Handicap International Renews Focus On Humanitarian Aid

05/21/2011 01:10 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2011

Recently, I interviewed Dr. Jean-Baptiste Richardier, co-founder and executive director of Handicap International, and winner of the 2011 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for his organization's work in assisting people with disabilities in situations of poverty, exclusion, conflict and disaster. 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.

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Richardier, co-founder of Handicap International, served as the director of communication and development and as the head of the Mines Policy Unit at the organization's headquarters in Lyon, France, before taking over as the executive director of Handicap International in 2003. Dr. Richardier was responsible for Handicap International's involvement as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1992, which was collectively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Since 1994, he has guided the entry of Handicap International into the small group of nongovernmental organizations directly engaged in operational mine clearance.

Rahim Kanani: Describe a little bit about the inspiration and motivation behind the founding of Handicap International.

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: My wife Marie and I co-founded Handicap International nearly 30 years ago in Thailand, with Dr. Claude Simonnot and his wife Marie-Eve, as a response to landmine injuries suffered by Cambodian people living in refugee camps. The first orthopedic centers were set up in refugee camps in Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos. We used simple, locally available equipment, which enabled Handicap International to provide immediate, effective and practical aid and to train competent local teams to carry on the work. The rapid success and growth of the association convinced us to dedicate at least five years of our professional lives to secure its development. Thirty years later, I am still here, heading a true international organization!

Humanitarian actors are often asked what motivates them to start up projects all over the world.  Our simple answer is all the remarkable stories of the people we have been lucky enough to meet along the way, and whose destinies have been so completely changed.

Rahim Kanani: Fast-forwarding to the present day, how has Handicap International evolved since its founding in terms of resources, reach, and results?

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: Things have changed a lot over the years. In 1982, we didn't possess nearly as many of the skills that the organization is so rich in today. Since its founding, Handicap International has grown into an international federation that operates more than 300 projects in 63 countries, and has eight national associations in Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and in the United States, which provide operational support and technical expertise, recruit volunteer and professional staff, raise funds and carry out work that is specifically related to their particular national contexts.

The U.S. national association, for example, works closely with the United Nations based in New York, and the World Bank and other key institutions in Washington, D.C.  Furthermore, the U.S. office, although a still modest national association, was instrumental in supporting our emergency response in Haiti last year after the January 12 earthquake. Because of its proximity to the devastated island nation, the U.S. office assisted with communications and fundraising efforts, and hired additional staff to assist with logistics and recruitment.

Some 4,000 people work for Handicap International worldwide, including 270 expatriate staff and some 3,400 local staff in the field, and 286 staff in the eight countries where Handicap International has national associations. Our work employs a range of professionals, including ortho-prosthesists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, logisticians, project managers, psychologists, administrators and deminers.

Our actions have expanded to include emergency aid for the victims of disasters, including natural disasters and armed conflicts; preventing disabilities and disabling diseases; providing identification, treatment and referral for disabling diseases; orthopedic-fitting and rehabilitation of people with disabilities; promoting educational, social and economic inclusion; campaigning against anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions and other explosive devices; and promoting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Every day for nearly 30 years, Handicap International has taken action to respond to the needs of people exposed to the risk of disease, violence and disabling accidents; vulnerable people, particularly people with disabilities and people living with disabling chronic diseases; refugees and persons affected or displaced by crises, conflicts or disasters, particularly the injured and the disabled; and people exposed to the danger of weapons, munitions and explosive devices, during or following armed conflicts.

In addition to receiving the 2011 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, Handicap International was co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for campaign success with our partners at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in gathering 123 country signatures for the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Convention. This treaty actually banned the deployment, stockpiling, production and sale of anti-personnel mines, one of the deadliest weapons on earth for civilians, and ensures their steady destruction. In 1996, Handicap International received the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Nansen Medal for our service to refugees, as well as our contributions to the elimination of landmines.

Rahim Kanani: As the 2011 recipient of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, how would you characterize this milestone, both personally and professionally?

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: From a professional perspective, I believe the Prize represents a call 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 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize is a great honor and underscores our collective responsibility to serve the world's most marginalized and vulnerable people.

From a personal perspective, attaining the Prize was no easy endeavor, as this coveted award seemed determined to elude us -- we were evaluated six times as finalists. That said, competing for the Hilton Prize helped us identify organizational weaknesses and motivated our teams to correct them. Each time we were nominated for the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, we have found the process to be a time of deep and rejuvenating reflection on our "raison d'être." Winning today is even more gratifying, as the selection process has been increasingly demanding of the candidates.  And for sure, one doesn't win the recognition of the jury without whole-hearted motivation.

Rahim Kanani: From a leadership perspective, what have been some of the critical challenges you have overcome or key opportunities you have seized, which significantly contributed to the success of Handicap International?

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: It has always been a challenge to convince governments and donors to include the needs of persons with disabilities in long-term development projects. The newly adopted UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is helping, and 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 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.

Rahim Kanani: Separate from more capital and manpower, or other tangible assets, what are some intangible assets you need in order to be successful on the ground?

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: I have personally always believed in the imperious character of timely aid brought to individuals and families crushed by misfortune, assailed by men's madness, and marginalized by the indifference, or powerlessness of local authorities to ensure their protection, and provide for their essential needs-- therefore forcing them to deploy the most incredible "survival strategies."

In emergencies, the speed with which an organization is able to galvanize assistance on the ground can make a critical difference, between not only life and death, but it can also determine whether a temporary injury becomes a permanent disability.

Indeed, when the unthinkable happens, when faced with the untellable, when everything else is falling apart, there must be something left for the most vulnerable people to believe in. Humanitarian aid must take into account the specific needs of the most vulnerable in times of difficulty. This challenge defines Handicap International's ambition and strategy: to be there at the very hub of each humanitarian response, and to take part in the organization of relief for the majority, so as to be in a better position to reach -- to make visible -- the most fragile minorities whose rights are so often overlooked, and among them, the people with disabilities who need specific solutions to better cope.

Rahim Kanani: As Handicap International continues to expand, paint for a moment a portrait of the organization's position-as you wish it would be-five years down the road.

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: The most important factor in building an organization is the bringing in and maintenance of dedicated staff that are passionate about the mission of the organization and keeping that sense of mission alive.

That said, Handicap International is placing a renewed focus on humanitarian aid, a competence that we had -- without realizing it -- gradually neglected over time -- to the point of being virtually absent from initial responses to humanitarian crisis; to the point that our staff considered to be, no longer within our mandate, to intervene in emergency situations.

Surely enough, allowing the situation to drift further would have meant turning our back on the "raisons d'être" that had motivated the creation of the association. This is why - without renouncing the precious skills acquired over the years in longer-term development - a major effort was engineered in 2002 and 2003 to restore our emergency capacity, now hosted in a dedicated operational division. The success of this dramatic shift is self evident when looking at our ability to deploy significant projects in Haiti and Pakistan, and now in Ivory Coast and Liberia, due to the large influx of refugees.

We plan to use the Hilton Prize to make a real difference in strengthening further our disaster preparedness capabilities and in pre-positioning emergency response resources to be even better prepared for future crises.

Rahim Kanani: And lastly, how has your own inspiration and motivation evolved since the founding of Handicap International?

Jean-Baptiste Richardier: Well... Indeed, it might be time for me to start looking back! Actually, receiving the Hilton Prize in San Francisco, nearly 40 years after my first trip to that gorgeous town, was an opportunity to reflect on what my colleagues and friends have achieved. Within and around Handicap International, people see me as someone as driven as ever by the cause that triggered the creation of this successful movement. And I must admit that I sometimes have a shared sense of pride.

To understand it, one must remember that Handicap International was created following 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. Actually, Handicap International was born of the refusal of the wisdom of the time: an unwritten -- but very real -- rule affecting notably people with disabilities during a humanitarian crisis, that I call the "triple whammy law:" one, not only do they suffer the same consequences as the rest of the population; two, not only are they in a much weaker position to cope with an environment so degraded that it becomes hostile; but three,- being consequently more at risk for injury or death,  they are in addition too often denied the very assistance they need, because international actors think that the required complexity and quality of care would be impossible to provide in such difficult settings!

In the end - 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 denied the provision of specific assistance, deferred until the crisis is over.  Handicap International's humanitarian actions are therefore underpinned by a determination to challenge this "rhetoric for inaction," which can only be considered a denial of rights. I was angry about it 30 years ago, and still am whenever and wherever it happens.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary