As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Rola Hallam.
Dr. Hallam is an award-winning consultant anaesthetist, humanitarian, human rights advocate and social entrepreneur. She is the first Syrian TED fellow and is regarded as a global thought leader; advocating for the cessation of civilian targeting in war zones, the upholding of medical neutrality, women’s rights and championing locally-led humanitarian action.
Rola pioneers a new vision for humanitarian aid delivery in war-zones, transforming the way the world supports and enables local humanitarians; her social enterprise CanDo channels resources where they have the biggest impact and can save the most lives: on the front lines, in local hands.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born a doctor. I have always known that was my calling but what I didn’t know was that my home country, Syria, would shatter into a thousand little pieces, tearing millions of lives apart and that I would be using my medical skills in war zones rather than on NHS wards.
I was working in the UK when the war in Syria started, and as my family were killed and our houses and fields were razed to the ground I did the only thing I knew and I joined other Syrians delivering humanitarian aid. Through this work I made a discovery; that the reason that people survive in crises is because of the remarkable work of the people in crisis themselves.
People survive in crises because of the local doctors, nurses and aid workers who are from the very heart of the affected community. They are the people who dare to work where others can’t or won’t. That is what inspired me to work with these amazing people and to set up CanDo.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Interesting is an odd word. There have been many stories — working in conflict zones, you get to see both the very worst and the very best of humanity. I’ll tell you this one because it showed me the true power of collective action and convinced me never to give up. It was also CanDo’s first campaign.
In 2 days, five hospitals in Aleppo were bombed. One of these was a Children’s Hospital run by a Syrian organisation called The Independent Doctors association (IDA). It was the sixth time their hospital had been bombed.
IDA reached out and said they wanted to rebuild the hospital for the seventh time but didn’t have the funds. And so we launched the People’s convoy campaign. It was a global crowdfunding campaign to help the IDA rebuild a whole new Children’s Hospital and if successful, we the people, would take the medical equipment all the way from London to Syria.
And we did it. In just 12 days, thousands of people and 38 organizations came together to achieve a global first. We built the first-ever crowdfunded hospital.
We took the medical equipment all the way, with hundreds of messages of solidarity and support. The hospital will celebrate its 2nd anniversary in April and treats on average 4,000 children a month. But I would say that the real healing came from the demonstration of solidarity that this campaign showed. IDA was so moved and inspired by people’s response that they named their hospital ‘Hope’.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Basically, doing thousands of “People’s convoy” type campaigns. Connecting people around the world who care and want to help, directly with local doctors, nurses and aid workers in war-affected communities so that together, we can save more lives.
Data and our experience shows that Syrian organizations carry out 75% of the humanitarian work in Syria and yet receive 0.3% of the available funds. What’s more, the same is happening across the crises of the world. I have witnessed this reality. It means those with the most relevant knowledge, skills and access to respond on the front lines have little of the necessary tools, equipment and resources they need to save lives. The humanitarian system is failing the most vulnerable communities in their darkest hours.
At the same time, millions of people around the world see tragedy unfolding in war zones, people who want to help but feel totally powerless to make a difference. Many say they are disillusioned with charitable giving. They feel they give blindly with little knowledge of where their money went, if it even arrived and what good it did.
My big idea was to bring these two groups together — and so CanDo was born.
We support and mentor trusted and vetted local humanitarians and through crowdfunding on our platform, connect them with global humanitarians who want to support their work — channelling resources directly to where they are needed. All the campaigns are completely designed by these local partners.
How do you think this will change the world?
We are already seeing it happen. In just two years, CanDoers have not only built the world’s first crowdfunded hospital but we’ve also raised over £1million through 7 health campaigns and helped over 315,000 people.
There is clear evidence that supporting local capacity enables early recovery of local communities, paving the way for future healing and development, and it is not just us seeing or saying it. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) want there to be more focus on locally led action, describing the aid system ‘as inadequate, inappropriate, inefficient, untimely and inflexible and therefore, not fit-for-purpose’. Stakeholders including the UN committed at the World Humanitarian Summit to give 25% of the aid budget to local responders by 2020. Though little change had been made in practice, the world does acknowledge that this change is needed.
We are making sure that it becomes a reality. We are continuing to collect data and evidence as we go in order to keep measuring the efficiency, agility and cost effectiveness of locally led action and how it creates impact in order to advocate for this much needed system change.
No entrepreneur should be under the illusion that their solution is the panacea, or that there is any one magic solution that will fix everything. Working for social change means working within very complex systems with multiple inputs and outputs and knowing that there is no such thing as linear change. Our solution isn’t going to be the whole answer to the ills of the humanitarian system. We have to have the humility to appreciate that our solution is just part of the whole.
This is why we take a lean approach with a lot of learning and data analysis built into everything we do, this is key to moving forward. Having an experimental and curious approach makes sure that you’re learning as you go along, able to pivot and change when faced with unintended consequences, and even better, see them before they happen.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
This day is etched on my heart and on my mind and my soul.
I was in North Syria in 2013 on one of my medical missions with a Syrian led organisation. Unbeknownst to us, a war plane had just bombed school and suddenly we had an influx of dozens of severely burnt children rushed into the Hospital. I cannot fathom what the pilot had turned off inside of themselves to look down at a school yard full of children and press the destruct button.
The most devastating thing for me is that I had trained all my life for a day like that. I had the knowledge, the skills and the ability to administer potentially life-saving treatment to those children. I should have been able to give them oxygen, sedation, painkillers. I should have been able to fit breathing tubes and send them on ventilators in a medically escorted ambulance to Turkey where they would get specialist care.
Instead, I had to send them in pain, suffocating in the back of their parents cars and ten kids died that day because I, who could have saved their lives, didn’t have the necessary tools, equipment and medication.
My story is that of thousands of local aid workers and at that point, despite not knowing clearly how, I vowed to change the system.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
For me, it’s about everyone finding and unleashing their inner humanitarian. A humanitarian isn’t just someone wearing a UN bib or working on the front lines; it’s each and any one of us who cares and who does something as a result of this care. Each individual contribution, however small is important. This is the tremendous power of crowdfunding; it is the amalgamation of the little bits we can all do. The People’s Convoy should have been impossible but in an incredibly short time 5,000 people contributed what they could and we built the world’s first ever crowd funded hospital. Look at the power we can have when we come together.
Our approach requires a significant mindset shift. Instead of helping to fund and support intermediaries, let’s help and support the very communities who are affected by disaster to find their own solutions, enabling those who are already helping themselves.
I think trust is integral to this shift. To trust that people are capable and willing to solve their own problems and that money will go to where it makes the most impact. This is why we have absolute transparency on our platform, so that you can know exactly where your money has gone and what good it has achieved. We provide everyone who contributes with detailed reporting on the outcome and impact of their contribution.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Firstly, be your full, authentic, vulnerable self. Time and time again, at every public speaking event that I’ve done, it’s been the times when I have shared from the heart, talked about my trials and tribulations and have actually been vulnerable with the audience that I have really managed to touch people’s hearts and minds. So find the courage to bring your full self to every encounter that you have.
Secondly, don’t lead with anger, lead with love. This is especially relevant for those of us who work for social change. It is an incredibly frustrating journey to be on most of the time and it is very easy for this frustration to be overwhelming. In these days when people are calling upon showing and demonstrating our anger, I think what’s really important is that we recognise that we are angry, and then transform that into love and care in order to lead for change with compassion. Leading with anger leads to negative change, leading with love the opposite; to more effective and longer lasting, collaborative change.
Thirdly, no one has all the answers — find the people who can deliver and trust them to do so. At CanDo we’ve relied on the skills, passion and dedication of so many staff, volunteers, organisational partners and advisors and the benefits have been enormous. In fact, if you’re reading this thinking that you can add to our work — then do get in touch. I always want to learn from and work with others.
Next, the importance of self care. It is so easy when you’re running a startup, and especially when you’re working on social change issues, to neglect yourself. I used to think that it was selfish for me to take breaks or exercise or see my loved ones — in my head I would be saying ‘now is not the time’.
But I’ve realised after suffering burn out that actually this a marathon and not a sprint and that looking after ourselves is the most selfless thing that we can do in order to truly help create the positive change that we want to see in the world.
And finally, fundraising sucks! There is so much money out there in the world but it is so hard to get in front of the right people. It is often nothing to do with how good you are or how good your idea is, it depends on your networks, finding the right door and managing to get a foot in. It is even harder if you are a woman; according to official figures from the British Business Bank, women-only funding teams were given £32 million in investment in 2017, while male-only teams received more than £5 billion, and start-ups run by women receive just 0.5 per cent of the total invested by venture capital funds.
What I am learning is to have the courage of conviction in the work that we are doing, to not be afraid to say “I need money for our life-saving work”
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
I don’t think anyone can actually plan 50 years of their career ahead of time. You may have multiple careers within your career. I trained as an anaesthetist, worked in hospitals, then all over the world in a variety of roles with a plethora of NGOs and now I’m an entrepreneur learning how to navigate the world of startups. Things changing will allow you to learn, grow and challenge yourself and for each subsequent step you will take forward what you have learnt from the previous one.
So I’d say don’t attempt to future proof your career. Just make sure you’re doing what you love every step of the way, continually re-asking yourself, ‘right now, is this what I find most purposeful and fulfilling?’.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Healthcare is a fundamental human right and yet healthcare systems are very often decimated right at the onset of war. The targeting of health care, including not just the hospitals or clinics but health care workers themselves is, to my mind, unforgivable. Nowhere is it as hard or as essential to be able to provide healthcare than in war zones. As such, in conflict there is critical and constant need for innovation. I would invest this money in innovating for tools and technologies that we can put in locals hands to save more lives.
There is also innovation to be done in helping those who are not on the ground realise and understand the realities of those who are. We have a brilliant partnership with Google and are already working on this. We want to think about virtual reality tours of Hope Hospital, utilizing drones and driverless cars for aid delivery, putting locals voices on international stages using holograms. I see endless possibilities and I know there are so many extraordinary brains out there who can work on this.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Have the courage to imagine a better world, the resourcefulness to make it real, the humility to know you don’t have all the answers, and the tenacity to stand up again after you have fallen. Importantly — especially for start-ups, treat failure as a teacher not an enemy. These are the principles we follow at CanDo — as well as our unofficial one to make sure we have a good laugh together — our work can be harrowing so it’s important we bring each other up and enjoy each others company.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
It’s all about the mindset, not skill set. Believe you can do it and have courage. If you don’t believe something can and will be done it won’t, so start by believing in yourself…and in others!
Have the courage to try and to fail and endeavour not to get too attached to outcomes; all you can do is your best. If it works, fantastic, if not then learn and move on. Have courage in your convictions, courage to say I am wrong, courage to face your fears and doubts and keep going despite them.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Come with me on a tour to Turkey or Syria and see the remarkable work of the incredible human beings working on the ground with and for their communities.
Hear their stories of defying the odds to save lives and of how much can be done with so little resources. See the innovation and resilience and the direct impact they are having on so many lives. They are truly the beacons of light in the darkness of war and will renew your faith in humanity in 5 seconds flat.
When someone sees first hand the life saving work that they are doing, no pitch is needed.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Don’t follow — join in! We’re always sharing stories and talking with our ever-growing community.CanDo
Cando is transforming the way the world responds to medical crisis in war torn communities.candoaction.org