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Rethinking Humanitarianism | In conversation with chef José Andrés

‘If we keep throwing crumbs to the poor, we're going to be in the humanitarian business forever.’

Graphic for season 3, episode 12 of Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast featuring a black and white image of Chef José Andrés.

Chef José Andrés owns 31 restaurants, including one with two Michelin stars. He has appeared frequently on late night shows, elite cooking competitions, and front pages of magazines. Shocked by the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2010, he decided to take his cooking skills to disaster zones and began distributing hot meals to people in need, via the NGO he founded: World Central Kitchen. 

 

Their model is simple: respond quickly after a disaster by tapping into resources already available in affected communities – local chefs – and without all the bureaucracy of a big aid organisation. 

 

They are a lean organisation with few staff but, according to Andrés, a big impact. His different approach sometimes clashes with the traditional aid sector. Is this less-structured, more networked, and more relationship-based approach a necessary part of the future of humanitarianism amid rising needs? Or is it a naive vanity project that can never replace the scale and professionalism of UN agencies? And can traditional humanitarian responders co-exist with these emerging players?  

 

In this episode of Rethinking Humanitarianism, we explore the pros and cons of taking a different approach to humanitarianism: José Andrés says he treats his beneficiaries like “guests” at a restaurant. He speaks of the need for smaller, more specialised, more agile organisations that don’t try to be everything to everyone and pursue endless growth. And he advocates for an approach where people feel they are not working for an organisation, but for their own communities. Humanitarianism, he says, can’t remain about throwing crumbs to the poor.  

 

Guest: José Andrés, chef and founder of World Central Kitchen.

 

 

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Show notes 

 

Transcript | Interview with Chef Jose Andres

 

Clips, Feb 2023

The devastating earthquake in Türkiye and Syria. It struck before dawn and collapsed buildings while people were asleep.

Desperation is now turning into anger as families living in freezing conditions wait for aid.

 

Heba Aly:

In early February, two deadly earthquakes struck Türkiye and Syria. They killed more than 56,000 people, and displaced millions of families. In the aftermath,18 million people needed food, medicine, and other emergency aid.

 

Sabri Gel decided to do something. He runs a restaurant called Baba Kebap in Adana, a city that wasn’t too heavily affected by the earthquake. He wanted to help people but didn’t know how. A friend told him about World Central Kitchen, an organisation that distributes hot meals to people affected by disasters. He took his food truck and drove three hours with some of his employees to Samandag, a town destroyed by the earthquake. 

 

Sabri Gel:

As Baba Kebap we come from Adana. We are here to give people kebab, hamburgers, and bread with sausage. We produce and distribute on behalf of World Central Kitchen. Although we are a restaurant in Adana, we said, let’s come and support.

 

Aly:

We found people lined up in front of his food truck, where he was grilling meat and handing out doner kebabs:     
 

Gel:

All of our products are made daily. I've been working here for about 3 weeks with 2-3 hours of sleep per day. All of our products are fresh. All of them are prepared in the morning of the same day. There is not a single stale bread. All fresh bread. That’s how we bring it. Also, our meat is always prepared daily. This is one of the most important things to us. And getting them to the right place, that’s done by World Central Kitchen.

 

Aly:

World Central Kitchen currently operates 7 field kitchens in Türkiye, but at the early stages of their response there were 11 field kitchens, 3 food trucks, and partnerships with 50 restaurants.  

 

Their model is simple: Respond quickly after a disaster by tapping into resources already available in affected communities. And without all the bureaucracy of a big aid organisation. 

 

Josh Balser:

Our work isn’t designed to be long term or sustainable. It is really designed to provide an immediate response and address the shock that the population has experienced. The faster we can get to people and provide them with their most basic needs, the quicker they can get on the road to recovery. 

 

Aly:

That’s Josh Balser, director of humanitarian relief at World Central Kitchen. He oversees their response in Türkiye.

 

Balser:

We don’t need to conduct assessments or intense due diligence on the people that we’re serving. And we don’t differentiate between the populations we serve in a crisis, because in the very early days of a response, everyone to some degree is affected. 

 

Aly:

World Central Kitchen was founded by Spanish-American celebrity chef José Andrés – a man with two Michelin stars and frequent appearances on late night shows, elite cooking competitions, and front pages of magazines. 

 

Clip, The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, April 2019

Please welcome, José Andrés. 

 

Aly:

But today, more than 10 years after the founding of World Central Kitchen, travel to countless emergencies and even a Nobel Peace Prize nomination under his belt, Andrés has become – for all intents and purposes – a humanitarian. 

 

And to my mind, his approach is shaking up the sector. Here he is speaking to a room full of senior humanitarian leaders at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting earlier this year:

 

José Andrés:

Philanthropy, and that’s the business we are in a way, seems it's always about the redemption of the giver. When actually philanthropy must be about the liberation of the receiver. Doing good, people I think you all agree with me, is not good enough. And, we need to be in the business of looking at ourselves in the mirror and to say, we're not doing as good as we could. 

 

Aly:

World Central Kitchen prides itself on its speed, agility, willingness to take risks. Their motto is “whatever it takes”. Their model is based on mass mobilisation of volunteers and working with local communities in a dignified way.

 

For me, the rise of World Central Kitchen raises many fascinating questions about the changing nature of humanitarianism. Is this less structured, more networked, more relationship-based approach part of the future of humanitarianism? 

 

What about the well-trodden ideas of sustainability, accountability, and humanitarian principles? Is Chef Andrés’ model a naive vanity project that can never replace the scale and professionalism of the United Nations? Or is it exactly the kind of community aid that will help meet rising levels of need? 

 

The truth is: World Central Kitchen has run into tension on the ground with the likes of the World Food Programme, thanks to very different styles and priorities. Can traditional humanitarian responders co-exist with these emerging players?  

 

This is Rethinking Humanitarianism, a production of The New Humanitarian. I’m your host, Heba Aly. 

 

Aly:

This episode, we’re straying from the topic of re-imagining global governance to bring you an interview with a man who is, in many ways, larger than life. World Central Kitchen has become known in large part because of the dynamic personality of its founder, José Andrés. Here he is in some of his infamous videos on social media:

 

Andrés:

“You know I created a paella emoji? If you go to your phone, the emoji, Boom!..”

“I am José Andrés, and today, I am endorsing canned sardines..”

“Nothing is more amazing to me than garlic. If you are going for a date, maybe don’t do it..”

“Great, I didn’t burn it, and if I burned it I’m gonna lie to you..” 

 

Aly:

He uses the same style when promoting World Central Kitchen’s work in disaster zones. 

 

Andrés:

“I’m here in Syria, twenty minutes from the Turkish border…”

“This was nothing, and in 24, 48 hours we have kitchens, we have amazing peppers, onions…”

“Tomorrow we are coming with food for around 600 people, who are around here…”

“Avocado, banana, sandwiches, water. We have the helicopter full, that’s what we do, the community helping the community.”

 

Aly:

Instead of distributing bags of rice and tins of oil, World Central Kitchen works with local chefs to provide meals in line with the gastronomic traditions of the region.

 

In Türkiye, we spoke to Ali Yavuz, the head chef of the kitchen in Antakya, one of the areas worst affected by the earthquakes, where still today there is limited access to running water. But, the city is also known as a culinary capital. 

 

Ali Yavuz:

Today we're making meat stew. It’s a classic Turkish dish, but it contains sumac, a regional flavour. To resemble the tastes of food people ate before the earthquake. We pay attention to cooking the dishes they make in their own homes. If you try to serve an unusual meal, maybe they won't be able to eat it. Everyone wants their own taste and to eat what they like.

 

Aly:

Syria and Türkiye are the latest in a series of responses to crises by the World Central Kitchen since 2010. José Andrés’ NGO has provided millions of meals to people in the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, and other places.

 

It’s a relatively small organisation – compared to the big players like the World Food Programme, but its work is noteworthy because of how it stands apart from the humanitarian sector. In contrast to this very bespoke community-oriented response, formal aid agencies have grown into mammoth organisations. They’ve expanded in size and budget, and as they’ve expanded in size and budget, the bureaucracy to ensure accountability around their operations increased as well, throwing sand in the wheels of the aid machine. 

 

World Central Kitchen considers itself to be different. Here once again is Josh Balser, the humanitarian director:

 

Balser:

We take a lot of risk. And by risk, I mean, we’re willing to make a few mistakes on how we produce meals, or who we serve, in order to serve the many. Rather than designing a programme that weeds out the 10% that we shouldn't provide to, we're willing to cover the 100% because 90% are eating in this case. We conduct due diligence when time allows, we dig deeper. Everyone makes mistakes. We look at mistakes as a learning opportunity and not going to stop us from getting to that point. 

 

Aly:

Founder José Andrés is quite critical of the effectiveness of the humanitarian sector: 

 

Andrés:

I come from the private sector. There’s only so much money. It's only so much money in the world, there's so much money we can be asking to the rich countries of the world, it’s so much money, we can be asking from the big philanthropy of the world. And my question is, how much is that money? I don’t spend much time on those things, I know is many of you are experts on these. But what is the money that government we give to the UN? We used to have small and big NGOs, what is the money? Because I have a belief that it is enough money to end hunger in the world. But we are not investing it in the same way that private sector does. Why? Because in the private sector, we ask what is the return on investment?

 

Aly:

I met José Andrés earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was struck by his style – upfront, no nonsense, and not caught up in being politically correct. You might call it a cowboy approach that has long been abandoned in humanitarian response, in favour of the more structured, systematised, approach of a big aid machinery that is sometimes described as soulless. 

 

José says he treats his beneficiaries like “guests” at a restaurant. He speaks of the need for smaller, more specialised organisations that don’t try to be everything to everyone and grow for the sake of it. And he advocates for an approach where people feel they are not working for an organisation, but for their own communities. Humanitarianism, he says, can’t remain about throwing crumbs to the poor.  

 

I was intrigued by what World Central Kitchen’s style means for the future of humanitarianism. Sometimes the differences are very subtle, but if you pay close attention there are lots of messages in what he has to say for the humanitarian sector. 

 

So I invited José Andrés onto the podcast to discuss. He joins us today from Washington D.C.

 

José, welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

 

Andrés:

Thank you for having me.

 

Aly:

You are a well-known chef, you own 31 restaurants. You have two Michelin stars. Time magazine included you twice on the list of most influential people, you were named Humanitarian of the Year in 2018 by the James Beard Foundation. You were even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I’m curious how you went from a chef to becoming a humanitarian? 

 

Andrés:

You have to understand that watching emergencies, especially in America, that my heart was always kind of pumping, saying, ‘oh my God, why am I hearing that we are leaving people hungry sometimes? Why it seems so much hunger when there is so much money? Why, in a moment like Katrina, we heard that we had thousands of people in the Superdome forgotten for days without food, water and other needs?’ All those moments was what began building in me, this thing of saying, if you send nurses and doctors to catastrophes to take care of the wounded, if you send search and rescue teams to take care of looking for people under the rubble, who do you think should be the most qualified people to do something as simple as this, to provide food and to provide water? I will say that everybody will agree with me that the best people will be people that are in the business of feeding people. In the good times. But believe it or not, that same people, they have to know-how in how to do it in the difficult, hard times.

 

Aly:

You've provided millions of meals to people in the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, now Syria and Türkiye. And we met, you and I, at the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting in Davos at a session on humanitarian disruptors. So I'm curious, do you consider yourself to be a humanitarian disrupter?

 

Andrés:

I think I'm more a guy that goes and tries to learn and be of service. If anybody that helps a human is called a humanitarian, I think this is very good news. Because around me, in every city, everywhere I go, I always see people helping people. You don't need to claim you’re going to end world hunger. Just you can be helping a little child just with his school work, because maybe their parents are not as prepared as you are, and you can help them and the parents. You can be helping picking up a piece of paper to keep your city clean. I do believe everybody that does anything beyond what is expected from them is a humanitarian. Therefore, I could claim that we are eight billion humanitarians on planet earth. Well, we need to make sure that everybody is aware, and that everybody is even able to multiply the talents they have. Because I do believe we have plenty of talent in the world – only we need to make sure people believe in themselves. Therefore, I want to believe everybody is a humanitarian. We need to tell the whole world: ‘You are. Believe in yourself.’ Then we can solve many of the issues we’re facing.

 

Aly:

I don't think we're quite at the stage yet of having eight billion humanitarians, but I like the vision. But I suppose the difference is that you didn’t just do something as an individual, you created an entire organisation. And you must have created it for reasons. So the World Food Programme exists to do very much what you do, to distribute food to people in crisis. So where was the gap that you felt you needed to create World Central Kitchen to fill?

 

Andrés:

I will say that the organisation created itself. And I think a very big important moment for me was Houston. 

 

Clips, CBS, August 2017

Houston is one of the hardest hit areas.

Shelters are overflowing with evacuees.

Once inside, the Red Cross helps them get situated with a hot meal and dry clothes.

I lost everything, cars, I lost a couple of vehicles. My whole apartment is flooded. 

 

Andrés:

We arrived a few people, few chefs from D.C. World Central Kitchen was just very small with some projects in Haiti. But Houston was the place I went there. We already responded to some earthquake, a hurricane in Haiti, at a small scale. But Houston, for me was an important moment. Because I was in the convention centre in Houston, which was a very simply centralised location to provide relief to people that lost their home after the hurricane or they were trying to escape the possibility of that massive hurricane damage in their homes. And I saw in first person how somebody made a call to shut down one of the biggest kitchen in Houston, which was the one in the conference centre, and start cooking in the parking backlot behind the convention centre. And my brain was exploding. I'm like, why we will not use the cleanest, biggest, most efficient kitchen with a chef that has actually already cooked for previous hurricanes to feed the 10,000 people in the convention centre. And somebody will decide ‘let's do a field kitchen in the parking garage’. I remember there, we opened a little kitchen that was donated to us in the children’s hospital. We were able also to join a local chef who was doing amazing, impressive work doing sandwiches and hot meals. And the amazing thing is that as we, at the end, we couldn’t use the kitchen in the convention centre because again, somebody that was not in the feeding business made the wrong call. We are cooking in the chef's kitchen and sending food to the convention centre. When I began seeing things like this, and knowing that we were leaving people in the perimeter of Houston city hungry, and already we had a very heavy hurricane season with other ones hitting, if I remember right, Florida. A few weeks later, Maria happened. 

 

Clips, ABC news, August 2018

The first pictures now coming in from Puerto Rico after taking a direct hit. The island is destroyed. Maria is the first category 4 to hit there in nearly a century. 150 mile an hour winds, ripping buildings apart, knocking out power everywhere. All of the electricity is out tonight. 

 

Andrés:

And in the first plane that we could get ourselves on, we landed in Puerto Rico to try to help after hurricane Maria. And this is probably the true moment then that World Central Kitchen, focusing on food after an emergency, really began. Deeper than ever. Where the previous experiences were important for us to understand that yes, cooks and restaurant people and food people are the most prepared people to overcome the challenges. And for me it was amazing to land two to three days after Maria hit Puerto Rico; join a group of friends of mine, chefs, in one kitchen. And we went from 1000 meals the first day to almost 150,000 meals a day. We went from 10 friends to almost 2-3,000 volunteers. We went from one kitchen to more than 26 kitchens and 6, 8, 10 food trucks. At the end, we reach, I will say almost 4 million meals directly. But I know because of our efforts, we kind of were able to influence many other people and organisations to do exactly what we were doing. The entire island is having a hard time, everything is very much collapsed. Let's make sure that we all combine, do whatever we can. Ten meals here, ten meals there, if many people do this, we can cover the needs in the short term of the island. At the end this, I could say, was the beginning. As our organisation has become… we don't go everywhere. We're going hopefully to be in every emergency where food and water may be a need.

 

Aly:

So it sounds like organically, you began very much in response to hurricanes and other disasters in the United States. And then over time, you started working more internationally. As you started operating in places that were more the traditional territory of humanitarian agencies, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, like the World Food Programme, what did you come to see about the formal humanitarian sector? How would you describe the way it operates today?

 

Andrés:

Obviously, I will say that the very big organisations, I will say they have the bigger budgets, the bigger teams. And in a way they are the official organisations that they should be taking the brunt and the leadership of responding to different catastrophes. What I can say is that the people that work in every one of these organisations, starting with World Central Kitchen and every other organisation. For me, they're all heroes. They're amazing people. And I know they put an amazing effort, sometimes with not all the tools at their disposal. And they do the best they can. And I'm sure the organisations themselves, organisational charts, and the people that they hire hierarchies are people with experience, and they are there people that also give their best, with effort and intentions. But there's something about the very big organisations that are not expected to have a return on investment, like you will do in the private sector, which is what sometimes makes responses, locally in America or internationally, especially when there are very big, big events. There is a tendency to work by committee. What happens when everybody works by committee? That when everybody works by committee, means that everybody is in charge. Heba, what happens when everybody is in charge? 

 

Aly:

Decisions don't get made. 

 

Andrés:

Nobody is in charge. So we can’t expect a return on investment. In the humanitarian world the people that we should be taking care of, like I'm a restauranteur, I take care of my guests. I take all my guests and they pay. And they pay and hopefully they come back. Now let's go to the humanitarian world, who are our guests? Who are the people we need to take care of? Are they the poor of the poorer, very often. Because they're the ones caught in the middle of those crises. Because they have no ways or means to escape the tragedy. Very often, they have the worst homes. They may have no cars or ways of transportation, or they may not have money that they can go to a faraway hotel and put their families in safety. Therefore, one of the biggest missing opportunities is that our guests are the ones that are voiceless. The people we need to be taking care of are the ones that are very poor. And we need to have a better response. In the sense of, we need to be there next to them as quick as we can. Because usually when something very major happens, the system has a tendency to collapse. And I do believe that when something major happens is when the best of all of us has to show up to take care of every problem. Because the people, if they are going to be looking at the future, and hopefully will start reconstruction, and going back to their lives quick and fast, sometimes taking months or years. The quicker you provide the humanitarian relief, the quicker the people can start working in reconstruction of their communities. But more importantly, of their lives. 

 

Aly:

Are you saying that the humanitarian sector operates too slowly when you talk about nobody really being in charge and decisions taking a long time?

 

Andrés:

Correct. They will say your speed were way too slow. Especially in the big ones. I can say that in the Bahamas I believe certain things happen well, through USAID and the US Coast Guard. They sent helicopters to do search and rescue. But at the same time, World Central Kitchen, very quickly we were able to gather 3, 4, 5 even 6 helicopters very quickly. And we were able to do medical evacuations because we were going with helicopters full of food. And we were coming with helicopters empty. When the hospital, the local hospital in Abaco will tell us can you take somebody? Well, the answer for us will be always yes. I think the humanitarian refugee crisis in the border of Ukraine with Poland, the international organisations, I think they were way too slow. Not by days, I'm talking by weeks or months. I do believe we need to have the urgency of now, when we're talking about humanitarian [response] after hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, all these kinds of events that nobody's expecting, and they destroy entire communities – sometimes, even I will say part of small countries. I do believe we need to have a better system, that we arrive quick; that we arrive fast; that we arrive with very clear missions and objectives. And where sometimes the very big machines of the bigger organisations are too slow to respond fast and quick to the very big events. And therefore we need to start changing the way we are supporting and start using smaller organisations that are highly specialised, that everyone is good in what they do. They don't do everything but what they do they do it well. So I do believe it’s this moment that the bigger organisations need to realize that they cannot keep growing much bigger, that if anything, they need to be smaller, but very quick and fast and agile, to solve the problems short term in emergencies, but then long term fighting hunger and poverty. If the same organisations keep growing, but there are not showing us today real results. Very clear moments in the history that use giving food in the wrong way only exacerbates the problem, makes the problem bigger and puts more people not out of poverty but into poverty. We need to make sure that everything we start doing from the moment that the humanitarian response begins all the way to reconstruction, and investing in development that always we put the locals front and centre. When you can buy from a local farmer don't bring the food from outside. When you can buy from a local factory, don't bring the food from outside. When you can hire locals to do the job, don't bring entire teams from the outside. Why? Because locals usually know best. Locals usually are more prepared. And it's very important that we start thinking globally, but very localised when we think about emergencies. Because the right quick response today will mean a better outcome tomorrow.

 

Aly:

So you talk about the lack of return on investment in the international aid apparatus. And the need to work with more specialised agencies that can be agile. What kind of success have you had, as what I guess you would consider a small specialised agency in getting the formal humanitarian sector to work with you in a more regular and structured way? As I understand that there's something of a rivalry between you and the World Food Programme, and they haven't always been very eager to work with you on the ground. So how has that gone?

 

Andrés:

We've been trying to do efforts on how we can really work together for each one's benefit. Obviously, you cannot do a lot without money. So money is important. Very often, sometimes very big organisations in big events, they receive a lot of money, and they don't know how to put their money to work. When it's an emergency, to me, it's very clear that people are sending you the money because they want you to take care of the emergency. If you are receiving money for a big emergency, and you are not using the funds in real time, in a way, you are deceiving the people that are supporting you. 

 

Aly:

But are you saying that's what happens with international aid agencies working in emergencies?

 

Andrés:

I remember that also I spoke with the Red Cross. Red Cross America also was raising, good amount of money for Puerto Rico. And I remember having this conversation, when they said, ‘Well, we cannot help you. Because Puerto Rico is not a fundraising opportunity for us’. Obviously, the people that said that these people are respected and know. And if I worked in Red Cross, probably, I would say exactly the same. This is not about the people, but this is how organisations are created, that sometimes the funds they raise, but you don't have the systems and the ways and the means. For me was very surprising, [a] month later, that when I was told that Puerto Rico is not opportunity for raising [funding]  for us, meaning they they had money yet to help in a big way in Puerto Rico even [it] was one of the biggest disasters, that they already had millions and millions of dollars in the bank. The big organisations are still the big organisations, they are having sometimes as much as they claim hard time working with locals. And when I'm talking about emergencies, if you're not able to make quick connections with the local communities, the aid will always be ineffective; the aid will always last longer. And at the end, the people that lose are the voiceless and the poor. Therefore, I do believe the big organisations, I don't think it's the moment for them to grow any bigger. That it’s still showing us that sometimes they don’t know how to use the funds they have at hand. Therefore more local money needs to be flowing into smaller organisations that can be best, can be quicker, can be faster, understands the nature of the local communities. And then when locals are part of helping locals, true change can happen. I do believe the big organisations, like World Food Programme, should have a person that comes from Africa, or person in charge or person that comes from South America, who comes from Asia. A person that comes from those communities that they are hungry themselves. I do believe that the day we do this, then is when we can start using money smarter, better and reaching the people that really are in need. Put people in charge that know the problems of those local communities. I think it's about time that US – as much as is the biggest contributing of money to UN, World Food Programme – I do believe is a moment that we give the leadership to try to hope to claim that we can end hunger in this century to people that come from the same hungry communities we're trying to help. Then and only then is the moment I think we can be achieving success.

 

Aly:

And you would argue that World Central Kitchen uses that model, even though it is founded by a Spaniard and run by people who aren't necessarily from the communities, but because it works with local chefs in the way it distributes the food?

 

Andrés:

If you see the early hours of our response in Türkiye, and you see the response of World Central Kitchen a month later, you will not believe how we begin. We begin with no logos, with no branding in the cars. We begin by just buying from the first kebab place that we know is good and grabbing food and taking it to the two first shelters in Adana. But you see one meal at a time, one connection at a time, joined by the locals, listening to the locals, allow us to keep increasing the number of restaurants working with us, bring in food trucks from outside, joining to have warehouses near ground zero of the earthquake which as we know in Türkiye was a big one. In the process, because we allow locals to join us, is why locals make World Central Kitchen successful. Obviously you need in an emergency people that come from outside, Heba. You cannot expect that people and communities that have been damaged by the hurricanes, by the earthquakes, by the tornadoes, are ready on the first day to start responding. Many people are suffering, many people have lost their jobs. So many people lost their properties. Worse, many people may lose family members or have them injured. That's why it's important that people come from the outside. But it's also very important that as much as you can, you start incorporating as quickly as you can, people that are local, but they live overseas and they join you. Or people that are local and in the moment they see they're okay, they join you. We had them both ways. People in the early hours, began cooking with us. They lost everything. Like in Puerto Rico, many of the chefs that began the first 10 days, were working 24 hours a day. Once our model was already moving, those chefs said ‘guys, I'm very happy we helped. But I need to take care of my house, I need to take care of my restaurant, I need to take care of my life.’ But that's fine. They gave us the beginning, the push. Why? Because locals know best. They know what kitchens may be available. They know what warehouses may be available, they know what volunteer local organisations of students want to join us to start delivering the food. Locals will always be best. That's why we all need to be thinking about how to incorporate them quick and fast, and with real power.

 

Aly:

So I hear you on the mobilisation of the local community, I hear you on the speed and the agility. I guess what I'm curious of is the large UN agencies that you say have kind of lost their return on investment and aren't fast enough, and aren't connected enough to the local communities. They grew into these big bureaucracies for a reason. I mean, they started at one point as small and over time, in order to cover the scale of need around the world and to be operating in so many countries at once at the level that they do, required a certain machinery to be put in place. So there's a reason that they have these long, heavy systems and the checks and balances, etc. And I think some would describe your approach – this fly in quick-and-dirty cowboyish – that that also comes with some risks. So how do you manage those risks?

 

Andrés:

Correct. But we could argue that when checks and balances are in place and a lot of bureaucracy happens, a lot of money is also wasted in direct or indirect ways. We need all to have bigger risk tolerance. I'm talking about the early days, early weeks of an emergency. We're not talking about the long term development and reconstruction support. And I do believe that having that risk tolerance where the most important thing. What it is, and what I believe we've forgotten, that is helping people. We cannot let people without food and water for weeks or months. All because you have to have the perfect machine with the perfect checks and balances. That's why in emergencies, I do believe it’s in the best interest of everybody that is part of it, is to go quick and fast and to manage the risk tolerance.

 

Aly:

But there were days that the aid sector would kind of hop on the back of a truck and go into the bush with rebels. And you know, this kind of adventurous spirit that I think you also represent. But since then the humanitarian sector has spent decades trying to improve its effectiveness, set standards, be more accountable, be more professional. And I guess you would argue they've gone too far in that direction. But what would you say to those who see your approach as throwing those years of learnings and improvements out the window? Whether you like it or not, I think you are seen as doing celebrity humanitarianism, which comes under criticism often for being vanity projects that are more about personality than about professionalism. So it is a balancing act, isn't it?

 

Andrés:

Yeah, I will agree with you on that perception. Obviously, I think the people that have seen me work and I work with, they see that it’s anything but vanity. If I go it is because I keep learning. The question you asked me is if they have all these structures that are so perfect and so rigid because they need to make sure that they account for every dollar, they need to make sure that the response is perfect, then nothing happens and nothing goes wrong. It takes so much time to get to this perfect moment. That then what is wrong is that we're not acting with the urgency of now. And so that's why I do believe that in this new model, as we see that there are more hurricanes, more typhoons, more tornadoes, and therefore the quickness and how fast we react has to change at every level. What is the message? Why are we trying to do? We're trying to provide food and water to the people. And you empower that message to everybody that is involved. And you give them all the control of making that happen. Not creating organisations that are so highly pyramidal, but organisations that are in a structure much flatter, where everybody knows their mission; everybody has a role. But the number one mission is let's provide to the people in need what they need now. Not in a week, or a month. So all of you're describing that we need bureaucracy, that we need systems, this is all great if we put into the frame the people that we need to help. If at the end, we are having the perfect warehouse, having the perfect response, all the people in place, takes us weeks to do that versus being next to the people today, listening from them in real time what they need, coming back every day. It cannot be this humanitarian response that you drop MREs one day, you check them on a list, and nobody ever shows up to that community. I do believe in order to achieve that we need to be quick, fast, and bureaucracy needs to be less. And the most important is: are we helping the people? If the answer is no, we're failing them. Therefore, we need to find the balance between having the systems and helping the people. But helping the people has to be always above everything else.

 

Aly:

And you talked about the rising needs. And for me, that's exactly what this is about. It's not about World Central Kitchen or WFP. But about the fact that there are now exponentially more needs around the world than there were even five years ago, let alone 50 years ago. And if the humanitarian sector – not even the humanitarian sector – but anyone who is interested in helping people has any chance in achieving that goal. It's really useful, I think, to be examining these different models and seeing what works. And I guess on that point, my question would be how do you know that what you're doing is working and is having a greater return on investment than the more traditional aid models. And to give you a bit of context, we spoke to a UK-based organisation that tries to build learning and accountability in the humanitarian sector called ALNAP. We asked them their thoughts on the pros and cons of humanitarian actors who operate outside of the formal system. So here’s Alice Obrecht, who is the head of research and impact there.

 

Alice Obrecht:

So we know there's so much going on outside the international humanitarian system to support people affected by crisis. And that ranges from volunteer driven so called ‘global citizen’ type efforts to local neighbourhood volunteer initiatives within the communities themselves, as well as support from diaspora groups, from the local private sector and from churches, mosques and other faith based institutions. At ALNAP, for our state of the humanitarian system report, we really tried to capture and understand this a bit better. But because these activities are, by definition, outside any formal coordination or funding mechanism that makes them very difficult to track, or for us to understand their size and scale, let alone actually understand if they're being effective. Few, if any, of these efforts undertake evaluations of their work, and if they do these evaluations aren't being shared publicly. Now, that, of course, does not mean that they're not adding value. But it does mean it's hard to have this discussion in any kind of evidence-based way.

 

Aly:

So I guess my question to you is, how do you know if World Central Kitchen is effective? And how do you measure that effectiveness? How are you accountable?

 

Andrés:

This is a very fair comment and assessment by this organisation. But I'm gonna do like if I'm talking to them and arguing back to them. I've been in meetings of very big organisations with a very big Excel spreadsheet. I've seen a spreadsheet that will have kilos, pounds, pallets, combos, trays. Because that’s the way every other organisation [is] measuring the way they deliver food. And at the end, if you know about Excel spreadsheets, what happens when you put different numbers and different forms and mathematics into an Excel spreadsheet that you will have something that says, error. And these are official organisations. Now let's go back to us, the smaller organisations like World Central Kitchen. I think better information systems are very necessary. We very often, in World Central Kitchen in big emergencies, we keep putting the numbers in real time of how many partners we have, how many trucks, sometimes we show how much money we raised, sometimes we show how many meals we're doing every day often. We don't shy from sharing those numbers in real time. Now, how do we can have verification when an emergency has ended. And we can show results and use it [to] start putting numbers to numbers. Money was raised, money was invested, meals were delivered. That World Central Kitchen, as we are still a young organisation will be better and better, year to year, in sharing that data that will show in real time what we do. If we are delivering food by helicopter in the north of the Bahamas, did we do it because it was vanity? No, we did that because we had fuel. And we do use helicopters, because it was impossible to do it by boat, because we had to feed every day.

 

Aly:

And, and so effectiveness is obvious, in a sense.

 

Andrés:

You know, the areas that are always forgotten are the very remote areas, when you put a lot of remote areas together, it comes down to thousands, if not tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people. Very often, the bigger organisations are in the area they are easier to reach for a lot of reasons. And it's good that they do the big. But what happened in Houston, that we took care of the convention centre. But many of the remote communities were kind of forgotten. I do believe that that's part of what World Central Kitchen does.

 

Aly:

But actually you're present in a lot of the high profile emergencies like Ukraine and Türkiye, not as much in the forgotten crises, like in the Horn of Africa. So how do you decide what to prioritise and where the needs are greatest?

 

Andrés:

I will agree with that. But you will agree with me that those are major events. Türkiye is a major event. It requires everybody. We've been in Indonesia where we didn't see any journalists. We've been in tsunamis and earthquakes. We've been in Mozambique. We had one member partnering with local NGOs supporting them, with know-how and money in parts of Syria that we didn't see many journalists or anybody. So, you know, I didn't see anybody showing up in [Isla de] Providencia, the government of Colombia took good care of that one. And this was a very far away on remote island of only 8,000 people. But I will say that we show up in many other events that nobody is even writing about it. And we have no clue in Europe or in America that it’s happening and men and women of World Central kitchen is there. But at the same time we also need to understand we’re a small organisation, I don't know the number, but I think the organisation has around 70-80 people on payroll. But the amazing thing, and this is part of what World Central Kitchen does, is that we are able to go from organisation of 70-80 people – with everything counting human resources, everything – that actually our team for humanitarian response is the one that has to increase because the team is overworked with so many events. With such a small organisation, nobody can be expecting, Heba, that we are in every single one of them. What you are describing in the Horn of Africa, you could say is also war. I will say it's a more long-term, humanitarian, hunger issue. 

 

We are not yet, we may become one day or I may join another organisation, but we are emergency food and water. I keep saying, NGOs cannot see every opportunity we have to serve as a way to prove what we are worth. Because if every organisation thinks we're gonna get in every single business of humanitarian work, we are overextended. And then we don't become good at any one thing. We are able to go places quick and fast because we use local hardware in the places where we are. We own some hardware, meaning we have some food trucks here and there. We have some things we own. But we are an organisation that we are more about software, what can we use that is local? What assets can we use that are there? But we are not a fighting hunger organisation long term. We are an emergency relief organisation. When everybody forgot about the Bahamas a few weeks after Dorian, the men and women of World Central Kitchen were still there, helping communities forgotten by everybody far away. And helping Haitians forgotten in the heart of Haiti. The only story is that World Central Kitchen men and women, yes, they are in places that are not the ones in the news. But actually World Central Kitchen helps bring the news forward of those forgotten communities that they need everybody to keep supporting, from governments to NGOs like ours, because if not, these people will never make it.

 

Aly:

You talk about being a voice that can bring the stories, those forgotten communities in particular, to the world. And a lot of that is linked to your star power. Your connections have certainly helped provide this kind of relief, you were able to raise $100 million from Jeff Bezos; you have the singer Pharrell Williams as an advisor. And so you've really been able to mobilise support thanks to who you are. How much of the organisation's success is tied up with you personally, do you think? Does it have a future without your personal starpower?

 

Andrés:

Yeah, obviously, I will say that the organisation has a huge future without me because it has always been bigger than me from the beginning. Obviously, yes, I put my voice, my time, my social media, that I use it 90% more for this than for my own private business. But what I am amazed is that if José Andrés is not there with boots on the ground, many other men and woman that they are there too, in many places at once. Therefore, I'm sure there is a World Central Kitchen without José Andrés. That’s why I didn’t call the organisation José Andrés, I call the organisation World Central Kitchen. And as I said, this is an organisation that belongs to everybody. Everybody can make them theirs. That's why so many chefs, they always love to join us. Why so many people locally, they always love to join us? Because they feel they are not working for an organisation. They are working for their people. This is the very big distinction between us and others.

 

Aly:

I just have one final question for you. We've talked about, I think, both the pros and cons of the approach that World Central Kitchen embodies. And again for me, this isn't just about WCK, but about this broader landscape in which humanitarian needs are skyrocketing. It's becoming harder and harder to meet those needs. What do you see as the way forward? What's your vision of how the world can best respond to this era of crises, given the different models we’ve talked about. How does the world get out of this?

 

Andrés:

The world dispenses roughly, the numbers vary, and if we do an average over the last ten years, around 2.3, 2.7 trillion – and maybe it's more – dollars in defence, in weapons, in military. 2.7 trillion. That if we use a very small percentage of those trillions of dollars that go for weapons and armies, will just use them to invest in lifting people up from poverty and extreme hunger, that will be something fascinating. And I think it can happen.

 

Aly:

So it's just a question of money for you?

 

Andrés:

Money is important, because money funds the actions of the people and the goods that you need to provide for people. And we could argue: Do we throw money at the problem or do we invest in the solutions? If we keep making humanitarian work, one that we are throwing the crumbs to the poor, versus one that gives the tool to the poor to be lifted up from that total poverty, forever, we're going to be in the business of being humanitarian, because it's actually a fairly money making system. If the US and Europe donate every single leftover food they don't need to the poor countries, will always forever keep those poor countries in total poverty and total hunger. And those people forever and ever will need the crumbs of the richer countries to survive. We need a big policy mentality change, we need a major global food centre, which I hope I will be part of creating, in which we will start creating smart policies that becomes smart politics. For every country, and then all the countries thinking globally, food needs to be seen as a national security issue. Every president of every country must have a national food security expert next to them. Why? Because every food decision we make… we think that only has to do with going to fancy restaurants at what is in our supermarkets and on our shelves. But we see that every food decision we make has huge impacts on global warming, has huge impact in the way we use our water sources, has huge impact in how we are contaminating our waterways in the way we produce food. It has a huge impact when the people that are working the farms of every rich country are undocumented, that they are treated close to being slaves. How it's possible that the people that feed humanity, sometimes feel they are not able to feed themselves. When food right now is becoming energy, not the most important energy in the world, which is food to feed humans. But right now, food prices are competing with energy prices because we know some crops, like corn and others, are used to produce energy to move machinery or cars or other things. At the end, how do we fix this? Is by having a very clear understanding of the value of food – because at the end that's what World Central Kitchen is – of food, in communities in the world, in who we are. And until we have the government saying clearly that food is going to be the most important resource on planet earth; until we don’t give that importance that food deserves, food forever will always be part of the problem versus food becoming once and for all part of the solution.

 

Aly:

José, thanks so much for joining us on Rethinking Humanitarianism.

 

Andrés:

Thank you very much for having me.

 

Aly:

If you’ve got thoughts on this episode, do share with us. How does this model of fast, volunteer-driven aid compare to the more formal aid structures? Are they the ways of the future or of the past? What are the pros and cons? Write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected].

 

Look out for an upcoming episode in which we will run some of the ideas we’ve heard on the podcast about reimagining global governance past folks who can tell us whether they have any chance in hell of ever being implemented. Then, we will be back with a new season of Rethinking Humanitarianism later this year.

 

In the meantime, do subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast feed as we will keep sharing events, and, maybe even some new podcast series!

 

Today, we’ll leave you with a few thoughts from Robert Opp, former head of innovation at the World Food Programme. In 2019, The New Humanitarian hosted an event about new players entering into humanitarian work and at that event, Opp speaks about how those new players can work collaboratively with more traditional responders, but he also warns that these new players need to respect humanitarian principles if they’re going to work in this space. To watch that whole conversation, look for the link in the episode show notes at thenewhumanitarian.org/podcast.

 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf

With additional reporting from Ingrid Woudwijk 

Original music by Whitney Patterson

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

 

 

Clip, The New Humanitarian, 2019: 

The fundamental premise or fundamental context is that we are not able to reach everyone we need to reach. We know that as traditional actors the answer is not to make us a huge amount bigger, we need more entries, more people working in this space. We need the expertise of other players in the system to work with us. The one thing I would say, that I haven’t heard a lot of so far, multiplicity of players is a good thing but humanitarian principles need to stay universal. We need to agree that if others are coming into the space, there is a certain principle there that we should agree on before we are just doing anything we want to do in this space.

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