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Prof. Emily Chan on Humanitarian Response

Prof. Emily Chan, Director, Collaborating Centre for Oxford University and CUHK for Disaster and Medical Humanitarian Response (CCOUC)
(Photo by Cheung Chi-wai)

You’ve just been to Ya’an to evaluate the earthquake relief effort. What is the situation there now?

After Wenchuan, the mainland authorities respond very quickly to earthquake disasters. In Ya’an, resources for disaster relief have been brought in. But the victims still live in tents because temporary accommodations are not ready. Many victims suffer from skin infections due to poor hygiene and high humidity. There are also other nuisances like garbage, flies, and stray dogs. Although they don’t threaten the victims’ survival, it is miserable to stay for months in such circumstances.

How does a university-based, research-oriented relief unit like CCOUC differ from other humanitarian aid organizations in terms of their functions?

Unlike disaster relief organizations in the frontline, we can’t easily find four trucks to move two tons of relief resources to disaster zones. But we have our unique position. Ordinary NGOs may not have the time to reflect on the effectiveness or scientific basis of their modi operandi. They won’t pass on their knowledge to other organizations. A university-based unit like us conducts research. So we’re able to push back the frontiers of this field. We also teach and groom talent.

Academic organizations, NGOs, governments, United Nations agencies—which are most effective and reliable in providing humanitarian relief?

If you asked me this question 10 years ago, the young and impetuous me would have said: ‘It’s the NGOs in the frontline for sure.’ But now I see it differently. Organizations at different levels have their own strengths and missions. NGOs in the frontline are effective in launching a few projects. But if you want to bring about change and development to society, it requires the efforts of higher-level authorities like governments or the United Nations. It’s because when they make policies or issue guidelines, everyone will follow. But they don’t do evidence-based research. We fill this gap.

What qualities should a humanitarian relief worker possess?

First of all, technical competence. Medical and public health decisions are matters of life and death. Try to imagine a place the size of Hong Kong is hit by natural disaster. You are the one who decides where relief resources should go. That means you determine who gets them and who doesn’t. It’s a huge responsibility. That’s why technical competence is important. Secondly, the determination to solve problems. Your mind must be made up to solve whatever problems that may arise.

What’s your advice for those interested in this line of work?

You have to be clear about why you want to do this. It’s not worthwhile if you’re just after a sense of heroism. On our way to Ya’an, our car was stopped by the army. We were delayed for three hours. Later we learned that there was a landslide about three cars away from our position. Six people died. It’s just not worth the risk if you simply want to be a hero.

What is your approach to teaching?

Every time I go to class, I see it as the last time I can teach my students about that topic. I’m eager to tell them everything I know. I have so many things to tell them. Time is always not enough.

What kind of students do you want to produce?

I hope that they will be people who help society to solve problems. If I’m told that a former student has done a really good job in a certain field, I would be overjoyed.  I believe that a teacher’s achievement is not defined by what she has done, but by what her students have done.

What difficulties did you encounter when putting together the CCOUC team?

This field is still under-developed. You can’t get the right people just by spending more money. It’s because a competent NGO worker may not survive in an academic setting. We have to groom our talent for this fledgling sector.

What is the impact of climate change on public health?

Certain usual practices may no longer work because of climate change. For example, people in rural areas may leave unfinished food on the table for one or two days. In cooler climes, it’s acceptable. But when weather is warm, food goes bad easily. We will also have more extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall. This may lead to increase in mosquitoes, which will cause surge in malaria cases in certain areas.

How do you foresee CCOUC’s development?

We strive to build CCOUC into a centre of the World Health Organization in the Asian Pacific Region.

How do your years of experience in the humanitarian sector affect your view of life?

I believe that human nature is good. I used to go to war zones frequently. You can find the best people in the most perilous places. Human beings are strange creatures. They lock themselves in and mind their own business when life is safe and stable. But in desperate situations, many people would sacrifice themselves for others. I’ve seen this a lot.