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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Recently, a major European NGO asked me to comment on the future of global health:
At a time when the Health Bill is hitting the headlines in the USA and election battle lines are being drawn over the NHS in the UK, access to health care is playing on the minds of people the world over. What is on your mind?

Here is my response:

The future of global health lies on prevention
By Kelly N Patterson

I spent three years working with a small nonprofit, community-based primary health care and rural development organization in very rural Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. Back then, Hlabisa District was a grim setting with a 41.6% HIV prevalence rate with high incidences of TB, Malaria, and even a cholera epidemic, sprinkled with chronic diseases associated with developing countries like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Reasons for the advanced stage of the HIV epidemic in this district include: high level of labor migration; limited access to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; low status of women; poor nutrition; and general poverty (80% unemployment at the time.)

This particular district had been historically under-funded due to politics and lacked the public services to cope with the growing demand for care. Essentially, this left the district with a disabling population of elderly women, living on welfare, and lots of children; the majority of the adult population either dead, or too sick to work.

Grandmothers could not afford to support themselves and orphaned children and ill adults on their pensions, so the older children would drop out of school. Older boys would resort to both petty and violent crime to obtain money or food for their homesteads. Older girls would often resort to prostitution for income and without education and access to birth control methods, more children. Thus the cycle of poverty, crime and disease continue. This is the current state of the world.

Therefore, to break this cycle, Global Health policies should focus on prevention, not the symptoms, of chronic, communicable and terminal diseases by addressing the seeds of all health issues: public infrastructure, economics and gender issues.

Public Infrastructure: This is everything from water and sanitation to roads and education. Education is critical to preventing most diseases (from nutrition and personal hygiene to reproductive health education); clean drinking water would significantly reduce water-borne diseases; easy access to public health clinics and pharmacies; adequate housing and access to mosquito netting; and proper sanitation systems are all necessary to preventing 80% of chronic and communicable diseases worldwide.

Economics: Affordable, easily accessible healthcare (from prevention to treatment to palliative care; especially, affordable equal access to pharmaceutical drugs); rural development with emphasis on good nutrition, personal hygiene and clean water systems; job development; investment in vaccines, micro-biocides and directly observed treatments (such as the TB DOTS program); local, national and international incentives for quality, multi-sectoral health policies, designed by nations, for their own people’s public health.

Gender issues: Over half of the world’s population is female and unless women have access to the same level of education, pay, rights, healthcare treatment, and protection as men, women will never have the power to improve their own health and the health of their children. This means over half of the world has no control over their own health.

In conclusion, global health care issues will never diminish unless people address the conditions which nurture most chronic, communicable and terminal diseases. Therefore, a holistic, multi-sectoral approach to global health policies is needed. The seeds of all global health issues, whether it be in the States or Sudan, come down to public infrastructure, economics and gender issues.

My ever-so humble opinion, Kelly N Patterson