid Crucial To Disaster Relief Operations

June 2008

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.

We have seen in recent weeks some extraordinary efforts by international aid organizations and governments around the world to assist the victims of the devastating cyclone in Myanmar as well as the powerful earthquake in China.

The U.S. military is now an active participant in relief operations. Unfortunately, initial attempts to deliver supplies were delayed in Myanmar because that country’s isolationist junta views Washington as an enemy and restricted international aid to an estimated 2 million cyclone victims.

Often during these catastrophic events, the U.S. military’s aid and reconstruction efforts find a valuable ally in non-governmental organizations. NGOs frequently are the first responders when disasters strike.

The Navy, particularly, has asserted a leading role in humanitarian missions. Officials consistently have stressed the Navy’s close cooperation with NGOs. Of note is the service’s partnership with Project HOPE, a 50-year-old international aid organization based in Millwood, Va.

Project HOPE’s relationship with the U.S. military, and particularly the Navy, goes back to the organization’s beginnings. HOPE founder William B. Walsh persuaded President Eisenhower in 1958 to donate a U.S. Navy medical vessel to serve as the first peacetime hospital ship. The ship, known as the SS HOPE, was staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses and made 11 health education and humanitarian assistance voyages from 1960 until 1973. When the ship was retired, Project HOPE’s focus turned to land-based programs. Today, HOPE has programs in more than 35 countries.

The partnership with the Navy was revived in response to the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

At the request of the service, Project HOPE provided more than 200 medical volunteers on board the USNS Mercy to care for victims of the unprecedented disaster. The HOPE-Navy partnership was called upon again in 2005 to come to the assistance of citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The following year, HOPE medical volunteers and Navy personnel returned to Southeast Asia on a humanitarian assistance mission, visiting several areas affected by the tsunami.

Since then, the partnership has expanded to other regions. It has provided health care and education to local communities, especially children, in coastal communities in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Plans are underway for three missions to West Africa, the Pacific Rim and Latin America in 2008.

The similarity of this Myanmar disaster to the tsunami three and a half years ago is striking. Project HOPE expects that it will apply much of what it learned from that experience in responding to this latest tragedy.

Organizers of the aid operation say they are working with agencies in country to identify health needs, and with the private sector to acquire and deliver priority medical supplies. After the tsunami, this involved large donations of antibiotics and other critical medicines. It also required cash donations to help ship and deliver supplies and volunteer medical personnel in a timely manner and to validate that the medicines were reaching those in need.

Because of the unsettled situation in Myanmar, it is not yet clear what medical supplies are needed and what logistical systems are in place to deliver them.

After the tsunami, Project HOPE partnered with the Navy to provide volunteers to treat survivors on a U.S. Navy hospital ship. Using volunteers who recently deployed on the USNS Mercy mission to Southeast Asia may be a medium-term solution also in Myanmar.

Post-tsunami, HOPE has also helped to rebuild the nations’ healthcare infrastructure. This will likely be a focus for Project HOPE in Myanmar as well, according to the organization’s leaders.

The challenges ahead are enormous. They involve not only natural disaster relief but also long-term reconstruction and stability, which are essential to global security. The Defense Department has made stability and reconstruction operations a “core competency” of the U.S. military, and has consistently highlighted the important roles of interagency cooperation and NGOs in accomplishing these missions.

Organizations such a Project HOPE provide a critical helping hand that supports the broader U.S. goals of global security and stability.

If you are interested in learning more about Project HOPE, please visit its website at

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