Operation Safe Drinking Water Not So Safe After All

November 8, 2010

By Kelly N Patterson

In my 15 years of working with and for a vast variety of non-profit, community-based organizations, on 4 different continents, never have I been alarmed about the legitimacy of an organization’s operations, or intentions. However, after my recent volunteer work experience with Operation Safe Drinking Water (OSDW), I feel it is my obligation, as a professional development consultant, to inform and encourage local Bocas residents, past and current supporters and donors of OSDW , as well as local authorities, especially the Panamanian Department of Health, to investigate into the operations of Operation Safe Drinking Water, because—don’t take my word for it, do your homework!—their message is misleading both to donors/supporters and more importantly, dangerous to the local Guaymi communities they supposedly serve.

Operation Safe Drinking Water, founded and operated by Joe Bass and his wife Maribel Gomez, states their mission is “to provide safe drinking water to children of the indigenous communities of Bocas del Toro.” They promote group “tours” (especially church and youth groups) to come down to Bocas del Toro, Panama, and collectively pay for water tanks and then, voluntarily install the tanks in (mostly) local schools. Recently, I was invited by Joe Bass to volunteer as OSDW Communications and Development Director. Even though I was never allowed to see their budget (which is a red flag in itself) of incoming and outgoing costs; they claim they live off of donations only.

Thus, it was a shock to me to learn that after installing rain-catchment water systems to some local schools, there was no pre or post water/sanitation preventative (basic primary health) education to complement the fact that these people do not have “safe water” in their homes; do not have bathrooms; and that “wash your hands” is a new idea in the area (there are no community health workers in this area.) Therefore, locals are given the false and potentially dangerous misinformation that if their children get safe drinking water at school then they would be healthy. This means that the installation of these “safe water” tanks is basically useless in preventing water-borne diseases, when in fact, the children return home daily to unsafe water usage and sanitation habits, and have little to no basic primary health care knowledge (I know because I visited six different communities and I personally interviewed local women, men and children.)

Therefore, it was an additional shock to me that I had to “debate” with the founder and director, Joe Bass, as to the necessity of implementing a pre, post, and continual basic primary health education (wash your hands after going to the bathroom; how to make a basic pit latrine; boil water; bleach treatment; re-hydration drink; etc.) along with water tank installation. This was one of many “battles” with the organization that I found disconcerting.

Secondly, Maribel Gomez, who has no credentials whatsoever in basic primary health care, much less as medical credentials, is billing herself as a “nurse” at a make-shift clinic the organization has set up, by donation, on their property in Punta Coco. In addition to the danger of having an untrained civilian administering medical advice and treatments unsupervised by a medical professional, Maribel reads from the Bible first—proselytizing before administering health care.

Not once in my preliminary interviews and discussions with this organization was any religion or proselytizing mentioned—so this was a double shock. I quickly learned that the organization was billing itself as some kind of “missionaries” to certain supporters and donors, and not to others. Perhaps someone should look into how the IRS feels about this? They are supposedly a registered 501c3.

I also question the statistics OSDW claims about reduction in water-borne diseases for several reasons: (1) Joe Bass does not speak any Spanish, much less any of the indigenous languages; (2) OSDW has never worked with the local Department of Health or had an independent medical research team collect this information; and (3) there is no existing evaluation and monitoring systems to actual collect this data. Thus, I suspect these statistics are pure fiction and when I suggested that we bring professionals in to collect and analyze this data, the idea was vehemently discouraged….hmmm.

Basically, every attempt I made to make these programs legitimate, effective, sustainable, and actually a public health service to the people they serve became a battle. In my experience, sadly, the founder and director, Joe Bass, was more concerned about grants, marketing group visits, and income generation (without allowing me to see the budget) than actually making his current programs effective. Needless to say, I was quickly fired.

Therefore, for the safety of the indigenous people this organization is “serving”, and for the many donors and supporters of Operation Safe Drinking Water, I beseech you to investigate for yourselves the legitimacy, quality and effectiveness of this organization and its operations. This is exactly this kind of organization that gives non-profits a bad reputation, but more importantly, they are not only misleading donors and supporters to believe their operations are legitimate, but this misinformation also can be dangerous for the local communities. Therefore, I sincerely hope local Bocas citizens, donor and supporters, as well as local Panamanian authorities, investigate the legitimacy of Operation Safe Drinking Water. And again, do not take my word for it—PLEASE do your own investigations.

**En mis 15 años de trabajar con una vasta variedad de organizaciones sin fines de lucro, basadas en comunidades, en 4 continentes diferentes, nunca había estado alarmada acerca de la legitimidad de las operaciones de una organización o de sus intenciones. Sin embargo, después de mi reciente experiencia de trabajo voluntario con Operation Safe Drinking Water (OSDW), siento que es mi obligación, como una profesional del area de consultas para desarrollo, el informar y animar a los residentes locales de Bocas, al igual que a las autoridades locales, en especial al Departamento de Salud de Panamá, el investigar las operaciones de OSDW, debido a que -y no me tomen solamente mi palabra, hagan su tarea!- el mensaje de ellos is engañoso para ambos donantes/benefactores y más importante, peligroso para las comunidades Guaymi locales que ellos supuestamente sirven.

OSDW, fundada y operada por Joe Bass y su esposa Maribel Gomez, indican que su misión es la de “proveer agua potable a los niños de las comunidades indígenas de Bocas del Toro.” Ellos promueven grupos de “tours” (especialmente de iglesias y grupos juveniles) para que vengan a Bocas del Toro, Panamá, y pagen de manera colectiva, tanques de almacenamiento y luego, voluntariamente, instalen dichos tanques en (mayormente), escuelas locales. Recientemente, yo fui invitada por Joe Bass para servir de voluntaria como la Directora de Desarrollo y Comunicaciones de OSDW. Aun cuando nunca se me permitió una inspección de su presupuesto (lo cual es una advertencia en rojo, por si mismo) de entradas y salidas; ellos dicen vivir de donaciones unicamente.

Aunque fue un shock para me, el hecho de que después de instalar sistemas de captura de lluvia en algunas escuelas locales, no había pre o post educación preventiva de agua/sanidad para complementar el hecho de que estas personas no tienen “agua potable” en sus hogares; no tienen baños; y que “lavar sus manos” es un concepto nuevo en el área (no hay trabajadores del departamento de salud en esta área.) Por lo tanto, a los locales se les esta dando la errónea y potencialmente peligrosa información de que si sus hijos reciben agua potable en la escuela, estarán sanos. Esto indica que la instalación de esos “tanques de agua potable” es básicamente inútil en la prevención de enfermedades de origen en el agua, cuando en realidad los niños regresan a diario a usos inadecuados de agua y hábitos sanitarios, y tienen poca o nulo conocimiento básico de cuidado de su salud (yo lo se, ya que visite 6 comunidades diferente, donde entreviste a hombres, mujeres y niños.)

Por esto mismo, fue un shock adicional el que yo tuviese que debatir con el fundador y director, Joe Bass, de la necesidad de implementar un pre, post y continua educación básica de salud (lavarse las manos después de ir al baño; como construir una letrina de hueco básica; hervir agua; tratamiento con cloro; bebida de re-hidratación; etc.) junto a la instalación de los tanques. Esta fue una de muchas “batallas” con la organización, que yo hallé desconcertantes.

Segundo, Maribel Gomez, quien no cuenta con ningún tipo de credenciales en cuidados de la salud primarios, mucho menos credenciales de medico, se está acreditando a si misma como “Enfermera” en una clínica temporal que la organización ha levantado, por donación, dentro de su propiedad en Punta Coco. En adición a tener a una civil sin preparación, administrando consejos médicos al igual que tratamientos, sin ninguna supervision de un medico profesional, Maribel lee la biblia primer-proselitismo antes de administrar los cuidados para la salud.

Ni una sola vez, en mis entrevistas preliminares y discusiones con esta organización, se menciono ninguna religión o proselitismo-por lo que fue un shock doble. Rápidamente descubrí que la organización se estaba tachando de alguna clase de “misionarios” con algunos donantes y seguidores, y no a otros. Quizás alguien debería chequear como se siente el IRS acerca de esto? Ellos están supuestamente registrados como 501 c3.

También cuestiono las estadísticas que OSDW claman acerca de la reducción de enfermedades provenientes del agua por varias razones: (1) Joe Bass no habla nada de español, mucho menos de ninguno de los idiomas indígenas; (2) OSDW nunca ha trabajado con el Departamento de Salud local ni tampoco ha tenido ningún equipo de investigación independiente que recoja dichos datos; y (3) no hay una evaluación existente ni sistema de monitoreo que recoja estos datos. Por lo que sospecho que estas estadísticas son pura ficción y cuando sugerí que se contrataran profesionales para que recogieran y analizaran esta información, la idea fue vehementemente descartada…. hmmm.

Básicamente, cada intento que yo hice para hacer estos programas legítimos, efectivos, sostenibles, y básicamente un servicio de salud publica para las personas a quien ellos sirven, se convirtió en una batalla. En mi experiencia, lamentablemente, el fundador y director, Joe Bass, estaba mas preocupado con los permisos, visitas de grupos de mercadeo, y en la generación de ingresos (sin dejarme ver el presupuesto) mas que en preocuparse por hacer su programa, eficiente. No hay necesidad de decirlo, pero fui despedida rápidamente.

Por lo tanto, por la seguridad de las personas indígenas que esta organización esta “sirviendo”, y por los muchos donantes y partidarios de la OSDW, yo les ruego que investiguen uds mismos la legitimidad, calidad y efectividad de esta organización y de sus operaciones. Esta es exactamente el tipo de organización que le da una mala fama a los “sin fines de lucro”, pero más importante, ellos no solo están engañando a los donantes y partidarios de que esta operación es legitima, pero esta información erronea, también puede ser peligrosa para las comunidades locales. Por lo tanto, espero sinceramente que los ciudadanos locales de Bocas, donantes y partidarios, al igual que las autoridades Panameñas, investiguen la legitimidad de OSDW. Y nuevamente, no tomen mis palabras por el hecho-POR FAVOR hagan sus propias investigaciones.

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6 Responses to “Operation Safe Drinking Water Not So Safe After All”

  1. mary bolton Says:

    Hi Kelly, I read your blog, very interested in what you had to say. I have volunteered with Joe and Maribel a number of times. There is some truth in your comments and some of your comments are a little too dramatic for the context. For example–is Maribel a credentialed nurse? No. But look beyond that to the real help she provides to people who would otherwise receive no help at all. The local health department is very under-resourced and doesn’t send out public health nurses, etc. Most of these villagers need to paddle 5-10 hours in a dugout canoe to go to the doctor and then wait all day to be seen. I have never seen Maribel with a Bible in these villages-that was a shocker and I believe those allegations are incorrect. Joe has told me stories about local communities damaged by interactions with missionaries, so I was totally shocked to read what you wrote about them and religion. Everything I know about Joe and Maribel says that they would never use this organization in that way. I think you are totally correct about the need for health education in these communities and schools, which is a whole extra level of commitment and programming. A good question is –just where is the government health department and why aren’t they initiating this kind of health education? Well, they sure are not out in the islands of Bocas del Toro where Joe and Maribel live among the people they serve. My interpretation of Joe and Maribel is that they are good people doing some very simple primary preventative work by installing the tanks. Yes, I agree, there are many other contributers to illness that they are not addressing in these communities, but no reason to shut Joe and Maribel down– so then these communities don’t get even any rain water tanks, small quanitities of over the counter medications or lentils and rice? I think OSDW could definitely improve its’ operations AND I think they do some very good work already. I already emailed Joe to meet with me to discuss some of the points in your blog. I would welcome the opportunity to talk more with you, as well, and I believe we could help OSDW fine tune their operations and become even more effective. Thank you, Kelly.


    • Thank you, Mary, for taking the time to read and provide insight and feedback on my blog. Again, the intention of this blog is not to “shut” OSDW down, but to develop its services in order that they are actually effective and sustainable–I tried to get this message across to Joe for weeks and then he abruptly fired me, saying “you are not a good fit”–maybe so, but this is irrelevant–at the moment, his operations are not even a “band-aid” for the issues on the islands. I sincerely hope others are successful–my concern is for the Guaymi to get adequate, accurate public health education and care–I do not care who does it. I welcome the opportunity to discuss further–please email me at kellyofthepattersons@yahoo.com

  2. Mercedes Says:

    Dear Mary,
    I came across your article as I Googgled, “volunteer programs for safe drinking water”. Since my son of 21 years of age has made it “his life’s mission” to provide this life essential; water to all. Thank you so very much for the heads-up.
    And, should you know of a legitimate program where my son can begin his “life’s mission”, please contact me. He has already taken and passed his examination for the Water Department here in Florida, therefore he does understand more than the basic requirements.
    Thanks again,
    Mercedes Lopez

  3. Alex Jenkins Says:

    Hi Kelly,

    I just wanted to post here and let you know that I think you are WAYYYY off the mark with your comments.

    OSDW is one of the most ethical organizations I have ever volunteered for.

    I find it interesting that you assume that a 2 person organization that provides safe drinking water should also be responsible for community education.

    Pick one thing and do it well is a good motto. Joe and Maribel do a wonderful job.

    This post sounds like a disgruntled volunteer posting to bruise a good organization.

    You should remove your post and stay positive. In many communities, a good service is much needed. Your belittling comments can only hurt a good organization which in the end only hurts the community that you BOTH are trying to help.

    Alex

  4. Catfish Says:

    Kelly contact me via email Re: this subject!

    Others may enjoy reading about the history of Joe by typing in L. Joe Bass. This may change your views a bit….


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