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Benjamin Laniado of CADENA: “No one should ever be left behind”

CADENA has been such a holistic learning experience that it’s hard for me to pinpoint only five lessons learned. But if I had to resume my experience, I would say that, when helping others, it is important to always take yourself out of the equation. Latin America is an incredibly diverse region, both from the […]

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CADENA has been such a holistic learning experience that it’s hard for me to pinpoint only five lessons learned. But if I had to resume my experience, I would say that, when helping others, it is important to always take yourself out of the equation. Latin America is an incredibly diverse region, both from the ethnic and the geographical perspective, and it’s easy — when bringing humanitarian aid — to believe that what works for you works for someone who lives up in a mountainous region or down by the coast. This sensibility towards differences, understanding that an Ottomi Indian living in a village in a forest needs something different than a secular city dweller who lives next to the beach, is something that needs to be emphasized in every humanitarian mission.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Laniado.

Benjamin Laniado is a global thought leader in the humanitarian sector. He is Secretary General of CADENA, an international disaster relief agency with chapters in over ten countries, and presence in three continents, which has changed the lives of over two million people across the globe.

A recipient of multiple awards, including the “National Civil Protection Award” bestowed by the President of Mexico, and the “Changing the World” Award granted by the President of Israel, Laniado is a member of the Administrative Council of Start Network, an international fund based in London, designed to meet the world’s most pressing emergencies.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It feels like yesterday, the day I found myself on the back of a pick-up truck, zigzagging through the Sierra of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. The ride was anything but comfortable, yet I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by a feeling of abundance and couldn’t help but smile as the lush scenery passed by.

“Why do I feel like this?” I asked myself, somewhat taken aback by my own reaction. I wasn’t there on a leisure trip. As a matter of fact, this was my first humanitarian mission and I was trying to ease the pain felt by thousands of people who’d lost everything due to Hurricane Stan.

Undoubtedly, destiny had played a role. But not only destiny. I´d stepped up and made a choice, a choice against indifference.

Everything had started a couple of days before: a news report came up on the television during my traditional Thursday lunch with my friends. The images showed a significant part of the Mexican southeast submerged under water. Thousands of people had lost everything.

That second, Fernando, a friend of mine, asked us, “Why don’t we go there and see how we can help? It was this impulse that led me, in 2005, to start my work as a humanitarian activist. This is how I found myself on the back of a pick-up truck with two of my best friends, leading a convoy made of 200 tons of aid.

This was how the Jewish humanitarian agency, CADENA, was born.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of my most impactful experiences I’ve had was the first time I went to Africa.

I was there alone, as part of a reconnaissance mission. I wanted to locate nomadic tribes which have been affected by drought in the Turkana region, in Kenia, so that we could devise a humanitarian aid mission to help them survive from starvation.

All of a sudden, I stood face to face with a tribe who had never seen a foreigner before. They had never met anyone like me. And I had never met anyone who looked like them, either.

The tribe was under a tree, waiting for something (I don’t know what). I don’t know what motivated me to go straight into that mass of people, but I suddenly found myself sitting down in front of the tribe’s matriarch. She smiled at me and extended a friendly hand.

I shook it, and the moment I did it the whole tribe went into a trance. They started chanting together a magical song.

I realized shortly after that they were praying. Through these chants they were thanking their gods for our presence. It was a humbling experience, knowing that these people were dying of hunger and were so grateful and overjoyed for the help that we brought them. This is the deepest, most profound human encounter that I’ve had in my life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the funniest mistakes that I’ve made on a mission was bringing industrial boots to those affected by Hurricane Stan. It was during my first mission.

We brought these boots to indigenous people in the Mexican State of Chiapas who had never worn shoes in their lives. They looked at them, put them on, and wondered at the way they worked as if they were a foreign instrument. They couldn’t understand why someone would use them at all.

In the end, we had to bring all of our boots back. I understood then that, to help someone, you have to do it on their own terms, otherwise you end up imposing your needs and alienating them.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

CADENA International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to prevention and assistance in emergencies and disasters around the world, delivering aid directly to those in need. Since 2005, CADENA has been committed to providing relief to vulnerable populations in constant risk of disasters and crises, while maintaining its culture of prevention and inclusion. CADENA connects these communities with concerned citizens to build a foundation of support. Headquartered in Miami, Florida, its global offices are located in Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, Argentina, South Africa and Israel. In each location, CADENA serves as a humanitarian branch of the local Jewish community.

Drawing from the resources of local Jewish communities, the organization has become a voice for civil society in disaster-response and the go-to source for direct humanitarian aid in regions marked by high social inequality, fragile infrastructure and opaque governance practices.

With a database of more than 4,000 volunteers worldwide, including a first-response rescue team trained in Israel, CADENA’s humanitarian army has performed more than 600 missions, changing the lives of more than 2 million people. The organization has provided assistance to more than a million people affected directly or indirectly by the COVID-19 pandemic, including doctors and medical personnel in the frontlines of the crisis.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the most important mentors in my life has been Gal Lusky, a good friend of mine from Israel who funded a humanitarian disaster relief agency. I did two different missions with her, one to Haiti and another one to Syria. As a Jew of Syrian descendance, this last mission was particularly meaningful for me. Gal taught me to break paradigms and stereotypes, and to question my own limits. Only by daring to do the impossible are we able to perform the most audacious of missions.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to work together. We need to prioritize the human beings at the end and take away from the center the politicians. Do not leave anyone behind.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My definition of leadership is based on two pillars. First of all, being a leader means thinking about things that don’t exist yet. Taking this new reality as a starting point, the next step for a leader is to organize people and resources so that we can turn that vision into a reality.

If you’re doing what others are doing you are already attending those needs, even when you’re doing it better. In contexts like Mexico, bringing help directly to those affected means doing things differently. We get to those communities which are left behind, those remote places where no one else has dared to go to. We help those in need. We do what no one does. This boldness and audaciousness is what defines us, and what makes CADENA a leader in its field.

Fifteen years ago, on our first mission, it would’ve been inconceivable for us to imagine that we would change the lives of over two million people. But now, in 2020, I can honestly tell you, this is just the beginning.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

CADENA has been such a holistic learning experience that it’s hard for me to pinpoint only five lessons learned. But if I had to resume my experience, I would say that, when helping others, it is important to always take yourself out of the equation. Latin America is an incredibly diverse region, both from the ethnic and the geographical perspective, and it’s easy — when bringing humanitarian aid — to believe that what works for you works for someone who lives up in a mountainous region or down by the coast. This sensibility towards differences, understanding that an Ottomi Indian living in a village in a forest needs something different than a secular city dweller who lives next to the beach, is something that needs to be emphasized in every humanitarian mission.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would create an organization with the capacity to change the reality of the whole world. Not only one region. No one should ever be left behind. Everyone should have access to dignity, happiness and progress. We need to change our values of prosperity so that the rewards are equally shared by everyone.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was young, I was looking to establish businesses that would take little amount of effort but bring me some money. At the time, my father, who knew the value of hard work and toil and had achieved success in his life, told me to stop looking for an easy way out of my problems and roll my sleeves up.

This was something that changed my way of thinking. I understood that success was not something that arrives out of the blue. One must work towards achieving their goals, every day, and over the course of a whole life.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would like to have breakfast with Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. I believe that they are people who are committed to changing the world for the better. In this breakfast, we would talk about what we could achieve together so that no one is left behind. I think they have the charisma, the approach and the resources to help out.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.laniado/
https://www.linkedin.com/in/benjamin-laniado-k-8230ba43/
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