$26 million grant given to Carroll relief group

The Baltimore Sun

A Carroll County-based aid organization has secured more than $26 million in funding from the World Bank to help build a health system in south Sudan, one of the most disease-ravaged, impoverished areas of Africa, officials at the nonprofit agency said.

This award brings to nearly $100 million the African relief that IMA World Health, headquartered in New Windsor, is managing, primarily in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

IMA, formerly known as Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., entered into a 40-month contract this month with the World Bank's multidonor trust program. The nonprofit organization, which works through a worldwide network of faith-based groups, will use the funds to establish hospitals and clinics in the Jonglei and Upper Nile states, near the Ethiopian border in south Sudan, officials said. The area is home to more than 2 million people, many of whom have never seen a doctor.

"We can do a great deal in a place that basically has nothing," said Charles Franzen, the IMA senior program officer who is managing the grant. "Sudan is at the epicenter of all kinds of strategical challenges and of every communicable disease in the world."

South Sudan emerged from decades of civil war in 2005, and it is now "essential that the people living in the long-neglected southern states share in the benefits of peace, and improved access to health," said Gregory Toulmin, country program coordinator for the World Bank, which has pledged $225 million to the effort during the next three years.

IMA World Health is working on the largest single component of the program: the expansion of basic, primary health care services, Toulmin said.

South Sudan, which hopes to win its independence from the north by 2011, is experiencing a health crisis that many call the worst in the world.

"This is the poorest region of the world and the worst health care situation anywhere," said Lynne Hammar, IMA spokeswoman. "Most people have never had any care."

Until three years ago, when leaders in the Muslim north and Christian south signed a peace agreement, Sudan had been involved in civil war nearly continuously since the nation gained independence from Great Britain in 1956. Constant fighting ruined what little infrastructure the country had.

"Sudan has been destroyed by war, and now peace brings with it a time to repair," said Franzen, 51, a former Peace Corps volunteer who went to Africa in 1980 and stayed for 25 years, working with several international relief organizations in several countries, including Sudan. "This population has basically been neglected for decades but has developed a great capacity to survive," he said.

The World Bank, which reopened its office in Khartoum and established an office in Juba near the southernmost tip of the country, has launched numerous projects and has already disbursed more than $212 million to support the peace agreement, its officials said.

IMA's plan is to develop sustainable health care from the ground up, starting in the country's administrative centers, or counties, and building from there to regional and national levels, Franzen said.

"The big issues are health, education and food," he said. "If you can address those issues, you will go a long way to improving people's lives."

Preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea afflict the population of the two targeted states, where life expectancy is barely 40 years. Few births occur with medical assistance in Sudan, which has the world's highest infant mortality rate and loses 25 percent of its children by age 5. Available facilities are grossly understaffed, poorly equipped, crowded and nearly impossible for many to reach, given the lack of roads and public transportation.

The discovery of oil might fuel development and construction of hospitals, schools and roads.

About two-thirds of the World Bank grant comes from oil revenues generated by wells in south Sudan, with remaining funds from international donors, including the United States, which has made Sudan its largest aid recipient in Africa, officials said.

"With billions in oil revenues, much of this is actually Sudan's money working on its behalf," Franzen said. "It will mean the transition from terrible times to stable development and working systems and a country that can support itself."

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