Our summer interns in Ecuador have been working to reduce malnutrition in Andean communities. JP Gorham, Dartmouth ’11, can fill you in on what they’ve accomplished so far:
After returning from my first MEDLIFE Mobile Clinic in Cebadas, Ecuador three years ago, I was restless. MEDLIFE’s commitment to sustainable health had inspired me, but I couldn’t help but think that we could be doing more. I wanted to help the communities on the ground, but as a student, what could I do?
Before our internship in Riobamba began, Rachel and I spent time researching the problem of malnutrition in Ecuador. We found that in spite of a huge monetary commitment, the government’s preventative approach to eradicating child malnutrition had largely failed to improve the situation. In a 2004 survey, 23% of Ecuadorian children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. This number jumps to 40% in the Andean region, where we’re living this summer. We wanted to help in the Ecuadorian governments efforts to bring those numbers down.
Earlier this year, Ecuador announced a new program of malnutrition intervention: Desnutrición Cero (zero malnutrition). Shortly after arriving in Riobamba, Rachel, Meredith, Maria (MEDLIFE patient follow-up coordinator) and I traveled to Colta, a community high in the Andes mountain range that the government is using as a pilot region for Desnutrición Cero. We met with the head of the community’s health programs to discuss how we could help, but he became suspicious when we mentioned we worked with a medical NGO. He started speaking a bit faster, and we picked up a tone of annoyance in his voice.
We understood where his irritation was coming from: many global health organizations operate on their own terms, without regard for government priorities or programs. This approach results in time and money needlessly spent developing parallel programs. These valuable resources are better utilized when NGOs work in conjunction with existing efforts. In Pamplona Alta in Lima, Peru, for example, MEDLIFE has come across two abandoned clinics built by NGOs that failed to coordinate their work with the local government. The NGOs, lacking the resources to staff and supply the clinic for years on end, simply packed up and left, leaving empty structures in their wake. The community leader in Colta wanted to make sure that we were willing to work closely with the government, so as to avoid such wasteful efforts.
I don’t have many technical skills or perfect Spanish, but I believe that committed students have the ability to work with communities to improve their health outcomes. In response to the doctor’s apprehension, Rachel made it very clear that we were willing to help in whichever way he thought most valuable. MEDLIFE takes a collaborative approach, listening closely to families and communities in need, and incorporating their own goals into our mission.
So far, we have worked with Ministry of Public Health officials to plan a health-promotion video that will highlight the different causes and consequences of chronic malnutrition. We know that past programs have had issues with enrollment. By promoting Desnutrición Cero in poor communities and identifying barriers to access, we hope to help the government increase involvement in the Andean region. Because this program is still in its pilot stages, we have a unique opportunity to impact its implementation.
This project illustrates my favorite part of our organization: if you can dream it, you can do it. I have worked very hard for MEDLIFE over the past three years. In response to my demonstrated commitment, MEDLIFE’s leadership entrusted two other students and I with an internship that would allow us to effect a greater change in Ecuador. Rachel, Meredith and I are working hard to prove them right!
JP provides a clear example of MEDLIFE’s core philosophy regarding student involvement in global aid work. As JP notes, many students lack the technical skills and experience to develop sustainable, effective programs on their own. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t help improve the lives of the poor. MEDLIFE’s dedicated staff of professionals in Latin America is always seeking to involve students in new and meaningful ways – to harness their positive energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence in bringing about positive change in the communities we serve. We trust that motivated undergraduate students will step up to this responsibility. And it looks our team of summer interns in Ecuador are continuing to prove us right!