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Home » Disaster, Foundations, International, lead story

Helping the Most Vulnerable: Handicap International and the Hilton Prize

By Tom Watson on May 9, 2011One Comment

Three weeks ago at the 10th annual Global Philanthropy Forum, Handicap International received the 2011 Hilton Humanitarian Prize at the ceremony in Redwood City. Formed in 1982 by two French doctors to help Cambodians seriously injured by landmines, Handicap International now provides assistance to acutely vulnerable people around the world including those disabled from natural disasters, injury, armed conflict, disease and poverty. It is running 300 projects in 60 countries and has become a major first responder for persons with disabilities in emergency situations.

Awarded annually since 1996, the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Prize is presented to humanitarian associations for their exceptional contribution to alleviating human suffering.

“In just three decades, Handicap International has transformed the way the world deals with persons with disabilities who have been overlooked and underserved, especially in emergency situations,” said Steven Hilton, president of the Hilton Foundation. “By dedicating its resources and talents to working with and advocating for people with disabilities, Handicap International gives help and hope to the most vulnerable among us.”

onPhilanthropy.com publisher Tom Watson spoke with co-founder Jean-Baptiste Richardier about the organization’s mission, its goals in the modern world, and how it plan to use the Hilton Prize money.

Handicap International is largest non-governmental organization providing assistance and advocacy for people with disabilities – you now manage 300 projects in 60 countries, and you have become a major first responder for persons with disabilities in emergency situations. What does winning the Hilton Humanitarian Award mean to the organization?

From an operational perspective, the Prize will encourage and allow the newly established Handicap International Federation to invest in disaster preparedness and technical pertinence in emergency situations, a field in which there is always room for lessons learned and improvement, as the earthquake in Haiti exemplified.

Receiving the Prize will help us strengthen our capacity to deploy more rapidly when and where we are needed to deliver post-traumatic physiotherapy care and temporary prosthetics as required in major disasters. It will also allow us to invest further in the newly developed concept of pre-assembled Disability and Vulnerability Focal Points (DVFPs), so that they will be ready to be shipped to emergency sites immediately after any new catastrophe. Sadly, we learned from our experience in Haiti that we could have helped, and in many instances, saved, many more wounded and seriously disabled people had we spent less time finding and assembling the components to deploy the nine DVFPs eventually put in place. Our response time was greatly improved when compared with our response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, but we could be even faster. DVFPs, which are dedicated to ensuring the visibility of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable people’s specific needs, in the time and space of an emergency response, represent reliable resources for exhausted communities that provide care for their most fragile members.

The award will be used as a reminder to donors and others in the international humanitarian community of their obligation to meet the needs of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable populations when funding emergencies. We hope that receiving this distinction enhances our credibility as a leading provider of assistance to populations most deprived of specific attention and too often denied the help they so urgently need in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. We will, from now on, be in a much stronger position to convince donors to include and to consider the most vulnerable from the onset of an emergency and to ensure that long-term inclusive development for all becomes the norm rather than the exception. Receiving the Hilton Prize is a great honor and underscores our collective responsibility to serve the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable people.

We know that Hilton’s judging process is quite rigorous and can involve several years of investigation and reporting – indeed you referenced that long-term process with a bit of humor in your speech at the Global Philanthropy Forum. Tell us about how that worked and how competitive the prize process was for you.

Well, I did stress that our humanitarian actions have drawn considerable benefits from being evaluated six times as finalists for the Hilton Prize. Indeed, unlike the endless controls imposed by an overly cautious donor community (Who should, by the way, think twice if they want to avoid smothering the humanitarian sector, which requires breathing room and flexibility in its approach so as to remain reactive and mobile; remain willing and capable to take calculated risks, including the risk of sometimes getting it wrong; and in order to remain creative, adaptable and innovative in the face of ever changing humanitarian challenges), competing for the Hilton Prize meant that we as an organization were willingly submitting ourselves to the in-depth analysis carried out by the consultants from the Foundation, who helped us identify organisational weaknesses and motivated our teams to correct them.

We have been nominated for the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize before and each time we have found the process to be a time of deep and rejuvenating reflection on our “raison d’être.” Since this round proved to be the right one, Handicap International’s team is proud to carry the significance and values of this prestigious prize worldwide.

You emphasize services for people who are often overlooked and underserved in areas affected by conflict, poverty and natural disasters. Is the world starting to pay more attention to people with disabilities?

Yes and no… despite the newly adopted UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Yes, as we have been greatly encouraged by the willingness of some governments and multi-lateral donors to begin to include the needs of persons with disabilities in long-term development projects. To a much lesser extent, this is starting to also become true in emergencies. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, now requires that USAID-funded construction or renovation projects in the developing world meet accessibility standards to the extent practicable. The agency is also committed to pursuing advocacy for, outreach to, and inclusion of people with disabilities in the design and implementation of USAID programming everywhere. European donors are also now doing a better job of paying more attention to the most vulnerable people.

But so much more would be possible if we succeed in convincing donors that humanitarian aid, worthy of the name, is aid that is capable of taking into account, whenever and wherever a crisis occurs, the specific needs of the most vulnerable among populations of refugees, displaced persons or disaster victims, right after the time they are plunged, without warning, into a spiral of increasingly insurmountable difficulty. It is this belief that led to creating Handicap International – just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime – while one of the biggest relief operations of the 20th century was taking place along the border with Thailand. Handicap International was born then, of the refusal of the wisdom of the time – still present today – that such assistance should be different. Consequently, at the very moment when people with disabilities and their families are torn between the impact of a crisis and their own particular vulnerability – just as they are most in need of attention – they are regularly denied the provision of specific assistance, for the sole reason that international actors think that the required complexity and quality of care would be impossible to provide in such difficult settings.

It is through experience that we learned that the alleged complexity is no excuse to offer different levels of assistance: Time matters, both in terms of the ability to saves lives and to lessen the severity of permanent and/or secondary disabilities. So does the transitioning to a longer-term development perspective while still engaged in emergency assistance. This is why Handicap International’s ambition and strategy are to be present at the very hub of each humanitarian response: To be positioned to take part in the organisation of relief for the majority, so as to be in a better position to reach the most fragile minorities whose rights are so often overlooked, and among them of course, people with disabilities and their families, who need specific solutions to better cope.

You spoke of Haiti and the deep needs that society has, especially for the many thousands who lost limbs or mobility in the earthquake. Can you tell us more about your work there?

The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, required the largest deployment in Handicap International’s history. At the height of the emergency, we deployed a team of 540 people, including 60 expatriate staff specialized in logistics, shelter and assistance to people who had suffered traumatic injury. And one should remember that the needs didn’t end with the immediate response after the earthquake. As a matter of fact, Haiti suffered from an endless series of emergencies over the course of 2010, including severe weather, a cholera outbreak and electoral violence.

Handicap International helped take care of the injured in some 20 hospitals between January and July 2010 and continued to provide care once patients returned to tented cities or the ruins of their homes. We estimate that a total of 2,000 to 4,000 people were amputated after the earthquake and that at least 1,000 people require lower-limb prosthesis. To date, staff have fitted more than 900 people with emergency temporary prostheses and orthoses, and started the provision of more permanent devices. On the logistic side, our teams are now focused on helping the most vulnerable members of the population move into better shelter by building 1,000 transitional, hurricane- and earthquake-resistant homes – homes that have been designed to be accessible to people with reduced mobility.

When the cholera epidemic broke out in November, staff organized a special cholera prevention campaign to overcome the difficulties faced by the most vulnerable members of the population in accessing aid and information.

In early 2011, we launched diploma-based training for Haitian rehabilitation and orthopedic-fitting staff to help the country begin to build the long-term capacity to provide access to rehabilitation services over the life of each of those so grievously wounded by the earthquake, as well as those who needed such services before the disaster took place. Men, women and children who have come to rely on an artificial limb, wheelchair or brace, need access to centers run by competent and well-trained staff for the rest of their lives so that these devices can be repaired or replaced as needed. Working with our Haitian partners in government and civil society, the long hard work of building such centers has begun.

Handicap International has accomplished a lot in less than three decades of work, beginning with your work with land mine victims in Cambodia. What advice do you have for smaller organizations in gaining support and results over time?

That’s a complicated question over which we could spend many hours! But a short answer might be “never give up!” We followed that advice, and this Prize is the reward for our persistence. And after all, receiving the Prize today is perhaps even more meaningful than it would have been previously: The application process is increasingly demanding of the candidates, and you don’t win the recognition of the jury without a deep and firm conviction and whole-hearted motivation!

So, yes, what I want to say is that we are proud to have kept the freshness and the determination so essential to succeeding. The most important factor in building an organization is therefore the bringing in and maintenance of dedicated staff who are passionate about the mission of the organization and keeping that sense of mission alive. I guess the Jury perceived and acknowledged that characteristic as others did over these nearly 30 years…

Finally, what do you plan to do with the Hilton prize money?

Handicap International was created to stand up for and give voice to the most vulnerable amongst us, persons with disabilities in particular, living in situations of crisis, whether caused by poverty, conflict or natural disaster. I believe the Hilton jurors chose us in recognition of our work with one of the world’s largest underserved minorities – people with disabilities – with the expectation that we will invest this precious wealth to further enhance our capacity to deliver qualitative and accountable assistance to the most vulnerable people living in destitute situations around the world.

In line with that expectation, our Federal Board just confirmed the decision that no money from the Prize should be used in recurrent regular administrative or operational spending. Final decisions will be made later on the propositions that will bring lasting improvement of our impact when a crisis arises. In emergencies, the speed with which an organization is able to galvanize assistance on the ground can make a critical difference, not only between life and death, but it can also determine whether a temporary injury becomes a permanent disability. We will therefore use the Hilton prize money to strengthen our disaster preparedness capabilities and to pre-position emergency response resources to be even better prepared for future crises. The funds will also be used so that Handicap International is able to continue to help the many thousands of Haitians who lost limbs or sustained other injuries in the aftermath of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Indeed, we know from experience of past disasters that continuing to accompany the injured through the process of recovery and reintegration into home and community is as essential as the initial emergency assistance itself.

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One Comment »

  • Mary says:

    No mention of Handicap International’s great work to ban landmines and cluster munitions as well as clear them and assist survivors? That’s a shame – they have played a crucial role on this internationally.

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