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Conceiving a better world

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 21 May 2012

Australian medical and commerce students work together to help Indian villagers.

Three years ago, medical student Mr James Wei attended a 3-week primary health care course in Jamkhed, India. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

The course was run by the Nossal Institute for Global Health, in collaboration with the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (www.crhpjamkhed.org) — a world-leading health and community development organisation established in India 40 years ago.

While there, Mr Wei met an Indian doctor, Dr Moses Kharat, who inspired him with his dream to improve the health of people living in his home district of Buldana, in Maharashtra state, western India.

Dr Kharat had spent most of his medical career working in various hospitals around India, but had long wanted to return to his home town to provide medical care to the mostly poor villagers. Having been raised as a Dalit, or member of the “untouchable”community in the Indian caste system, Dr Kharat knew the plight of the poor and marginalised, Mr Wei says.

After attending the course, Dr Kharat soon returned to Buldana, where he used his own funds to establish the Community Based Health Project (CBHP). The project focuses on training village health workers to teach families how to treat and prevent common health problems. The health workers are also trained to identify more serious health problems requiring referral. The project currently works with 10 000 people in six villages in Buldana.

While Dr Kharat was busy establishing this project, Mr Wei returned to the University of Melbourne where he set up an organisation called “Conceive“ with other students. Conceive aims to raise much-needed funds for CBHP and also works to ensure that the project is in line with best-practice models of development.

Conceive also has an interesting collaboration with a group of commerce students from the University of Melbourne, Students in Free Enterprise, who focus on creating financially sustainable solutions for community organisations.

Together, the commerce and medical students have developed a “semi-business model” for Dr Kharat’s project, based on a volunteer immersion program. People pay to experience rural Indian life, with the funds reinvested into CBHP.

The first group of five volunteers travelled to Buldana in January this year, where they immersed themselves in activities such as cotton picking, visiting traditional healers and teaching at local schools. The volunteers paid $1850 for the 4-week itinerary, including food, accommodation and translators. The first group was comprised of University of Melbourne students, but the program is open to everyone.

“The idea is for them to get a sense of what it’s like to live as a rural Indian villager”, Mr Wei says.

The volunteers also helped a team of fifth-year medical students conduct a health audit, to develop a baseline for CBHP’s activities.

Conceive developed the itinerary for the volunteers, and Mr Wei arrived in Buldana 2 weeks before their arrival, to ensure that all the arrangements were in place. He worked with Dr Kharat to renovate accommodation, and met with many local people such as farmers and politicians so that everyone was prepared for the arrival of the young Australians.

His hard work paid off — the volunteer immersion program, in conjunction with a humanitarian grant from the University of Melbourne, raised $8000 in profit for CBHP.

Conceive aims to run two more volunteer immersion programs in 2012. Mr Wei says the long-term goal is that Dr Kharat will take over the volunteer program, so that CBHP can become self-sustainable.

In the meantime, Mr Wei has many other ideas for CBHP. He is hoping to develop an ongoing research partnership between CBHP and the University of Melbourne, such that every year at least one medical student travels to Buldana to conduct research.

He is also hoping to launch interventional projects to improve the health of people in Buldana. First on the agenda is a smokeless stove project, to replace the dangerous, smoke-generating stoves currently used in the district.

Mr Wei, who is now a final-year medical student, acknowledges that there have been numerous challenges in building his fledgling humanitarian organisation, and in working in such a culturally different environment.

However, he has relished the opportunity of working with CBHP from its inception.

“I wanted to work with someone from scratch. And that person was Moses. It was his integrity and vision and heart to serve the people with no pay [that impressed me].”

Mr Wei attended several global health conferences through the Nossal Institute before it all clicked and he realised he had to do more than just listen.

“I think in our generation we are quite aware that the world is not a just place. I just thought, ‘I’ve heard enough, I’ve seen enough, I want to get engaged with something myself’.”

More information:  http://communitybasedhealthproject.org/vp.html

  • Sophie McNamara


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