Q&A – DIANA PEREZ-BUCK Founder Mothers at Risk

by | Mar 20, 2018

Mothers at Risk has taken a bold strategic move into urban to reach the most vulnerable mothers and babies and cities grow. In this interview, former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Ian Robert Jones talks to MAR founder Diana Perez-Buck about the evolution of MAR’s projects over the years and the new directions the organization is poised to pursue.

IRJ: What was MAR’s first project?

DP-B: When we founded MAR, we had the fortune of starting with four wonderful projects in four different countries, because these opportunities all presented themselves in parallel and we wanted to embrace them all! And we loved the diversity of our first portfolio of projects, because we felt they covered many sides of the vulnerability we know women face around motherhood.

IRJ: And what exactly were those projects?

DP-B: There was an education program for adolescents in Jinotega, Nicaragua because we knew teen pregnancies were very risky for mother and baby. We carried out a survey of hundreds of women and traditional birth attendants in the slums of Cairo, Egypt because we could see women were delivering at home despite the risks and we wanted to understand why. We helped carry out an assessment of a small community in the Amazon in Peru increase prenatal and postnatal check-ups, both of which were too low. And we provided vocational training for very excluded and poor new moms in Morocco Tangiers so they could support themselves and their babies 

IRJ: What was that like turning words into action and finally helping mothers at risk?

DP-B: An incredible feeling. We had already visited the communities in Nicaragua, Morocco and Egypt before we founded MAR and so we had those images and impressions very much imprinted in our hearts and minds as we started working. Going from having a deep sense of empathy for these women and children to taking action on their behalf was very exciting

IRJ: How did that make you feel?

DP-B: Exhilarated! But also I think the word that best describes how I felt is humbled. What turned words and ideas into action was the group of people who started to join me and get behind the initiative. That is what made everything possible and this was very humbling to me, to see how many good and capable people are willing to give their time, their knowledge, their resources to help make this world better, if even by a little. I was also deeply humbled by the remarkable people we were encountering working ‘in the front lines’, in communities in need, anonymous to most of the world, but true heroes 

 

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IRJ: What were your dreams for MAR at that time? What did you hope to achieve? 

DP-B: At first I was thinking about this at a very personal level, woman to woman. If a single woman, a sister, somewhere out there in the world, could survive and thrive in motherhood, that is all I hoped to achieve 

IRJ: Were you worried or nervous starting out, or were you confident you could make a difference?

DP-B: The minute the first people came on board and we were a group, I felt sure that we could make a difference

IRJ: Was there a particular turning point or moment when you knew you could do it, work with partners and projects and affect change? 

DP-B: I remember in the very early days we brought to Brussels the team of our Moroccan partner organization 100% Oumahat to connect in person with one of the oldest shelters for mothers in Belgium. These two shelters worked 2000 km and 2 continents and 2 cultures apart, and yet they had so much in common in their passion and drive to help mothers that it was tremendously inspiring to see. I remember feeling so much energy in that room as they exchanged ideas, experiences, stories, advice…. I felt like that was a North-South encounter of passionate change-makers that would not have happened without MAR

IRJ: What were the biggest obstacles MAR had to overcome in the early days?

DP-B: I actually see the first days as a succession of opportunities, I don’t remember it in terms of challenges. It was a very exciting time and we marked our path each day and tried to learn quickly from mistakes. We had the same challenges of any small organization, things like finding the right partners and projects, securing funding, organizing our growing workload among a group of volunteers, etc. 

IRJ: Was there a particular turning point or moment when you knew you could do it, work with partners and projects and affect change?

DP-B: I remember in the very early days we brought to Brussels the team of our Moroccan partner organization 100% Oumahat to connect in person with one of the oldest shelters for mothers in Belgium. These two shelters worked 2000 km and 2 continents and 2 cultures apart, and yet they had so much in common in their passion and drive to help mothers that it was tremendously inspiring to see. I remember feeling so much energy in that room as they exchanged ideas, experiences, stories, advice…. I felt like that was a North-South encounter of passionate change-makers that would not have happened without MAR

IRJ: When did you realize that you actually were making a difference?

DP-B: In many different moments, but one I remember in particular… when I got a message at midnight from our partner Eleni Tsegaw in Kenya telling me triumphantly of the safe delivery of a baby boy to a nomadic mom with a disability. This mom lives in one of the most isolated and harsh environments in the world, Turkana. I know that had she not had Eleni and her team, she and her baby would most probably not have made it. It made me realize how important our support for the prenatal mobile clinic and women health promoters program there was.

IRJ: How important are your partners? And why are they so necessary? 

DP-B: They are essential. We rely entirely on their local know-how and connections in the community. 

IRJ: I know that all of your projects are important and different, but can you tell us about a couple that touched you personally and why?

DP-B: One thing all our local partners have had in common is that they are led by strong, tireless, hands-on problem solvers, most of them women. So it is impossible for me to separate our experience with the partner organization from my impressions of these very charismatic leaders. I have had the privilege and pleasure of working more closely with three of them I very much admire. Sister Anastasia Salla, a Tanzanian senior nurse with an uncanny ability to communicate despite language barriers and a healthy obsession with improving standards of care of the women in her health facilities; Claire Trichot, an energetic French activist who is helping build civil society in Morocco and is a fearsome defender of the rights of women; and Eleni Tsegaw and Rocio Aguirre two of the bravest women I know who have left everything behind to live in one of the most remote locations in the world to help women and children

IRJ: I know your mandate is evolving but what makes for a good local partner? What do you look for in a collaborator?

DP-B: This is indeed evolving! But in terms of what inspired us at the beginning: We wanted to work with small, local, grassroots organizations that were very established in the communities they served and had a good track record of having an impact in those communities. We looked for organizations with which we could develop a close relationship, with engaged and passionate local leaders, where we could know the team members personally and have ongoing, regular communication. We looked for organizations where MAR’s impact could be felt, because we helped them connect to networks and funding they would otherwise not be able to reach

IRJ: Can you tell me about a couple of projects that have had personal significance for you?

DP-B: I can say I felt 100% personally invested in all of them so it’s hard to choose, but I did feel perhaps a particularly special connection to a couple of them. Over the years I got to visit the shelter for unwed mothers 100% Oumahat, our partner in Tangiers, several times and those visits were always moving. Seeing those gorgeous babies thriving in the crèche drove home each time how essential it was to stand by and support their mothers, for whom pregnancy and motherhood had been such a very difficult and isolating experience. I was also in close, frequent contact with our partner in Tanzania Sister Anastasia Salla, and I came to cherish this relationship. She is a resourceful woman in one of the regions in Tanzania with the highest maternal mortality rates. She believed that it is not only about ensuring women and babies have access to care; this care has to be consistently of quality and high standards, and this, of course, is a challenge in a resource-poor setting, but one she was intent on tackling every day

IRJ: Same for projects, what makes for a good MAR projects?

DP-B: In a sense, a good project is one for which it is very easy to articulate in a few words why it matters. And we have found that while problems are often complex, simple answers can and often do make a big difference. Many of the projects we have supported have indeed involved simple, straightforward solutions: deploying a motorcycle to bring midwives and care close to mothers; digging a well so women and girls avoid the perils of fetching safe water; renovating a maternal shelter to encourage women to be close to hospital at the time of the delivery… Other projects had the more nuanced goal of influencing behaviors and cultural norms, but this also with straightforward actions, such as educating adolescents about the dangers specific to teen pregnancies, or teaching traditional birth attendants which of their practices are potentially harmful for mom and baby. In all cases we have asked ourselves: does this project have the potential to bring about change that can save lives? If the answer was yes, we endeavored to find ways to support it.

IRJ: Looking across all the projects you have supported, how satisfied are you with the results of your work?

DP-B: When I think that a handful of us managed to mobilize real, tangible support for thousands of women and babies in three different continents, I feel we have done very well. I look back at the dozens of projects, the multiple partners and countries, the many field visits, the scores of fundraising and awareness-raising events and the countless volunteer hours behind all of that, and I feel we have many reasons to feel proud. 

IRJ: Have there been disappointments? 

DP-B: I’d say the biggest disappointments we have felt is when we have had to discontinue funding or involvement with a partner for whatever set of reasons. Even if the decision makes sense and is the right choice, it is hard to let go of a relationship built over the course of many exchanges, many conversations, many hours invested and many common hopes. Finding the right fit with a local partner is both an art and a science, and a great responsibility we take seriously. I believe we have gotten better at understanding early in the process whether the elements are in place, or not, for a “right fit.” 

IRJ: Would you describe MAR’s work as a success?

DP-B: Yes, absolutely, I think back at the connections we have helped partners make, the funds we have mobilized, and of course above all, the women, girls and babies who I know have benefitted, and I am very happy. But universal maternal health is a moving target so we of course feel our work is not done, and we will measure our success in terms of our ability to continue to refine how we can best serve mothers.

IRJ: Where are things headed for MAR?

DP-B: During our first eight years, we have supported projects in some of the world’s remotest rural places, but also in some of the most densely-populated poor urban areas. We know that the world is urbanizing at an exponential rate, and that increasingly, most of the world’s poor live in cities. We’ve seen ourselves first-hand the unique health challenges mothers and infants face in urban slums: overcrowding, poor water, sanitation and shelter, high exposure to diseases. Also, a lack of real access to quality services, despite the relative proximity of health facilities. We have been surprised to see that the “urban advantage” we have long assumed for mothers and babies – that they have better health outcomes by virtue of living in urban settings – is not necessarily true anymore. Moms and babies in poor urban areas deserve special attention and we would like to respond to that need.

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Date/time: March 24, 2018 with doors opening at 7.30 pm and concert starting at 8 pm
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