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Lessons from Haiti: An interview with Free The Children’s cofounder

Craig KielburgerFree The Children

Craig Kielburger is the cofounder of Free The Children. Since its start in 1995, Free The Children has built more than 500 schools throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, providing daily education to more than 50,000 children. Mr. Kielburger has a degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Toronto and a Kellogg-Schulich executive MBA. He has received six honorary doctorates for his work and has travelled to more than 50 countries, visiting underprivileged children and helping with humanitarian projects.

In March 2010, Craig Kielburger of Free The Children spoke with McKinsey’s Mary Kuntz about his organization’s work in Haiti after the earthquake in January.

What Matters: Free The Children is known for the work it does in helping to strengthen communities and improve the lives of kids in countries around the world. It’s not known for disaster-relief, yet after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January, you were able to mobilize quickly in a way that offers some important lessons. Your group was operating nine schools in the Central Plateau when the earthquake struck, so you had some local infrastructure. What did you do in the immediate aftermath and how did you do it?

Kielburger: Indeed, as you mentioned, we’re not a rapid-relief group. But given the scale and scope-an estimated 230,000 people killed and 2,100,000 displaced-every organization that had any operation on the ground had to respond.

Our immediate goal was ensuring the security of our schools and the kids in our care and then determining what the emergency medical needs were. Our Toronto office, where our international headquarters is based, was trying to get in touch with the local field office. But it was challenging because two cell phone towers were knocked out.

The first time we heard from our people is actually the most ridiculous story: a tweet was forwarded to us. One of our staff members managed to twitter out. And someone forwarded it to our central offices as an e-mail. We were really relying on outside agencies to help us with communications in the short term. And in the long-term, we were able to offer support to those agencies because we and our local partner had staff on the ground, vehicles, and operations to help us move around.

What Matters: What are some of the lessons you learned in those first days?

Kielburger: One of the best practices that we’ve seen, not only in the case of Haiti but in other countries where we’ve worked, is the value of having an existing presence on the ground.

What we saw in Miami right after the earthquake was organization after organization offering planes. I think everyone that had a private jet in the United States was offering it at one point.

But flying to Port-au-Prince wasn’t feasible given the fact that for the first 72 hours after the quake the airport wasn’t functioning. And following that point, there wasn’t sufficient fuel at the airport to get the planes back, or hands to offload, or cars to transport the supplies from the airport to distribution points, or fuel for the cars.

And in the hours that followed, security became a concern. Any convoys that were leaving the airport had to be properly guarded because you had too many hungry people. So security became a concern.

There was a lot of goodwill, a lot of aid-much of it not leaving Miami. The tragedy of all is that there was obviously extraordinary need on the ground in Haiti. Meanwhile, there was no shortage in the Dominican Republic, on the other side of the same island. So groups like us and our partners who had transport, fuel, cars, and resources to get supplies to local organizations in the field were going across the border to the Dominican Republic and driving these things to Haiti.

I joined one of the convoys three days after the earthquake just to see what it was like going across the border. And speaking to the border guard, I said I was surprised we didn’t see a line of trucks trying to cross over from the DR side. And the border guard shrugged his shoulders and said, “Actually it’s been more quiet than normal, because regular business is disrupted and people aren’t selling things like they used to.”

What Matters: Did you have any trouble acquiring the supplies you needed in the Dominican Republic?

Kielburger: Oh not at all. And bear in mind the Dominican Republic is a tourist destination. I remember landing in DR and most people on those flights were still heading to the all-you-can-eat buffets in resorts.

Our plan had two stages. The first was to purchase local supplies in DR, which keeps money in the local economy. A “buy local” strategy is critical for good development practice in general. And then we eventually shipped in more specialized items. But those took about two weeks.We bought locally and shipped about $2 million worth of supplies and we were able to move those quickly.

That’s in contrast to Port-au-Prince, where the fuel was rationed to a gallon a person and people were waiting literally hours to fill their gallon. Water was obviously at a premium. Food was running short.

But there was truly no shortage on that island. It was just a matter of too few groups having the infrastructure or staff to make purchases across the border. A buy-local strategy is critical anyhow, but when crisis hits it also minimizes the time lag to get supplies in.

What Matters: So you were able to buy supplies and truck them in. But given your organization’s focus, how did you distribute them?

Kielburger: Coordination among local groups is crucial. We had the ability to purchase locally and transport supplies, but our specialty isn’t necessarily running hospitals. And so in the short term we were dropping supplies with partnering agencies like Partners in Health and Little Brothers/Little Sisters of the Incarnation, a religious order that is one of the largest providers of health care in the country. It has more capacity on the ground to distribute. In general, we’re a big believer that whatever organization can get the aid out most effectively and the fastest is where it needs to go.

We saw this in Sri Lanka too where we were active before the tsunami of December 2004. We don’t do home reconstruction; Habitat for Humanity does, but its nearest field office at the time was in Thailand. So we were able to do the local community scouting for them, identify the communities, and prep the land. They came in for the construction.

So it’s partnering with groups to enable them to do their work. If they can do it more cost effectively and quickly, and reach more people, to a certain extent you should just get out of the way. Let those who have the background do that. And vice versa. That means that egos need to be checked at the door. People need to get out of the way and allow the good work to happen. Too many organizations were waiting for their logos to be on shipments originating in North America.

What Matters: Your partnerships with Little Brothers and Sisters and Partners in Health preceded the earthquake, so that ethos of working with partners who already have an expertise in something sounds like it’s built into your model.

Kielburger: Absolutely. Partnerships are crucial for the long term too. We have expertise in building and reconstructing schools, for example. In the short term what we’re doing is providing temporary education infrastructure. And then we’ve worked with the government to identify the regions where we can do long-term reconstruction. It really is a question of more collaboration-particularly leveraging the resources of groups that are in the country for the long term.

What Matters: Can you talk about that distinction between long-term and short-term groups?

Kielburger: There really are two types of organizations. Some specialize in rapid relief. And in a 12- to 18-month time frame they’ll have largely extracted themselves from a country. And then there are those who are in a country for the long term.

For groups that make long-term commitments, it’s sometimes harder to do fundraising. People talk about donor fatigue. And what’s often highlighted is the kind of donor fatigue in which-if a natural disaster happens like a tsunami in Sri Lanka or an earthquake in Haiti-other regions will, for example, fall off the donor map for a bit. But the other part of donor fatigue is actually specific to single countries. In the case of Haiti, we and other groups are already hearing, “But I’ve already helped….” So there’s a need to increase the awareness level of donors that there really are those two stages of development. They need to make a conscious choice to allocate a percentage of aid to long term relief efforts.

Look at a situation like Haiti. The president recently announced that it will take 1,000 bulldozers and 1,000 dump trucks 1,000 days just to clear out the rubble in Port-au-Prince-never mind the reconstruction. In just one of our schools alone we have 172 orphans. Problems like these require a generational time horizon.

What Matters: Is there anything you think you and your peers in the nonprofit world can do to keep these very serious long-term needs in the forefront of donors’ minds?

Kielburger: More than anything else, it’s having a very tough-but very honest-conversation about why there’s such a desire in the nonprofit world to run from country to country, to whatever is in the headlines. You know, it’s fascinating to see a Haiti and a Chile happen almost at the same time. Two earthquakes. Both of extraordinary magnitude. The death toll exponentially more in Port-au-Prince due to a number of reasons. But one of the biggest differences that we saw between the countries is the obvious: Chile was largely developed enough that people know the economy will return and that normality will resume. Versus Haiti, that prior to the earthquake was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

We have to ask the question, “How do you prevent Haiti?” We obviously can’t prevent earthquakes. But how do you prevent such a disaster by creating the infrastructure to ensure that a country has the means to lift itself out of this situation?

So the hard conversation we have to ask in the nonprofit world is about why we support that kind of investment so infrequently. It is such a challenge in the nonprofit world to have this conversation. And nonprofits also need to have the hard conversation with donors that just because a country is not in the headlines doesn’t mean that it’s no longer a country in need.

What Matters: Are there any other best practices that you learned from this experience? And is there a way for you to share them with your peers?

Kielburger: The nonprofit world is highly fractured so it’s much harder to share best practices. Having this type of conversation is critical and doesn’t often happen enough.

I frankly think there’s a lot that Free The Children could have done better in Haiti to better prepare our staff for these types of crisis situations. Although we’re not a rapid-relief group, had we looked at some of the shortcomings-particularly in communications, in having stockpiles on hand, and in having pre-existing plans to have that capacity ready in case a disaster happens.

But really I think a lot of challenges require conversations not within an organization, but between organizations. We need greater pre-existing links between rapid-relief groups and long-term organizations with established programs and infrastructure already on the ground. And we need greater donor awareness for that long-term commitment.

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