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Published: 17:35, August 29, 2023
Emily Chan: Beauty of doing humanitarian assistance very evident
By Eugene Chan
Published:17:35, August 29, 2023 By Eugene Chan

Straight Talk presenter Eugene Chan (left) interviews Professor Emily Chan, CEO of GX Foundation on TVB, Aug 22, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Professor Emily Chan, CEO of GX Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization is on Straight Talk this week. As a clinical humanitarian doctor and global academic expert in public health and humanitarian medicine, Prof Chan tells us how and why resources are being spent on ridding five poor nations of cataract, and how it can help our youth better understand the needs of our world.

Check out the full transcript of TVB’s Straight Talk host Dr Eugene Chan’s interview with Prof Emily Chan:

Chan: Good evening! Thank you for joining us on Straight Talk. Our guest this evening is Professor Emily Chan, a clinical humanitarian doctor, and global academic expert in public health and humanitarian medicine. Prof Chan holds many appointments at both local universities and in the United Kingdom, and also leads frontline humanitarian operations in disasters, and complex emergency contacts in more than 20 countries. Emily is director of Collaborating Center for Oxford University, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong for disaster and medical humanitarian response, and also chairs several World Health Organization and global groups involved in managing disasters. Prof Chan is also the chief executive officer of GX Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization. We have asked her to tell us about Hong Kong's role in aiding other nations. Welcome, Emily!

Prof Chan: Hi, Eugene. Good to see you.

Chan: Right, Emily. As we know, last Saturday was World Humanitarian Day. So, it's very timely to have you tonight to discuss with us about Hong Kong's role in humanitarian aid this morning. This is a topic that we don't often talk about. But we know it's important, as I understand you, being the CEO of the GX Foundation, which is a nonprofit, non-governmental, charitable organisation in Hong Kong, which aims to provide international medical and public health and humanitarian assistance to countries of the Belt and Road Initiative. So, does the word GX stand for anything? And what is the vision and mission of this organisation?

Prof Chan: Right, thank you, Eugene. GX is actually the Chinese pinying of GongXiang. It means sharing, or connectivity between people. It has a very important underlying theme of employing or applying perhaps medical humanitarian assistance to countries along the Belt and Road. The idea is that, by this stage, a Chinese or like mainland China, or the whole Greater China region, we have enough resources, capacity and network to support and to participate in global humanitarian assistance to the people in need.

Chan: Is this the first time that our nation giving humanitarian aid to other countries?

Prof Chan: Oh, definitely not. Chinese has been very active in participating in sharing and giving aid across the world, especially in African countries. But as a non-governmental organization, we are quite rare in the market.

Chan: Right. So, how does this foundation come about? When did you start?

Prof Chan: Well, the foundation started in 2018. And the headquarters of GX foundation is in Hong Kong. The idea is that Hong Kong has a very unique location, in the sense that we have the right system, and perhaps the experience in hosting non-governmental organisations that are interested in working in global communities.

Chan: I'm going to ask you a direct question. Why do we need this GX foundation? I mean how is it going to help our nation?

Prof Chan: Perhaps the question is, why not? Because it's always the ambition of any country, once they get to certain development stage of the country's evolution that they become useful to the world, and from the perspective of health or medical humanitarian assistance. There's always needs across the world that we can cater for. And for Hong Kong specifically, we are a very international community. And we have the right human resources and a lot of experience in hosting global-based organization. So, by this stage, I guess for Chinese development, we are at the right moment to have our own organization, a Chinese NGO that would have a global focus.

Chan: How much do you see that the work through your organization will actually contribute to building a stronger sort of international relationships and collaboration? Do you see that happening already?

Prof Chan: It's definitely, the beauty of doing humanitarian assistance is it’s very direct. It's not just an idea. It’s the idea that whenever the aid is received by law community, it is heartfelt. It actually does bring in the direct people to people's conductivity. Also, the beauty of it is that in order to provide such assistance, people have to work together. Because you can imagine, across the world, people speak different language, culture, religious affiliation, regardless of political interests, people's health is very fundamental. And as a result, I mean, if our medical team visits the community and offer support, it's definitely direct. And it's an opportunity to build relationship, friendship, and the outcome is very clear.

Chan: Emily, you're well recognized for your leadership and expertise in public health, as well as what we call disaster health. I was privileged enough to be selected as one of the 10 outstanding young persons with you in 2004. But you moved on and got the global award and become the world 10 outstanding young person for Hong Kong, which we're very proud of. What makes you want to join this organization?

Prof Chan: Oh, take it this way, when I was younger, it was always an interest to be part of the global community. At that stage, there's not enough opportunities for myself or my counterparts who have that interest to join a Chinese-based organisation, both because of the stage of national development. Also, because of at that stage, if you were to go to frontline, a disaster humanitarian site, it does take a lot of capacities in terms of platforms to be available. And I joined the university about 18 years ago, and I got so much into the academic side, and I love my academic work. So, the interest of being able to continue with frontline works was always there. But I also have a big portfolio to fulfil as a teacher, as an academic. The opportunity comes in 2018 and 19, when I'm aware of the foundation's existence, and the invitation came, and I have to seriously consider whether this is the stage that I should try to contribute by helping to build the foundation, the opportunity comes and I realized that it's a great thing to do.

Chan: Emily, how's it different to the more commonly known NGO, like the Red Cross, or even the ones who work closely together the Doctors Without Borders?

Prof Chan: Well, I have to tell you at that stage of my life, I loved the work, because it gives me an opportunity to be out there in the frontline, work with global community and be able to serve. By now, I will have to say that those organizations that I still respect a lot, and in a global community, we work very closely together. And by now I do like with a technical capacity and as advisor. But the GX Foundation is different. The GX foundation is in Hong Kong, is my hometown. And it's where I can work with my Chinese counterparts, which I treasure the opportunity.

Chan: You mentioned more than once being based in Hong Kong being a Chinese NGO. So, what is the advantage of being based in Hong Kong?

Prof Chan: Well, as a personal level, of course, my home base is in Hong Kong. So, I don't need to move across the world, even though my work is across the world. And I guess the other advantage is that Hong Kong is a very interesting city. I will say that the platform is here, the opportunity to find people with similar mindsets are there. And also I guess, with the language, and with also the language flexibility. And also because I mean, it gives us a flexibility of going around the world with the travel the logistic. And I guess most important of all communication wise, I can always talk to the global community in a very open manner. Because in Hong Kong, we are very used to discussing global discussion of topics and issues. It's something at an advantage that Hong Kong would have.

Chan: Emily, the more I listen to what you're describing about the GX Foundation, more I felt that the advantage of being ‘one country, two systems’, this is what Hong Kong get offered. Do you agree?

Prof Chan: Oh, I do agree, definitely agree. Because I mean, in Hong Kong, aside from a system where I mean that it's easier for us to find the right talent pool. And also at this moment for sure for travelling purpose.

Chan: Right, Emily, before we go to the break can just let the viewers know, share with us. Some of the work that you have done in the last few years and any particular good stories you want to share.

Prof Chan: Well, I guess with the GX Foundation, we started in 2018. Our work actually was very active across the COVID pandemic time. We rarely talk about in the public, but we have nonstop have been traveling to the countries or the target countries. And there are many stories.

Chan: Right, let's take a short break now. But we always will, we'll be right back.

CEO of GX Foundation Prof Emily Chan attends the Straight Talk show on TVB, Aug 22, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chan: Thank you for staying with us. Prof Emily Chan, the CEO of GX Foundation, a locally based NGO, is with us. And she has been sharing about the humanitarian aid programs that GX Foundation is involved in, and the impact these have had on the people in Asia along the ‘One Belt, One Road’ route. So, Emily, we have touched on the work you have done in the last few years. And can you tell us a bit more? I mean a few years isn’t a very long time, however, definitely not a short time either because especially you mentioned about COVID. How does COVID impact your work? I mean does it make it easier for you to achieve more along these 4 years because people are more concentrated and wanted to help you?

Prof Chan: Right. You are asking a very important and very interesting question. When we started our operations, I mean 2018-2019, we didn’t expect COVID. So, we had all these plans set up to deal with the backlog cataract cases in all these countries, and hope to be able to achieve it within 5 years’ time. COVID came along in 2020, and it did affect our plan because it did not only involve a lot of issues with quarantines of medical teams if they were to travel, our logistic supply was stopped because, of course, the priority would be given to the COVID relief supply, and so on and so forth. It was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity and a chance. What we actually found for the part 2-3 years is that during these critical moments around the world, we actually have not been stopping the travel. And the interesting aspect is a lot of NGOs, especially global communities, are actually very diverse. A lot of NGOs actually did not continue during the COVID time, but GX was there. So, we actually happened to be, in many locations, the only international NGO in a lot of context, given a lot of opportunity to build our profile and good will into local community. So, even though our main theme or main activity are to deal with cataract surgery, during the COVID time, we were also engaged in several activities related to COVID pandemic support by supplies because as request by the ministry of health, and as a result, also some teaching, education, community initiatives. So, as a result, I mean we did manage to build a very important layer of NGO work is to build a relationship, the trust, and also the connectivity. So, and that actually did kickstart or helped us to kickstart once the country open up, much faster than we thought about the relationship as well because when you build a medical initiative, you do need the trust of local community.

Chan: Right. Emily, how many … as we know, the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative is sort of a long road, and that it covers geographically a very large area. So, how many countries have you touched on? And more importantly, I am sure the viewers are going to ask you, where do we find the actual medical team to do the actual cataract surgery? Because looks like there will be many people who would need the support. 

Prof Chan: Right. Well, actually along the Belt, there are more than 100 countries. When we went through the exploration of countries, we did exploration for about 10 to 15 of them, not all of them we will be able to cater for the first phase as our operation was very small. But we have decided that there are 5 countries along the Belt and Road that we will be focusing on for the first 5 years, that includes Laos and Cambodia in Southeast Asia, Djibouti in East Africa, and 2 other countries, Mauritania and Senegal in West Africa. Those are very important to us, both from the perspective the local interest to work closely and we, after assessment, our capacity to serve as our commitment for eliminating the backlog case of cataract in those countries. 

Chan: Right. Emily, I can foresee you traveling from Hong Kong to all these cities, and it is quite a long journey. I can't see if it is going to be a very smooth journey. How does the actual cultural difference, does it pose any difficulties? Although you are going there “we are going to try and help you, but even then, doesn’t mean that they will accept our help?

Prof Chan: Yes.

Chan: So what challenges have you faced in that matter?

Prof Chan: I guess for anyone who is interested in working in humanitarian community globally, we always face several dimensions. First, of course, it is whether you actually understand the problem in the local context. A medical intervention is always interesting, the medical side, it is very solid because someone who are ill or someone who needs medical help, that is a solid solution if you manage to get the resources, the right technical staff to support. But how local community understand the problem itself is already a challenge. In a lot of communities around the world, I guess cataract blindness is still considered as an untreatable condition. We all know it is not true. So, the starting point is that we have to work with the ministry of health in our target countries to ensure education or screening or finding cases will be there. For all the countries we travel, we always have a group of patients who are very eager for treatment. In fact, when we talk about backlog case management, the biggest problem is, at least in an advanced location like Hong Kong, we at least can go for a waiting line. In those countries, there is no waiting line. There are simply no resources to do the cataract surgery. It is a simple treatable condition that can give dignity for people who are affected. As a result, even that simple message, we have to go to the community. So, I guess that involves education that involves the engagement of local authorities. And interesting of all, how is the best way to do it? Because nowadays people use internet, people will talk about using a lot of different media. For our case, we have to go all the way to the village, by our staff, our counterparts, our partners, to look for the case and bring them to the clinics, the mobile clinics. So, that itself has been a lot of work for the past 2 or 3 years. 

Chan: Right. I can just imagine the amount of work you have to do. I mean as you said, it is a small team, a new organisation, an NGO based in Hong Kong, basically funded by local people. We haven't talked about the actual medical team. How many workers or ophthalmologists are you looking for, in order to better serve these countries? Because it looks like, as you mentioned, that means you have a lot of cases. Even in the mainland, we have this cataract surgery going on at the same time. Do we have enough manpower to support you in this good cause?

Prof Chan: Well, that exactly is the precious reason why GX is unique because it is about the scale. We are talking about eliminate the backlog cataract cases in five countries, we are talking about, by estimation as agreed by the ministry of health, of all those countries and us, we are talking about 38,000 surgeries in 4 years. With that, it is a lot of surgeries, we know that Hong Kong, even though it is an amazing city, we would not be able to harness the type of human resources because we still have local needs. So, that is where the whole GX spirit is. We look for partnerships, and our medical teams are supported by various province at the province level in mainland China. All these medical capacities are based on nomination by the province, and each of the medical teams is about five individual. And we would send them to work at our mobile clinic, that is stationed in the target countries, and work closely with also local partners of the target countries, like the minister of health, the local supporting agencies, and also of course the local community because medical interventions can never just be a doctor, it has to be basically a team. So, the team is composed of quite a number of partners, and in order to do that scale of surgeries.

Chan: So, Emily, thank you for sharing with us the background of the good work that you have done. But I am sure the viewers are going to ask you, with all the good work you have done, you are trying to do cataract surgeries for the backlog cases, where are all the funds coming from?

Prof Chan: Our funds actually come from the community. And we have, at this point, never applied for any government funding. We are generously supported by groups, other foundations, and even like self-initiatives, like people donate their book sales, their talk fees and so forth to this group. I would have to say that GX Foundation is quite special, aside from partnership, it is about participation too. As people always said how can they participate aside from being participate by going to the frontline, if they cannot, donating to support the good cause is also one of the engagement that we definitely encourage. 

Chan: Right. Prof Chan, may I call you that again?

Prof Chan: Yes.

Chan: With all those funding that we need with the current economic climate, which is going to very challenging, not only for the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and rest of the world. Do you anticipate difficulty in raising more funds for your good work?

Prof Chan: Right. There is no doubt that fundraising is a challenge for this economic situation globally. But I would also have to say that for the frontline activity so far, we are quite well supported. It is a matter of … in the future, the community members who will wish to participate as part of this initiative, so we definitely welcome any support, but also we are hopeful.

Chan: So, Emily, I am sure you wanted this good project of collaboration between the NGO based in Hong Kong and all those Belt and Road countries. One question I must ask in Straight Talk is with all these geopolitical tension, it is making many businesses more than challenging, do you have … or maybe so far do you have any tensions because of all these geopolitical factors in delivering your work?

Prof Chan: Right. I guess the beauty of humanitarian work is that it is very solid. Each of the work or the nature of our activities always base on patient's outcome. So, it is of no doubt that there are a lot of things ongoing in the world, the conflicts and the arguments, but so far from our partnerships, we are quite blessed with a lot of support. There are always personalities that are difficult to manage, but it is nothing to do with nationalities, it is just personality. But I will have to argue with that at this moment, we are very much aggressively chasing all the backlog commitments we had during COVID, so we are so far okay.

Chan: Right. And also another view that we will often hear in the media is … I mean in Hong Kong, we have enough problems ... 

Prof Chan: Yes.

Chan: Why are we using our resources to help others while we can still … having some backlog in Hong Kong, and even the mainland. How do you answer to that?

Prof Chan: Well, again, it is a very good question. From our platforms, I mean we are using Hong Kong resources, mainland China resources, and I would take it the other way. It gives an opportunity for young people or for retirees or people who are interested, to join hands, to have a stake, or to go out there. There are definitely needs everywhere in the world, we are talking about communities that they don't even have a chance to go on a waiting line for surgery. So, even though we are saying that we are getting resources from local, it is also an opportunity for people to participate.

Chan: Emily. I am going to give you the last 10 seconds on the show. What will you say to the viewers if they say GX foundation is doing a great work for the mainland, for Hong Kong, what will you say to them to appeal them to support you?

Prof Chan: Well, I would say that GX Foundation is a good platform for anyone who is interested to go out and to serve the world. And it is very precious because it is not just about partnership, it is about participation. And it is also a chance for you to meet people and to be able to do some good work without the constraints of politics and national boundaries.

Chan: Thank you, Emily, for sharing with us the role that Hong Kong plays in extending medical humanitarian aid to other nations, and showing us how this enhances our international standing, and strengthens our global partnerships. By supporting other nations, we exemplify the power of empathy, cooperation, and shared humanity. Have a great evening and see you next week!

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