A cry for help

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 June, 2004, 12:00am

About eight or 10 years ago if you heard people in Hong Kong talking about Dr No, you could be sure they weren't referring to the fictional James Bond movie bad guy. Quite the contrary.

'Dr No' was the colloquial term used to describe an organisation newly formed in Hong Kong at that time, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which was, indisputably, one of the good guys.

Nowadays the community has become very familiar with MSF - or Mo Kwok Kai E San in Cantonese, which literally translates as 'no boundary doctors' - a group of selfless and caring medical and non-medical workers who volunteer to take care of patients in areas ravaged by wars, discrimination and natural disasters.

While celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of its Hong Kong office this month, MSF is calling on more local doctors and nurses to join in its efforts to serve those desperately in need of help.

During the past decade, the organisation has recruited 48 field volunteers including non-medical professionals such as logisticians, engineers and accountants to work in more than 15 under-privileged countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. But the organisation needs more volunteers to help in the field.

The size of the organisation has jumped from only two full-time staff to 17. It has also recruited dozens of volunteers from all walks of life - housewives, retirees, lawyers and IT professionals - to assist in clerical work at its Lai Chi Kok offices.

'We have more volunteers than full-time workers in the office, but we need more field volunteers to help those suffering and desperately in need of medical relief overseas,' said Ann Lung Yan-yan, the organisation's publications manager and one of its longest-serving staff in Hong Kong.

Recalling the first few years after the office was set up, Ms Lung said: 'When we called people to ask for donations, it was rather common to hear the operators and secretaries say: 'What? Dr Mo (Mo is a Chinese surname that also means 'no' in Cantonese)? From which clinic?'

'After we explained our organisation to them, some would make a donation, but they started with a very small amount of money, just a few dollars, until they received our official receipts and learned more about us,' Ms Lung said.

Ms Lung joined the organisation as a volunteer in 1996 to assist with clerical tasks. After a year, the mother of two was hired on a full-time basis mainly to carry out publicity and fund-raising duties.

The turning point for MSF came in 1999 when it received the Nobel Peace Prize. Earning one of the world's most revered awards, helped raise the organisation's profile no end.

'The Nobel Peace Prize really lifted our profile here. A lot more people had confidence in us as an organisation. For instance, when we called up for donations, we no longer needed to explain who we were.

'And more people became willing to give us regular monthly donations. Even during the economic hardship of the past few years, we kept receiving donations from our regular donors - although some did donate smaller amounts than before.

'We also received letters from some donors who had lost their jobs telling us that they would make donations after they had found new ones. We've been very impressed by their support for us,' she said.

Despite a sluggish economy, the amount of donations made to MSF has continued to rise, from $17 million in 1997 to $61 million last year.

Paediatrician Chris Woo Lap-fai was one of the first two local doctors to volunteer when the organisation opened its doors here in June 1994.

Dr Woo, who is now a public practitioner, said it had been his life-long wish to help people in under-privileged nations.

After graduating from medical school, Dr Woo applied for a volunteer post with the Red Cross, but received no reply. 'One day I watched a TV news programme about MSF, which had only just been set up at the time. I told myself it was exactly what I wanted to do. The next morning, I called the TV station asking for the organisation's contact.

'I was sent to Cambodia for six weeks before leaving for southern Sudan, which was a more difficult trip, for another six months.

'I turned down an offer of a job at the Hospital Authority so I could join MSF at the time. My family was unhappy with my decision, partly because no one at the time could explain to them what the organisation was doing,' Dr Woo said.

'Even when I came back from the trip and shared my experience with my medical colleagues, they were not really persuaded and they wondered why I wanted to work as volunteer in those countries. MSF was not so well known at the time and volunteer work wasn't very popular in Hong Kong either,' he said.

But the medico was thrilled when asked to comment about the growth of MSF in Hong Kong. 'I'm impressed by the achievements of MSF. The organisation is widely recognised by people in Hong Kong and I'm proud to have made some sort of contribution to the organisation 10 years ago.

'And Hong Kong people are very generous with donations, however, they may hesitate to spend time as volunteers. So it needs quite some effort to recruit volunteers to work overseas,' Dr Woo said.

Fiona Faure, a former journalist who, along with MSF medical team member Anne Decortis, founded MSF's first office here, said she was persuaded to join the fold after interviewing workers at a Vietnamese detention camp in Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

'Anne thought Hong Kong had such an intelligent pool of doctors and nurses, and that it would be a great place for MSF to recruit people and raise money, as it was such a prosperous place,' Mrs Faure said. From day one she was amazed by the enthusiasm and generosity of Hong Kong people.

'In the summer of 1994, there was the awful crisis in Rwanda,' she said. 'We launched a joint appeal with the Red Cross and Oxfam to fund an emergency relief programme.

'And we had the most amazing response from people, particularly considering we weren't long established in Hong Kong at the time.

'To look back on things now, it tells me that people in Hong Kong are very generous and interested in the rest of the world,' said Mrs Faure, who left the organisation in 1996 to prepare for the birth of her second child.

MSF Hong Kong office executive director Dick van der Tak took up his post in Hong Kong in July last year. The former lawyer gave up a high-paid position with an international bank and management consultancy firm in his native Netherlands to join the organisation 10 years ago.

'I'd spent six and a half years with the firm. I was driving a big car and wearing an expensive suit, but something was missing. Your wallet was full, but your heart was empty. I believe I made the right decision to work for MSF because I feel happier now than before I joined,' he said.

Mr Van der Tak said his legal background had not been wasted in his new post. If anything, it added new dimensions to what he was able to accomplish.

'My legal background has helped me in different aspects. What it helps most with is in advocacy. One of the things that is special about MSF is how it speaks out: it speaks out silently.

'We go to the hospital directors, we go the local authorities, we go to the UN agencies and we go to the donors to raise our concerns. It helps to have a legal background in the international humanitarian and human rights laws.

'When you see certain abuses, the legal background helps in your argument with the authorities over who is responsible for the violations,' he said.

Meanwhile, MSF will hold a photo exhibition to mark its 10th anniversary in Hong Kong at Pacific Place in Admiralty from June 4-8; in Tuen Mun Town Plaza, from June 21-24; and at Olympian City Phase I in Tai Kok Tsui from September 3-6.

Anyone interested in helping out or donating can call 2338 8277.