By Rachel Jones


Helping doctors in northern Iraq care for patients


At our Sharing Best Practice workshop, Yousaf Aftab, a deputy director at Humanity First, discussed his experiences visiting Iraq in 2018 to see how our donations are being used.


Humanity First is an international relief and development agency staffed by volunteers in 53 countries, including management team and aid workers.

At International Health Partners, we began working with Humanity First in 2015, helping it to distribute essential medicines in Nepal through health facilities and mobile clinics following a major earthquake. Subsequently, we’ve been supplying its medical facilities across northern Iraq.

Yousuf oversees the agency’s emergency medical teams. “We take out essential medicines and equipment, and we’re able at a grassroots level to have an impact and help people who have suffered.”

In Iraq, he saw at first hand how our Essential Health Packs are being used to help people. “I met one GP who was treating 200 patients a day, on her own, in a couple of rooms,” he recalls. “She didn’t have the necessary equipment, and she certainly didn’t have the medicines. The pharmacy was devoid even of common products for respiratory conditions and muscular-skeletal issues.” Yousuf adds: “We may moan and groan about the NHS and how stretched it is, but in Iraq, even in general hospitals, they are vastly stretched.”

Humanity First works with a range of partners in Iraq, “all doing fantastic work, some working in sanitation and hygiene, some providing medical supplies and winter blankets, etc. We were able to meet with them and go to remote villages in east and west Mosul.” There, Yousuf witnessed how conflict and destruction have lessened accessibility. “The infrastructure isn’t there... Even though we went in 4x4s, when it started trickling with rain, it made life difficult.”

Daily life for inhabitants is, of course, much harder. “The impact of conflict, especially on women and children, is massive. People are stuck in post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental conditions. Poor mental health is a massive burden in other places, but in Iraq it is huge.” Even for common conditions such as diabetes, “they just don’t have the medicines. When we provided even one pallet of Essential Health Packs, people were just so happy to have this quality of medicine to use. The doctors were saying how they need much more of this.”

Yousuf was struck by the resilience of those he met. “People want to be rehabilitated and to get back into society. Before the conflict, people were thriving in agriculture, but ISIS took everything away, including stock and machinery. These are resilient and proud people, and they want to rehabilitate themselves. So for us, it’s about understanding the culture and the difficulties they go through, and not throwing things toward them but understanding what’s going on and helping develop solutions to provide what they need.” 

Access to medicine, medical expertise and education are crucial parts of this. “We met men, women and children and all they wanted was someone to come. The closest place they could go for help was far away, and they hadn’t had any routine checks. They had no education facilities, either.”  

Yousuf met widows whose children were “going out to act as breadwinners... so they could act as security for the family.” But: “They should be educated so that, as citizens for that society, they can build how they want it.” 

Yousuf describes learning from partners on the ground: “It’s about going out and meeting partners and understanding their needs. It’s also about going out and meeting families. Those people give us the greatest information. We always have to be mindful and careful of what’s coming across, but often we see the greatest need is in health and education, and in the local infrastructure in terms of sanitation. We want to ensure people are prepared for emergencies and crisis, but it’s about building capacity as well, and training people so that the local community becomes resilient.”

Collaboration and communication are at the heart of this effort. “We see how we can work with partners and donors. In a cross-collaboration, we go in together – one agency can do one thing, and another one something else. Some of the organisations we work with are small in nature, but the impact they are having is huge. They understand the dialects and cultures, and they have great impact because it’s all about being local. Our partnerships and collaborations have a huge impact, and change lives.”

Benefits of partnering with International Health Partners include our insistence on quality and robust process. In Europe, for donors and partners, “compliance and adherence are important. Donors and partners want to see that: what’s happening, and what the outcomes are. For Iraq, we’ve been there physically to do an audit. That offers levels of reassurance, because we can say ‘This is how many units have gone out, and this is how they were used.’

Yousuf adds: “Situations are quite fluid and you need to be able to work with the right people. We don’t want the stock siphoned off into an illegitimate space where it’s not going to beneficiaries who need it. Working with IHP, we do our due diligence, and we can provide a report back to our board and trustees saying ‘This is the impact, these are the levels of compliance and assurance we can give.’ That provides confidence to those providing funding.”

This sort of trust needs to be built and shown, because when things do go wrong, it creates negative opinion. As Yousuf explains: “People can say, ‘All this money is going into a black hole, why do we have to continue giving it?’ We want to prevent that sort of situation, because crises are ongoing. A huge amount of work in the humanitarian world is about controlling and preventing outbreaks. So when we see public health issues, we need to build trust.”