Anna Høybye has spent most of her adult life with development and relief work. The 35 year old Dane will soon end her assignment at the Danish Red Cross in Burma but the relief work in Burma continues.
Danish Red Cross’ primary mission in Burma is to implement health-related activities. To do the work, the Danish section in Burma has Anna Høybye, 35, who has been the Danish Red Cross representative in Burma for three years. In May, she ends the mission after more than three years in the job.
In total, she has worked with development and relief work abroad for nine years and has, among other countries, been in Uganda, Botswana, East Timor and Albania. She has a Danish education in political science, and through her times of study she had a student internship in South Africa. To her development work is a full-time profession.
Anna is the only Danish representative of the Red Cross Denmark in Burma. That she ended up in Burma this time, was not planned in advance:
“I got the job in Burma after responding to a general call for applications by Danish Red Cross. I wanted to get out in the world, and there were several exciting possibilities. I didn’t go specifically for Burma, but I’ve been very happy to be here.”
Anna’s work is to provide technical assistance and professional guidance to Myanmar Red Cross with respect to planning, implementation and monitoring of activities within the health programmes and to raise money through donors. Some of the work is also based on schools and universities, to find and train volunteers to help out the organization all over the country.
One of the difficult things about working in Burma, is that foreigners have to get official approvals to go to the field.
“Operating here definitely requires more advance planning, but I also think it is important to be clear about where we have most added advantage, whichis not necessarily being in the field 100% of the time. Actually out there, it is not always an advantage to be a European woman, and it can actually take focus away from some of the activities the Myanmar Red Cross is implementing” as Anna explains.
She works closely with the Myanmar Red Cross, who also works with other Red Cross national soceities, and the long-term aim is to Myanmar Red Cross able to fend for themselves.
Denmark sets the agenda
Danish Red Cross’ projects on health prevention and promotion are mostly concentrated in the middle of the country. In some of the project areas there are many mines. Among other major problems, some mine workers, who are in many cases migrants from other parts of the country, have unprotected sex with sex workers, and sometimes get HIV as a result. Then they take the disease home with them, spreading it to wives or other sex partners.
“We therefore provide condoms and health education for both the sex workers and the mine workers, refer for testing, and provide counselling to those in need. Our role here is to fill gaps and assist the most vulnerable. Myanmar Red Cross has so many volunteers who do a fantastic job,” Anna Høybye says, and continues:
“The HIV Project is sponsored by the Danish government as well as Danish Red Cross’ own funds, and the whole problem of the spreading of HIV by the miners, is something we have helped put on the agenda,” she explains, and cites an example of how the Danish Red Cross can influence developments in health prevention in the country.
Besides a focus on HIV/AIDS, other diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis are high on the agenda of aid organizations in Burma. Even diseases that we in the western world do not perceive as life threatening, can be fatal for the Burmese, because the infrastructure of the country is very poor and the distance to a health facility can be quite far. Therefore, the Danish Red Cross is working also with something as simple as hygiene promotion and transporting sick people to doctors and hospitals. If the sick are not being helped to the doctor or the hospital, they often will not go as they cannot afford the transportation.
Small degree of freedom
Danish Red Cross’s international strategy is defined around the goal of assisting the most vulnerable. Community based health and HIV & AIDS are among the main focus areas of this strategy, which further places a special focus on vulnerable communities.
It may be difficult to implement all the projects, because Burma is known for a strict military dictatorship that wants to control everything, foreign organizations are doing. Anna Høybye acknowledges that work is not always easy:
“This is a very difficult and complex system. As an example it is difficult for foreigners to get visas and to go to the field we need to apply for for special travel permits to move around the area. So things take time and can be difficult, the Danish woman says, however, she has has learned to navigate around it and also stresses that local Danish Red Cross staff as well as staff from the partner organisation do not face such restrictions :
“We will of course have to accept that this is the way it is here. We knew it when we started up operating in the country, and we have to be realistic about the ground rules. Work becomes more difficult by it, but it is not impossible, and we think the results on the ground simply mean that we will have to live with this added complexity.”
Does it help?
Danish Red Cross does, according to Anna Høybye invest a lot in monitoring and evaluating their projects, so they can correct them if required and identify best practices.
“A concrete example of how such monitoring is being done can be taken from the HIV/AIDS project in the mining areas. Here, we surveyed in advance the local knowledge of HIV and AIDS, such as knowledge of how HIV is transmitted, and we got baseline information about relevant behaviour. For example we asked representatives of the project’s target groups whether they use condoms. When we are engaged in the project, we can continuously make new diagnoses to get a picture of whether we change anything with our work,” Anna Høybye explains, and concludes:
“Our results clearly show that we are making a significant difference, and of course that drives me and the others in the Red Cross forward.”
Anna also tells a story about an HIV-affected woman in one of the areas that knew so little about the disease and how it is transmitted that she sent her young son away to live with relatives, because she thought she could pass make him sick just by living with him.
“She now has her son back because we could help and inform her about the disease and how she should adjust to a life with HIV,” Anna says with a friendly smile.
More than a full-time job
In May, Anna will finish her assignment with Danish Red Cross in Myanmar. She will most probably go back to Denmark, but has made no definite plans yet. She, however, does not hide the fact that she would love to go out in the world again at some point:
“There will clearly be a gap when I’m back in Denmark. I will miss it, and it would probably be strange with a regular 9 to 5 job. In countries like Burma, one quickly gets humbled by the people who can live for really nothing. The resiliance and positivism is incredible and I would love to keep some connection to it,” Anna explains, and continues:
”It is wonderful and frustrating at the same time to work this way. There is still so much to do and so many people to help and you really live into this job. I have a great sense of professional pride in my job and my profession, and it is an amazing award to work with so many dedicated people,” Anna Høybye says.
She explains that she really lives in his job, which is much more than a full-time job.
“Most of my friends here are also working with development and relief, and we talk about it all the time. It is also about finding solutions to obstacles, learning to see possibilities in even sealed countries and consider the glass half-full instead of half-empty so to say”.
The future in Burma
Although Anna Høybye soon will end her mission, there is still plenty of work with for the Danish Red Cross in Burma. In the future, the Danish humanitarian organization plans to expand its health projects to put more emphasis on mother and child health, pregnancy problems for instance, reproductive health, water and sanitation and nutrition.
“We will obviously continue the work in areas of HIV, hygiene promotion, malaria, and TB, but we want to also prioritise mother and child health and will try to provide assistance to ensure safer pregnancies and deliveries. It is part of the Red Cross’ overall strategy,” says Anna Høybye and states:
“It is always about identifying what is needed and what is possible. To Danish Red Cross, it feels like a good time now to expand further in health in Burma, and it will hopefully be a focus for a long time to come.”