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Thursday, 26 September 2002
Page: 5043

Senator PAYNE (6:10 PM) —I rise tonight to comment upon and commend the work of an important Australian non-government organisation, the Fred Hollows Foundation, as this month it celebrates its 10-year anniversary in operation. I am sure many senators know of the work of the foundation in assisting Indigenous communities in Australia and in its program of work around the world in restoring sight to the blind and the sight impaired.

This is an appropriate time to draw attention to the work of the foundation. This week we saw the tabling of the 11th annual statement on Australia's development cooperation program on Australian aid entitled Investing in growth, stability and prosperity. That document referred to tackling health problems, such as problems with sight, as one of five key areas. There has been a focus on good governance and environmental management, which I strongly support, but it is important that we also maintain a strong commitment to the basics, such as tackling substantial health problems.

In terms of this week's statement, I cannot agree with some of Senator Nettle's comments against the increasing support being given to NGOs. I think many NGOs have proven to be highly successful in the work they do. Bodies such as the Fred Hollows Foundation and CARE Australia, for example, enhance the image of Australia throughout the world and justify their funding by meeting very high standards. They deliver very important services to highly marginalised communities.

As a fully accredited agency participating in the aid program, the Fred Hollows Foundation receives a three to one subsidy to the funds that it can raise from the community through the AusAID NGO Cooperation Program, known as the ANCP. In the 2001-02 financial year, the foundation received almost half a million dollars under the scheme, and in 2002-03 it will receive over half a million dollars. In addition, the foundation can bid for funding through bilateral programs, and in the last financial year it received in excess of $180,000 for a cataract blindness prevention program in Cambodia. These are vital services provided to communities where Australia's support can make a real difference, and I think it is very important for the Senate to bear that in mind. The foundation is an NGO that makes a very strong impact, and I endorse moves—to use Mr Downer's words—to strengthen relationships with the Australian NGO community and with individuals and firms that deliver aid so that our assistance yields better outcomes. The end goal of this, of course, is to allow recipient states to stand on their own two feet.

For over a decade the foundation have tackled avoidable blindness. They have helped to train and equip, to some degree, around 750 local surgeons in over 26 developing countries, who in turn have helped to restore sight to nearly one million people in Asia and Africa and treated many disadvantaged people for potentially blinding conditions. Locally run intraocular laboratories were established in Eritrea and Nepal to produce high-quality, low-cost perspex intraocular lenses to replace the cloudy, natural lenses of individuals. They have special equipment, such as portable microscopes, which they have developed to allow treatment to be conducted in the most extraordinary remote areas where eye care services are otherwise absolutely nonexistent.

Before his death, I saw operations being conducted in Vietnam by Fred Hollows himself as part of the foundation's work. I had the privilege to see at first-hand the work that the foundation does in Nepal when I was there on a study visit last year. I observed Dr Ruit, who was trained by Professor Hollows, treating patients and undertaking work at the Tilganga eye hospital and lens production facility. I saw the technology; I met the staff and the teams but, more importantly, I met the individual Nepalese who were benefiting from this foundation's work. It is hard to describe how moving an experience like this can be. It is hard to describe the sophistication of the technology that I saw in Kathmandu last year, which is helping so many people suffering such great disadvantage regain their sight.

The Hollows legacy is working its magic not only in Kathmandu but also in more remote parts of Nepal. Dr Ruit and Australia's current Ambassador to Nepal, His Excellency Crispin Conroy, have spent some time trying to visit some of the more remote areas with these services to ensure that they are delivering the most important magic of all— the return of vision to so many of these people. I am very grateful to the Tilganga Eye Centre for the opportunity to see those operations. The foundation owes much of its success, of course, to Dr Hollows himself. But on this 10-year anniversary I think it is important to acknowledge the work of people internationally in places such as Nepal, where people like Dr Ruit and Rabindra Shrestha maintain their very efficient and effective operations. They deserve enormous credit for the strength of the organisation.

The foundation has had the same CEO for nine years—Mike Lynskey. He has rightly identified the need for the foundation not to become too reliant on government funding to operate. Under his leadership, the foundation has forged a good working relationship with the federal government and has contributed to policy, most notably in terms of Indigenous eye care in Australia. The new chairman, Nigel Milan, will, I am sure, work with the CEO and the other important players in the foundation to ensure that those relationships continue.

The work in the area of Indigenous eye care is strongly supported by the Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson, through the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Program, which began in 1998. That is underpinned by the 1997 review Eye health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by Professor Hugh Taylor, which was commissioned by the former Minister for Health and Aged Care, Michael Wooldridge, in 1996. It is a program which seeks to address the main eye care priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a holistic way. Its major components focus on improving access to eye health in the primary health eye care context. Its emphasis is on a regional approach to eye health, and it is embedded in a philosophy of community control. Its major component includes the establishment of 29 eye health coordinator positions nationally, within Aboriginal primary health care settings. The Department of Health and Ageing has also ensured that the ATSI eye health program has been implemented through effective partnerships with stakeholders at regional, state and national levels.

I also want to talk briefly about Vision 2020—another example of where the foundation and the federal government engagement pays dividends domestically. It is a very important partnership. Vision 2020: The Right to Sight—Australia was established in 2000 as the Australian arm of Vision 2020. I recall launching that in Sydney on behalf of the health minister at the time. Its partnership comprises the majority of Australian organisations involved in eye care service delivery, eye research, education and development. The foundation is a principal partner in Vision 2020 Australia. It is a global initiative from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, which runs in conjunction with the World Health Organisation to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020. The program is designed to enable all parties and individuals involved to work in a much more focused and coordinated way to achieve a common goal—for example, to increase awareness of blindness as a major public health issue, to control the major causes of blindness, to train ophthalmologists and other personnel to provide eye care, to create an infrastructure to manage the problem, and to develop appropriate technology.

In our region, in Africa and more broadly internationally, the awareness of preventable blindness as a key health issue sometimes slides off the radar. It is not always something to which we pay attention at the same time as we talk about, for example, in our region the HIV-AIDS pandemic. There are other important health issues in which our aid contribution makes an important advance, and the prevention of blindness and sight impairment is one of those. It does not happen without the involvement of individuals. It does not happen without the involvement of people like Mike Lynskey, the ongoing work of Gabbi Hollows in the Fred Hollows Foundation and the hundreds of administrators and medical professionals who make such a difference in the lives of so many people. Blindness and vision impairment are a huge global problem. In developing countries world wide there are 45 million people affected by blindness and 135 million more people with low vision. As we think about the fact that about seven million people go blind every year—one every five seconds and a child every minute—the work and the policy input of the foundation will be indispensable in decades to come.

I well remember one year ago this month standing in the rain outside the Tilganga Eye Centre in Kathmandu, watching the queue of Nepalese people waiting to take advantage of the very simple but very important technology that the work of the Fred Hollows Foundation was taking to their community. To meet with individuals who have received the intraocular lens and to see the extraordinary change that it has brought to their lives and to their wellbeing is the best testament that you could possibly have to the effective work of the foundation.