Rola Hallam
Are Big Aid Organisations Needed Anymore?

It all started back in December 2016 when over one weekend five hospitals in Aleppo were levelled in Syria. A young London trained doctor by the name of Rola Hallam had by this point lost 30 family members due to the ongoing spiral of violence in her country.

With so much darkness hanging over her head, in the unlikeliest of situations, a lightbulb went off. She asked herself what if we could rebuild hospitals by connecting global citizens directly to local responders all without waiting for humanitarian aid organizations to help?

At that moment her organisation CanDo was born. In the space of 4 months, she was launching her first campaign with Jon Snow on Channel Four and had raised enough money to build the world’s first crowdfunded hospital.

She’s now become the face behind modern aid care.  In just a few short years shes singlehandedly rewritten the rule book for the bureaucratic and slothlike aid system.

In a country where 500 hospitals have been targeted and destroyed, CanDo has already treated over 20,000 children, mobilised 40 NGOs, international and national and ran another six campaigns reaching 41,000 people and raising over £300,000.
Since they’ve launched, they’ve become a perfect model for other humanitarians war zones in need. This is the story of how one woman and technology changed the world. Take note.

Rola Hallam attending to a baby in an incubator in hospital, Syria

Talk to me about the state of Syria right now, because this is a crisis that is now in its eighth year and it’s gone a little bit quiet in the press, it’s subsided into the background as news organisations tend to run in cycles. 

There’s no unifying answer because Syria has been shattered into many thousands of pieces. How it is in central Damascus is not how it is in eastern Aleppo, or Homs. So it really depends. You’ve got things ranging from pretty much normal life going on, like inflation and military checkpoints, to areas where it’s apocalyptic, where you’re literally walking into ghost towns that have been utterly destroyed.
That’s parts of Homs, parts of east Aleppo, parts of Idlib, parts of the east of Syria. There are so many numerous and badly devastated areas.

The danger now is that the war is still ongoing, civilians are still bearing the brunt of it. Mostly now in the south of Syria.

The biggest silent tragedy is what’s happening in Idlib in the north. Right now, there’s still fighting either between the Syrian regime and Russian forces or between the other armed factions on the ground.
We have almost 1.4 million internally displaced people whose only lifeline is through Syrian organisations who have the access and the ability to respond.
But actually because they don’t have any resources, we are just staring at people who we know are in need of dire help but we’re not able to do anything.

Of course, the border for them to escape is closed and Europe has made it extremely clear that refugees are not welcome. So it’s like an open space prison of vast numbers of people who we need to respond to. 11 million people are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. The mind boggles. As human beings, we’re so crap at comprehending those numbers. 

"Syria has been shattered into many thousands of pieces."

This story goes back to the Arab Spring when a series of unpredictable events propelled the area into chaos, for some neighbouring countries a democratic revolution was set in motion but unfortunately for Syria, this was not the case, is this just now a war of attrition for proxy armies and military forces?

The honest answer is no one knows and perhaps the only ones who do are the ones with power, the arms dealers. What’s undoubted is that there’s been monumental suffering and so many crimes committed. Many people have lost their lives, many more have been injured, and many more people in prisons.
The reason I still have some hope is that one thing that hasn’t ever been discussed with some substance is the fact that we now more than ever a flourishing civil society.

As with everything in life, it’s about how we deal with a crisis because life is full of crisis. If we invest in stopping the war, the re-build of course, but also the healing that is needed, then we could still end up with a flourishing future. But it does depend on what happens from now on going further.  

But do you sense that the vacuum of chaos is closing? 

I think that until you have a ceasefire and the beginnings of a peace process, and we are not near those things, then I don’t think you can say we’re close to any reduction in chaos. I don’t believe that we are there.

And you’re not the only doctor that did their medical studies in London are you? [Syria’s current PM Bashar Al Assad studied ophthalmology in London] 

No, of course, absolutely, it’s incredible really how a few people can take the Hippocratic oath and how you can use that in extremely different ways.


Hope Hospitals erected by CanDo’s People’s convoy campaign alongside 38 organisations, and local partner, IDA

So I want to talk about the startup you created and more importantly discuss the technological aspects of it.
What astounds me about your story is that you have managed to sidestep the middleman entirely and create a channel directly with the public where they can help.

Yeah, I spent two or three years thinking that people didn’t care. It was back in 2012 to 2014, that was the peak of our personal horror story as a family, with family members being killed. Then I started to realise that people did care but they often didn’t have what they felt was a meaningful way to engage or contribute.

I think with the rise of distrust of traditional sectors and traditional agencies, coupled with the increase in technology and social media; people are expecting much more transparency and much more realism. On the one hand, I was there in Syria seeing these remarkable doctors, nurses and aid workers, willing to risk their lives for others but were not getting recognised and supported.
And on the other hand, I thought some so many global citizens would like to engage, who would like to make a difference, but they haven’t had a mechanism of interacting with each other.

I launched this journey that I should think will take me my whole life to see, can we transform the way that we support war devastated communities by creating a locally led but people powered humanitarian response?

It’s amazing to think that local relief organisations shoulder 75% of the aid effort but receive less than one per cent of the funding for the crisis. What happens to these large aid organisations in a crisis like this? Are they needed anymore if you’re doing what you’re doing? 

Good question. I think that there’s no silver bullet and no single answer. There are context and situations where there is a need for massive large scale responses, and the large agencies will be a part of that. I think the problem we have, especially when talking about conflict zones, is that often so the money, 99 per cent of the money goes to about six to ten of the largest aid agencies, the United Nations agencies and the other big agencies that you know of.

It trickles down through the system, and you end up with a tiny amount that arrives where it’s needed. 

"Can we transform the way that we support war devastated communities by creating a locally led but people powered humanitarian response?"

What are they doing with the rest of the money? 

Undoubtedly there‘s cost inefficiency and cost ineffectiveness. The United Nations agencies are expensive bureaucratic machines to run. Some of them do excellent work, but when it comes to the conflict, they end up working in the refugee area because that’s where they have access and that’s where it’s safe.

Let’s take Syria for example. The big aid agencies all in Lebanon, Jordan, and a little bit in Iraq as well. They are all responding to the refugee crisis, but they have left the locals in the eye of the storm. 

They’re the ones who are willing to be there and willing to risk their lives, and have the access and have the trust. Because they speak the same language, because they understand the cultural nuances they’re better at negotiating with armed actors for access, and they’re trusted much more so than the international NGOs.

So they find themselves with remarkable unparalleled access to the most vulnerable and most marginalised communities. I’m proud of the fact that four out of our successful campaigns were implemented in besieged Ghouta.
As you know until recently we had 400,000 people who were beyond the reach of the international aid agencies and the United Nations, but our local partners were able through their resourcefulness and creativity to still reach those communities.

I think it’s about the fact that we’ve ended up with an incredibly hierarchical and disempowering system when it comes to enabling people to help themselves. It’s almost like, if you’re desperate we can help you, but if you are helping yourselves then we cant help you.

Well, that kind of answers my next question which was, can we transfer this type of model to other humanitarian crisis?

Yeah absolutely because the model essentially is built on – you’re the local people, you’re the people from the affected community, you know what is needed, where, how and why to get it there in the most effective and efficient way. My role is to do that due diligence and make sure that we are finding the most trusted and impactful responders, and once we’ve done that due diligence, the model is essential –  you know what you need, can we help you? Therefore that local approach can be taken anywhere.  

Have you irritated the aid organisations to no end? It’s like they’re saying, “no leave us to do our job,” and then you respond to them and say, “no we’re doing your job better than you can.”

I really try to not look at it like that. Our vision at CanDo is, everyone’s a humanitarian. I want to reclaim the word humanitarian to mean all of us human beings who want to help people in crisis.

Therefore that includes global citizens which we call the global humanitarian, and it includes the local responders. So always, when I speak to international NGOs and aid agencies, say, can we try to not look at ourselves through the artificial construct of, I work with an international aid agency or not.  

A hospital is bombed in Aleppo [Getty]


I do disagree with you on one thing, I feel a lot of the crises that do unfold is pure because of the bureaucratic complexities that don’t allow or enable access aid help.
So when you say, “I don’t see it as us versus them,” I don’t either, but I also think a new phase needs to be ushered in to show how slow and calcified the old order is.

 I completely agree with you that we need a paradigm shift. This is not about a slow evolutionary process because time is lives and people cannot wait for the system to change over the next 20 to 50 years slowly. We need a massive shakeup and it needs to happen now, and I hope we will be a part of contributing to that much-needed change.

You are waiting for the main belligerent in the war, the Syrian regime to give you access and you can only give aid if they provide you with access. That is in absolute contravention of all of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, of neutrality, of humanity. So I think you’re right, we need to be having a very serious look in the mirror saying, that’s not good enough, that’s not only people not getting aid, but it’s actually contributing to the problem.

The Overseas Development Institute recently wrote a report, and it was very damning. They said, humanitarian response is untimely, ineffective, inefficient, and therefore not fit for purpose. These are powerful words, and we need to take heed.

What I’m attempting to do with CanDo is almost building a humanitarian movement of saying, we don’t need those big international NGOs. We as engaged citizens of the world are capable of creating a difference especially when we all come together. There are people on the ground helping themselves, how can we support them?

"The United Nations agencies are extremely expensive bureaucratic machines to run. "

But I think you’re the face of a new order.  Technology has become a knight in shining armour. With the simple tools of a mobile phone and a 3G connection, you’re able to build a small empire.

I completely agree with that. The only thing I would say is let’s use technology as a means, as a mechanism rather than an end in itself. The strength of our platform and many other technology-based startups is, it’s essential to keep a human connection.

Yes the technology is going to create that enabling mechanism but at the end of the day it comes down to a human to human connection, and how we can use technology to bring people closer to war-devastated communities. Right now you only interact with them via the news, so you see them through the victim lens and what we’re hoping to challenge is exactly that.