How Israel's top NGO shares conflict experience in disaster situations

Adva Vilchinski (center), country director for IsraAID, with children at one of the organization’s project sites in the Philippines. IsraAID is Israel’s largest nongovernmental organization, which delivers humanitarian assistance in 22 countries since 2001. Photo by: Adva Vilchinski / IsraAID

Introducing her organization’s work to other people has always been a challenge for Adva Vilchinski as the mention of her country, Israel, is often associated with conflict in the Middle East.

But while the IsraAID country director in the Philippines admits that overcoming that stigma can be tough, Vilchinski quickly points out that the situation has also given her the opportunity to share a side of her country that often doesn’t make it to the mainstream media: how they help other people “without borders.”

“It’s very important to show a different face of Israelis because people only see in the news that there’s war,” she said during an interview. “But we want to show that we have professionals going [to other countries] and helping others. What we’re trying to do is helping without borders whether religious, geographic, political, etc.”

IsraAID, Israel’s largest nongovernmental organization, has been delivering humanitarian assistance in 22 countries since 2001. Some of its focus areas include psycho-social support programs and emergency relief response in major disaster situations like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 Japan tsunami and more recently, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The nonprofit was already embedded in relief and recovery operations just two days after the typhoon struck, particularly in Ormoc province, where IsraAID is providing art therapy training as psycho-social support for survivors.

“The core of what we do is psychosocial support. We do drama, music, dance and art. The way they release those and cope with the trauma is helped through this,” Vilchinski shared. “We’re not trying to be therapists or anything but we’re trying to help other Filipinos to be [the] answer to their own problems.”

IsraAID is active now in the humanitarian responses to Ebola in Sierra Leone and the recent sectarian violence in northern Iraq, and is also exploring innovative ways to share Israel’s expertise in developing an agriculture in semi-arid conditions with several developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Beyond borders

While her country’s long-standing conflict with the Palestinians sometimes make her job more difficult, Vilchinski explained it does offer an advantage in terms of experience in areas like trauma treatment and medical emergency response.

“Most of our work is to bring experts with things that [we’re] good at, which is unfortunately trauma, psychosocial support, and medical emergency response,” she said. “I always use the word ‘unfortunately’ because I don’t think war is a good thing.”

Vilchinski added, “It’s nice that we are experts in trauma but the reason for that is a negative thing. War is not good. It causes trauma, death and economic problems.”

Despite being an NGO, IsraAID gets nonfinancial support from Mashav, Israel’s official development cooperation agency which is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mashav handles the design, coordination and implementation of Israel’s overall development and cooperation programs in developing countries, including the recent deployment of Israeli troops in the Philippines during post-Haiyan relief operations.

Asked about the possibility of merging or directly working with Mashav as the country’s official aid agency, Vilchinski shared that while the idea has potential, it could also curtail the organization’s freedom to operate where it deems necessary, like now in Sierra Leone, where the Israeli government finally decided against sending doctors due to the security situation and risk of contracting Ebola.

“If we’re part of the government, we can’t send people as well. You have pluses and minuses with certain kinds of partnerships. We’re not obliged to follow their lead but we can listen to their recommendations,” she said. This, of course, is exacerbated by IsraAID possibly not being allowed to work in countries in conflict with Israel like Syria.

At the height of the Israeli aerial campaign against Gaza just two months ago, IsraAID operations were affected, Vilchinski explained the organization then decided the best way to keep their programs running at a time when Israel was being heavily criticized for its actions by most of the mainstream media was to adopt a very low profile, the same strategy they implemented in the Philippines.

“The only thing that we did different was when we were in Mindanao … we didn’t put big flyers that say ‘Israel is here.’ We were low key,” Vilchinski said. Majority of Muslims in the Philippines reside in Mindanao, the country’s southern region, where occasional skirmishes between authorities and Muslim separatists occur. “We did our work but without trying to publish anything or create any buzz. The buzz is nice, but the most important [thing] for us is the work.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.