Peace Contribution NGOs Hiroshima sends dental care team to Cambodia

by Miho Kuwajima, Staff Writer

Creating peace through medical assistance

With the backing of the prefectural government, Peace Contribution NGOs Hiroshima, a non-profit organization founded by Hiroshima-based non-governmental organizations five years ago, has begun providing dental check-ups and other health care to children in Cambodia.

A group consisting of 45 doctors, dentists and students, primarily from Hiroshima University's School of Dentistry, Hiroshima University of Economics and the Hiroshima South Rotary Club, is going to Cambodia this month. On September 21 and 22 they will provide dental check-ups and oral hygiene instruction for elementary school students and will meet with representatives of the Cambodian government and a local university to draw up a long-term assistance plan.

Hiroshima Prefecture has promoted reconstruction assistance to Cambodia since 2003 under the banner of "creating peace." Because of the prefecture's financial difficulties, the program's budget has faced sharp reductions, but Hiroshima's efforts to contribute to peace are flourishing anew through the efforts of private citizens.

Toshihiko Tsuka, 62, a dentist who will serve as head of the medical assistance team on this trip, said the unpaved roads, modest houses and smell of trash he encountered on his first visit to Cambodia last summer brought back memories.

Dr. Tsuka was born two years after the dropping of the atomic bomb. His parents ran a china shop in the Hondori shopping district in downtown Hiroshima. The area, which has become one of the major shopping districts in the Chugoku Region, was in the midst of the postwar turmoil and reconstruction. Cambodia, he said, reminded him of the Hiroshima of his childhood. "All my classmates wore patched clothes. Everyone was really poor," he said.

Dr. Tsuka began his volunteer activities in 2000 with a trip to Vietnam to provide dental check-ups and treatment. In 2004 he was asked to participate in the founding of Peace Contribution NGOs Hiroshima and to serve as a member of its board. At a board meeting last spring, Mayumi Fujimoto, 46, an anesthesiologist who has been visiting Cambodia to conduct health checks nearly every year since 2005, remarked that everyone there had terrible cavities. Her comment prompted Dr. Tsuka's trip.

He found that in Vietnam as well the dental facilities were inadequate and young interns were in a quandary. He spoke to Takashi Takata, 55, dean of the School of Dentistry at Hiroshima University. "Making occasional trips to fill cavities is just a drop in the bucket," he said. "If we want to aid reconstruction, we need to get involved in the rebuilding of the medical system and the training of personnel."

On September 11, about 40 of the members of the group slated to travel to Cambodia met at the Kasumi Campus of Hiroshima University. Dr. Takata gave a presentation, including photographs, on what he, Dr. Tsuka and others had observed during a preliminary visit in February. "Many dentists in Cambodia were caught up in the genocide under the Pol Pot regime," he said. "Even now, nearly 20 years after the end of the civil war, there still aren’t enough trained dentists."

Hiroshima University's School of Dentistry will send 16 professors and students to Cambodia on this trip. At Sasar Sdam Primary School in Siem Reap Province they plan to give dental check-ups in conjunction with the health checks to be conducted by Ms. Fujimoto and others. Using a picture-card show, the university students and dental hygienists will teach the children how to brush their teeth.

Toshinori Ando, 24, who is in his final year of dental school, said, "I would like to broaden my horizons by working in a country where there is not yet a system for the prevention of cavities," said.

Ten students from Hiroshima University of Economics will help with the check-ups and conduct a survey for the preparation of a supplemental reader geared for students in elementary, junior high and high school. Scheduled for completion in the spring of 2011, the reader will describe Hiroshima's recovery from the atomic bombing and include information on Japanese culture and sports.

"I want to get input directly from the children and their parents and put together a book that they will really use," said Hideyuki Ishino, 20, a business information major at Hiroshima University of Economics. This will be the second trip to Cambodia for Mr. Ishino, a junior, who said working on this project gave him the opportunity to reconsider the postwar reconstruction of his hometown.

Koki Inai, 61, a professor of pathology in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Hiroshima University will participate in the trip along with two other members of the board of directors of the Hiroshima South Rotary Club. Members of the Rotary Club have visited Cambodia for the past seven years to work on the construction of wells and to provide financial assistance to orphanages. "I heard there is a serious shortage of doctors. I'd like to rethink what sort of assistance is necessary," Dr. Inai said with regard to the purpose of his visit.

Members of Hiroshima University's School of Dentistry will also meet with representatives of a university in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to discuss a program to host Cambodian students in Hiroshima. "I would like to train talented people who can support the dental care system in Cambodia," Dr. Takata said. "It will also inspire the students at Hiroshima University." He said he would like to create an equal partnership with Cambodia, which, like Hiroshima, has experienced the pain of war.

Doctors and teachers conduct on-site training

Hiroshima Prefecture's Cambodia Reconstruction Assistance Project is based on its Hiroshima Peace Contribution Plan, which was established in March 2003. The program is an effort to create peace by promoting humanitarian aid in areas that are in turmoil as the result of disasters or conflicts.

The program was fully launched in fiscal year 2005 after it was decided that Cambodia would be the recipient of the aid. In its first three-year term through fiscal 2007, the program focused on medical care and education. Doctors and teachers were sent from Hiroshima to elementary schools in Cambodia where they worked to establish a program of regular health checks for the children and introduced teaching methods for various subjects. The prefecture’s budget for the three-year program was roughly 10.2 million yen.

But no funds were budgeted directly for the second term of the program, which started in fiscal 2008, and support for medical assistance was withdrawn. Support for education was shifted to the budget of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the scope of the program was limited to sending teacher training consultants from the board of education and university teachers to local schools for the training of elementary school teachers.

Yasuo Hashimoto, director of the International Affairs Division of the prefectural government, said, "In terms of international cooperation activities, there is a limit to what the prefecture can get directly involved in. An NGO-based program is more efficient than having the government in the forefront."

In April the prefectural government launched a new program called the Hiroshima Peace Contribution Platform, but it merely consists of having the Hiroshima International Center provide information on NGOs in the prefecture.

Interview with Shuichi Nakayama, 69, adviser to Peace Contribution NGOs Hiroshima

Contributions must be examined, results explained

The efforts of this team coincide with the goal of the prefecture's Hiroshima Peace Contribution Plan, which is to "play an active role in the effort to realize world peace making use of the network of people and technologies in Hiroshima."

The prefecture's Cambodia Reconstruction Assistance Project is steadily growing, but the trend in the prefecture's policy is to cut peace contribution programs that do not have a high profile. That will mean cutting off our program just when we're getting going. Rather than simply cutting budgets and projects, they should make an effort to explain the results of these projects and their significance to citizens. It would also be a good idea to create a way for the medical personnel and students who have gone to Cambodia to tell people about their experiences.

Unlike in the West, making donations is not common in Japan, so trusted local governments have an important role to play. In the case of Hiroshima's assistance to Cambodia as well, in cooperation with the prefectural board of education, the prefectural government and JICA negotiated with government agencies and local residents in Cambodia and offered assistance to various areas in various ways.

It's vital to focus on international cooperation efforts that are appropriate to local governments and examine the content of peace contribution programs. There's also the Hiroshima International Center, which is run by the prefectural government and local businesses. I'd like to see it become more active in cooperation with local companies.

Hiroshima has been supported by countries around the world, not only during the postwar reconstruction period but today as well. In the future there will be an even greater demand for locally sponsored "visible" international aid operations apart from the government's Official Development Assistance. The experiences of the individuals who participate in those programs and the networks formed should lead to a more vibrant Hiroshima.

(Originally published Sept. 21, 2009)

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