Américas / September-October 1996
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES -- Earthquake victims in Ecuador, refugees in Rwanda, HIV-positive Haitians and former political prisoners in the Gaza Strip have precious little in common -- except for the fact that all have been touched in some way or another by the United Nations' White Helmets Initiative.
First proposed by Argentine President Carlos Menem in mid-1993, the innovative program has since received endorsements from 65 countries as well as world personalities ranging from Al Gore to Mother Teresa. It is based on two UN General Assembly resolutions which call on member nations "to encourage the use of White Helmets expertise available from newly created national volunteer corps to support activities in humanitarian emergency assistance, as well as the transition from relief to rehabilitation, reconstruction and development."
Unlike other humanitarian efforts, the White Helmets gets its financing mainly from private sources -- not governments -- and is based on teams of volunteers ready to act in humanitarian emergencies. Ironically, it originated in Argentina -- a geographically remote country that until very recently had almost no involvement in world affairs.
"Argentina came up with the idea in the United Nations, but our goal is that the international community will take over," said Oscar Andrés de Masi, cabinet chief of the Comision Cascos Blancos (White Helmets Commission), during a recent interview in Buenos Aires. "At the moment, there's no great big corps of international civilians organized for rapid deployment in emergency or crisis situations. For now, Argentina is leading the program."
According to UNV headquarters in Geneva, Argentina is funding the bulk of the White Helmets Initiative's budget ($1.4 million), followed by Germany ($192,000) and other industrialized countries. Within Argentina, private sponsors include Eli Lilly Argentina, which donated $200,000 in medicines; the Agro-Chemical Industrial Chamber ($500,000) and the Armenian community in Argentina ($25,000). In addition, the Argentine government itself has donated $1 million toward the effort.
In the Caribbean, Argentine volunteers have helped distribute food to Haitian children and upgrade conditions in Port-au-Prince hospitals treating everything from acute tuberculosis and diarrhea to dengue fever and AIDS. Five specialists were also sent to Jamaica for a six-month period, to coordinate the emergency repair of medical equipment in public hospitals.
White Helmets volunteers have also been instrumental in demobilizing warring military factions in both Angola and Rwanda, and in re-establishing Rwanda's justice, police, civic education, prison and health-services systems.
"Our volunteers are normally professionals in their 30s, currently working in their field," said Gonzalo D'Hers, an official at Cascos Blancos headquarters in Buenos Aires. "They receive an allowance of $1,800 a month, though the exact amount depends on the cost of living in each country."
In politically unstable Armenia -- where a 1988 earthquake left 250,000 people dead and five million homeless -- 10 Argentine volunteers from the local Armenian-speaking community are helping establish 500 family-scale organic vegetable gardens and farms, in an effort to increase small-scale production of crops and return the country to economic self-sufficiency. They're also constructing a tool manufacturing workshop that'll produce low-cost, yet efficient, farm implements; efforts are concentrated in the Goris region, located in the southeastern corner of Armenia.
Closer to home, Argentine health workers under the "Cascos Blancos" banner traveled to southern Bolivia for four months late last year to help eliminate the tropical Chagas disease from poverty-stricken villages, and in March flew to Quito, Ecuador, to assist in emergency relief efforts following a powerful earthquake that struck the Cotopaxi region, leaving thousands homeless.
But the White Helmets' main focus seems to be the Middle East, where decades of violence have created a huge demand for the kinds of assistance these volunteers are prepared to offer. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 70,000 political prisoners have been released by Israel over the last six years; another 11,000 are to be freed under terms of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority sees these ex-detainees as the No. 1 priority target population needing help, yet admits that "it will be difficult, even under the most optimistic of growth and investments scenarios, to generate employment and income opportunities on this scale, and to reduce the current levels of poverty."
With help from five White Helmets volunteers spending six months in Ramallah, Jenin and other West Bank towns, about 50 ex-prisoners will be trained as computer instructors, with the ability to understand and teach the handling and use of computer systems. Priority will be given to detainees most recently released, those jailed the longest, those facing physical or mental health barriers to normal employment, and those who are married with children. A separate project involves the recruitment of Argentine specialists in urban planning, traffic engineering and Geographic Information System (GIS) design to help the municipality of Gaza City rebuild its overburdened infrastructure.
More recently -- following Israeli air attacks in retaliation for Hezbollah shelling of towns in northern Israel -- three White Helmets volunteers left Buenos Aires for Beirut, in an Argentine Air Force Boeing 707 loaded with 10 tons of powdered milk, five tons of rice, 20 tons of food rations, 500,000 water purification tablets, 5,000 blankets and 500 tents. Menem, who is of Syrian origin, ordered the airlift "as a contribution of the govern-ment of Argentina to the plight of the Lebanese people." Also on board were three Argentine White Helmets volunteers and Alejandro T. Feli, Menem's personal physician.
In a sense, the White Helmets are similar to the U.S. Peace Corps, says D'Hers, though there are some important differences.
"We have good relations with the Peace Corps, but we don't have the same objectives or work methods," he said. "The Peace Corps is funded by the U.S. govern-ment, and they don't work in emergencies or crises. Their volunteers are young, without experience, while ours are specialists, experts in their field." Despite the differences, several U.S. lawmakers have expressed support for the White Helmets, and President Clinton endorsed it in a recent address to the UN General Assembly.
Suggests Oscar la Masi: "The United States is interested in this project, because some American politicians are critical of the UN, and they see this as an alternative."