Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dr Catherine Hamlin fights for Ethiopian hospital funds

AN Australian doctor who has devoted her life to helping Ethiopian women injured in childbirth is battling a Sydney-based trust over $15 million donated for her hospital.
Dr Catherine Hamlin, 88, has flown from her Addis Ababa home to Sydney, where she has set up a rival trust.

The original trust opposes her plans to shift its funds to Switzerland, arguing the donors were Australian and the fund should be administered from Australia.

Dr Hamlin continues to perform surgery in the Addis Ababa hospital she founded with her late husband Dr Reginald Hamlin after they arrived in Ethiopia in 1959.

She works with women who become incontinent after suffering damaged bladders and rectums during childbirth.

The hospital, five regional ones and a midwifery school cost millions of dollars a year to run and rely on international donors, including Hamlin Fistula Australia (HFA).

But a dispute that erupted between Dr Hamlin and the HFA board in March this year has put a cloud over the $15 million in the trust.

Dr Hamlin is in Australia on a fundraising tour organised by her new Sydney-based trust - Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia (HFE).

She told AAP on Thursday she wanted the HFA funds to go to a Swiss-based fund and earn higher interest to fund her hospitals.

"I feel upset. This money has been given by people that are anxious to help us," she said.

Dr Hamlin said she felt HFA board members were letting her patients down.

"If they could just see these women arriving in their desperate need, then they would open their hearts and give generously."

HFE chief executive Lucy Perry said the dispute was sparked when Dr Hamlin stamped out plans by hospital executives to impose an exclusive Christian ethos at the hospital and among international donor partners.

That involved Dr Hamlin sacking key trustees and senior staff, Ms Perry told AAP.

"She wants to be a Christian lady running a hospital, not a lady running a Christian hospital," she said.

Ms Perry said she hoped the matter would not end up in court, but HFE was "not going to give up on that $15 million".

HFA executive officer Doug Marr said the trust was committed to keep funding the Ethiopian hospitals, but Dr Hamlin had asked HFA to stop fundraising.

"We've been paying them money whenever they ask for it."

Drs. Catherine and Reginald Hamlin outside the Princess Tshai Hospital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1965
Mr Marr said HFA had paid more than $2 million over the past year and was considering the latest $500,000 request.

"We've taken the view that we're an Australian charity.

"Our money should be used for treating women in Ethiopia, not for sending to a tax haven in Switzerland," Mr Marr said.

He said there was no question of trying to change the program's ethos to an exclusively Christian one.

Mr Marr said that after the hospital sackings, Dr Hamlin took exception to an HFA directors's decision to write to supporters telling them of it.

"That's been the cause of the breakdown, because we told people something she didn't want to tell people."