Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

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Jul 16th
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Professional Expertise to the Rescue

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A group of entrepreneurs join forces and form a network capable of getting emergency relief goods to the hands of victims quickly. Through their participation in international relief work, they observe carefully what victims need most and earnestly deliver the needed goods to them to help relieve their suffering. They even make or invent some of the relief supplies themselves. Many of these people are heads of their own enterprises. They are experts in their fields. They have the will, the means, and the love to hand over whatever victims need in short order.

The world has lately been afflicted with disasters of one sort or another with ever greater intensity and frequency. A cyclone in Myanmar and a huge earthquake in China, both in May, were followed by several typhoons that hit Taiwan hard in the fall, to name just a few.

As is usual after such disasters, a flood of phone inquiries ensued, offering in-kind donations to the foundation. (Monetary donations go through well-established channels which have been used by millions of donors for decades.) Chen Xiu-juan (陳秀娟), executive secretary of the Tzu Chi International Humanitarian Aid Association, or TIHAA, keyed relevant data into her computer as she fielded the calls. People offer a wide variety of goods, and the foundation needs to channel those goods and the good will of the donors to productive use.

For example, in 2004 tsunamis inflicted severe damage on most land areas bordering the Indian Ocean, killing more than 225,000 people and injuring countless others. As Tzu Chi volunteers rushed to the scene to help, TIHAA members busied themselves behind the scenes to procure the needed goods and ship them to their destinations. While such efforts entail much, they all boil down to "whatever victims need to survive, TIHAA gets it to them," Chen said.

Tzu Chi inaugurated its mission of international relief in 1991. Since then, many of its volunteers have gone to disaster sites to conduct free medical clinics and personally hand over relief goods to victims. They typically spend a week to ten days at a site until a new volunteer team arrives to take their place. Their temporary quarters are often similar in living conditions to those of the victims whom they serve. Therefore the volunteers live with and experience firsthand the hardships of living under severe constraints and discomfort in almost every aspect of life: water, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, personal hygiene, and the elements.

This insight increases their empathy and leads many of them to contemplate ways of improving the operational efficiency of their relief efforts so as to give more help to more disaster victims. In 2003, some 80 entrepreneurs and volunteers founded TIHAA in Taipei. They bring to the table their expertise and resources in various industries. Each member is assigned by his or her expertise to one of six work groups: food, clothing, shelter, transport, IT, and research and coordination. Then they are let loose to develop products and processes or to research ideas.

They set out to make sure that, after a disaster, they can put goods that satisfy victims practical needs into the recipients hands as quickly as possible. When it comes to disaster relief, time is of the essence. So these entrepreneurs work hard when things are calm, getting ready to respond to distress calls which the volunteers hope will never come, but which they know all too well could come at any moment.

Stephen Huang (黃思賢), Tzu Chi's executive director of international affairs, summed it up succinctly: "TIHAA pools together the considerable expertise and resources of its membership to help develop and manufacture relief goods and deliver them to the recipients."

Food
"In the aftermath of a disaster, food and clean drinking water are often very hard to come by. Cooking on the scene is usually not practical, so ready-to-eat food items are particularly prized, said Xie Jing-gui (謝景貴), a veteran international disaster relief worker and director of religious affairs at the Tzu Chi Foundation. TIHAA has developed three categories of foods: ready-to-eat, heat and eat, and quick boil and eat.

Canned porridge and multi-grain crackers are ready-to-eat. A few other items are also fully cooked, but are more palatable heated. These foods, such as rice cakes and steamed brown rice, are put in waterproof packages. This makes it possible to heat a package in hot water, even if the water isn't clean. Instant noodles belong to the third category. Where boiling water is available, TIHAA's instant noodles are a welcome addition to the mostly dry selections. Another just-add-boiling-water food is dehydrated rice. It is intended to satisfy a large population for whom rice is a staple. It's light and easy to transport. Like instant noodles, dehydrated rice is ready to serve after being soaked in boiling water for a few minutes.

Knowing that people's taste varies greatly, TIHAA tries to provide choices. Multi-grain crackers come in two flavors, salty and sweet, while there are nine varieties of instant noodles.

TIHAA designers try to put themselves in victim's shoes when they contemplate and improve on relief goods. They want to give the recipients practical and tasty food. "We take into consideration local palates, sanitation, and nutrition in the design of relief foods, which we refine as we gain experience and feedback from the consumers," said Wei Ying-chong (魏應充), head of the TIHAA food work group and chairman of the board of Wei Chuan Foods Corporation in Taiwan.

Warmth
While these foods help fill victims stomachs, other relief goods help keep their bodies warm during the day and night. Thanks to the tens of thousands of Tzu Chi recycling volunteers, TIHAA has access to a ready supply of quality used PET bottles, which have been successfully transformed--thanks to the brain power and dedication of many in the TIHAA clothing group and their employees--into polyester fibers that can be made into cloth.

Tzu Chi has used the cloth to make blankets, T-shirts, and thermal underwear. The blankets have been in production since late 2006 with more than 150,000 blankets made through September 2008, using roughly 11.8 million recycled PET bottles. It takes about 78 bottles to make a one-kilogram (2.2-pound) blanket that measures 2.3 by 1.6 meters (7.6 by 5.3 feet). At least 32,000 articles of thermal underwear have also been produced.

Tzu Chi volunteers throughout the world have distributed blankets to help keep people warm in winter. In Sichuan Province alone, 40,000 blankets have been given out to quake victims since May, along with over 10,000 backpacks stuffed with daily necessities.

"Extracting reusable fibers for textiles out of PET bottles is one of the main responsibilities of TIHAA's clothing work group," said Walter Huang (黃華德), head of TIHAA and chairman of the board of Texma International Co., Ltd. "With global warming getting more serious and the world ecology becoming ever more fragile, businesses ought to think long and hard about these grave issues and help cope with them for the collective good of society and the world. To me, this is all in a day's work. It's what any responsible organization can and must do."

Transportation
"If we can send out relief goods within 48 hours of a disaster, we airlift them out," said Li Ding-ming (李鼎銘). "Otherwise, we ship them by air or sea." Li, who runs a shipping company, is in charge of TIHAA's transport work group. His group handles shipping, customs clearance, warehousing, and insurance. In other words, they are responsible for taking relief goods from the sources and shipping them to disaster areas, resolving any and all issues that may pop up along the way. They do more than port-to-port transport; they make end-to-end delivery. Li and his group map out the most efficient transport routes to get relief goods into the hands of the intended recipients.

They are also mindful of the costs and efficiency of their decisions. "Take rice for example, said Li. "There are marked savings in both time and money to ship from a port in southern Taiwan instead of the northernmost port of Keelung." And the reason is simply in the mileage: The former is near the Jianan Plain, the rice granary of Taiwan.

Research
A disaster can hit anywhere in the world at any time. The types and quantities of goods that each disaster site needs vary greatly because of such factors as the disaster's severity, the season (dry or wet, hot or cold), local bureaucracy, road conditions, epidemiology, and local medical facilities and expertise. This challenges TIHAA to adequately prepare to cover disasters anywhere in the world at only a moment's notice.

The research work group grapples with this challenge. It identifies items most likely to be needed in the aftermath of a calamity, sources where TIHAA can purchase such items, and the capacity of each supplier. In conjunction with the IT work group, the research group has pretty much established this type of information on all suppliers in Taiwan. It plans to expand and speed up the recruitment of Southeast Asian suppliers to join the network. TIHAA wants to establish a network of suppliers and warehouses that stand ready to promptly supply relief goods to anywhere in the world.

Participation
Li Ming-ding has been a Tzu Chi volunteer for two decades. Initially, his involvement with the foundation was limited to making or soliciting donations. "I only found out after the Indian Ocean tsunamis in 2004 that my expertise in shipping could be put to good use in disaster relief missions," he said. "There are many entrepreneurs out there who are willing, even eager, to repay society and the world, but they just don't know of a satisfactory conduit for doing so. I would like to invite them to join TIHAA."

Entrepreneurial participation in disaster relief work can greatly help expand the capacity and capability of relief missions. Professional expertise and the capabilities of entrepreneurs plants, equipment, and employees alone can save a tremendous amount of money--savings that go right back to helping more people.

"Since joining TIHAA, I have often searched for ideas to deliver the most relief at the lowest possible cost," Li said. "It gives me great joy when I am able to come up with a breakthrough idea now and then. I've really enjoyed being part of TIHAA. I beseech loving entrepreneurs to join in and enable much needed help to reach more disaster victims more quickly."

By Qiu Shu-juan
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Tzu Chi Quarterli Winter 2008