NZ Herald Focus' Tristram Clayton discusses the Herald and World Vision's Hidden Pacific campaign and the struggles of the people in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Heather MacLeod, the Kiwi country director for World Vision Papua New Guinea, has travelled all over the world in her 25 years as a humanitarian. She has worked in more than 50 countries, and played a part in World Vision's response to some of the most significant natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the globe. Looking for an opportunity closer to home, and the chance to create long term change for communities, she has found herself working with the unique issues facing the communities of Papua New Guinea. Simon Day talks to her about her career.
How did you come to work in the humanitarian sector?
I was born in Taupo and grew up in Christchurch, where I later trained as a nurse. I moved up to Auckland to work at Greenlane Hospital, and heard of an opportunity to work with refugees in Quetta, Pakistan. Working overseas as a nurse had always been something I was interested in. But it wasn't easy - I was a single woman in a Muslim country. But it was a learning experience. I got sick with the usual stomach bugs and that was miserable, so I had moments when I wondered if I was made for this sort of work.
After returning to NZ I worked in the predecessor to Starship Hospital. In addition to general paediatric cases, I cared for children who were survivors of abuse. That is where my interest in child protection expanded. I then moved into the community as a public health nurse. This is where I found my passion. I loved working with children and their families and the institutions that work with them.
After 4 years in public health, an opportunity with World Vision came up. I was approached, and I agreed to move to Romania for 6 months, and so my life in World Vision began.
I completed my Masters in Philosophy (Development Studies) later in my career. I have always been a practitioner and a pragmatist, so not a comfortable fit for the academic world! However I do believe the work I do needs to be based on good evidence.
What are some of the largest humanitarian responses you have worked on?
Romania - 1991 -1994
The plight of children in Post-communist Romania was desperate. Children were put in overcrowded and understaffed institutions where abuse was normalised and the rationale for the institutionalisation was severely flawed. I worked in one of these institutions, trying to bring about change in the staff's behaviour, as they seemed to have lost their heart for the children. We also wanted to get children back home with their families wherever possible. All were developmentally delayed due to neglect. We had about 80 children with HIV, and they were especially vulnerable. Improvements were slow but a few years ago when I visited, it was transformed - outpatient services for children with disabilities, a small unit for single mothers and their babies and a care facility for severely disabled children who were unable to be placed in foster care or return home.
Rwanda - 1994 - 1997
I entered Rwanda with one of the first teams after the genocide. I focussed on children who had been separated from their families. There were thousands. Assessments took me to areas where vivid reminders of the horror of genocide were fresh...bodies and blood. It was an experience that was defining for me in seeing the results of messages of hatred and war.
The tracing of separated children requires a lot of collaboration and I loved reuniting children with their families and trying to prevent further separation - particularly those families who were being encouraged to put their children in orphanages.
Kosovo/Albania - 1999
Here a number of child-focused groups set up Child Friendly Spaces - places where children could seek refuge from the things they had seen, and just be children again. Doing something systematic to support all children displaced by conflict and using that as a base for outreach activities in the community was satisfying. It really did feel as if we were finding ways to acknowledge the vulnerability of all children and support them.
In 2004, while I was World Vision's International child protection director, a report was released by another NGO that aid workers were reportedly involved in the sexual exploitation of children. This triggered an industry-wide response to better protect women and children from UN and other aid workers. I offered our experience in introducing child protection policies to others. While a difficult time for all organisations to acknowledge the reality of abuse by aid workers, it was pivotal in shifting the responsibility of protection of women and children to all aid workers not just the child-focused ones.
Indian Ocean Tsunami - 2004
I was in Pennsylvania, USA celebrating the Christmas season with friends when the tsunami happened. When you are a humanitarian worker and a disaster happens as large as a tsunami you just want to get on the first plane and go. I had the OK to travel but a snowstorm delayed flights in Chicago and I was stuck there dressed in clothes for the tropics. So frustrating. Eventually I made it and headed to Aceh to focus on supporting children and their families affected by the tsunami. This response required me to visit all affected countries - India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. As a child protection specialist I was really concerned with a history of trafficking and sexual exploitation in Asia that children affected by the tsunami would be so vulnerable. The number of people volunteering to help increased that risk. So it was a busy and complex response.
Haiti - 2010
The earthquake in Haiti was very complicated because so many people were killed and injured in a confined space. Urban disasters are so different than in rural areas and this was the first big one for the disaster response industry. It was additionally complicated because of the presence of military to ensure stability in country. There were a lot of volunteers who did not understand how much damage can be done if you make promises you cannot keep or if you help a few people and don't coordinate. I was deployed to help with World Vision's coordination. As a large organisation that responds to the many different needs of an affected community, health, child protection, food, non- food shelter items, water, sanitation and hygiene, coordination and communication is critical.
How did you come to PNG?
I had been thinking about a change from the breadth of global work and international travel and wanted to get my teeth into depth in one country. I was also wanting to be nearer New Zealand so I could see family more often. A colleague contacted me about the country director position in PNG and I decided to apply. I grew up hearing stories of missionaries in PNG and so I had some knowledge of the place.
What makes it unique? And how is that different to other places you have worked?
PNG is a fascinating place with over 800 different languages, diverse cultures, and you see by looking at a map how geographically diverse it is. Then there's the history of Australia's engagement with PNG and the Japanese invasion in World War 2. PNG is a beautiful country and while the people are friendly there are serious issues with gender based violence in the home and in certain areas there are serious issues of tribal violence.
There are a lot of Australians here and I have never experienced this before! The people in PNG are very positive about Kiwis - most people around the world don't really know where New Zealand is and see Australians and Kiwis as one race.
Being a Kiwi, what makes working in the Pacific different and important?
We are neighbours. The Pacific is our 'home' so we need to care for our neighbours. The rest of the world are not particularly interested in the Pacific - the population numbers are low compared with other parts of the world and so the cost of doing business is higher. If New Zealand and Australia don't invest in the Pacific, poverty will increase.
What makes you continue with this line of work?
I enjoy the challenge and I firmly believe that as a Christian I have a responsibility to serve the poor. Being raised in NZ is truly a privilege so with those privileges I feel responsible to do what I can do to give back.
Readers help smash fundraising target
You've done it again! Generous Herald readers and World Vision supporters have now raised more than $150,000 for our Hidden Pacific campaign, which will meet urgent water and sanitation needs in the Hanuabada village of Port Moresby.
The original target of $100,000 was smashed last week and donations are still climbing.
But the more you can afford to give, the more good work we can do for some of the most impoverished communities in the Pacific.
The money raised for the historic Hanuabada village will contribute to World Vision's water and sanitation work and improve the community's health in partnership with the local government.
It will help extend a safe water supply across the village and it will create better sanitation and hygiene practices in the community, helping improve the health of the village's children.
The funds will also support long-term needs in the Pacific. This will contribute to World Vision's work in educational development, healthcare and nutritional capability and education, and help build communities' resilience to disaster and climate change.
How can I make a donation?
You can make online donations, phone donations and offline donations.
Phone donations can be made on 0800 90 5000.