This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2012

Rahul Singh says he can make humanitarian disaster relief faster, better, and cheaper

Liane Beam Wansbrough

Is Rahul Singh a visionary innovator, a pushy maverick—or both? Photo by Steve Payne

It’s two and a half days since the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. The Adventist Hospital, an enormous white building in a formerly leafy suburb of Port-au-Prince, now looks more like a war zone. Thousands of people are camped around the hospital in need of urgent medical care—mangled limbs, bleeding head wounds, shattered bones. Every few minutes a pickup truck emerges from the dust and rubbish to deposit yet another injured body onto the hospital grounds.

In the midst of this bloody chaos stands Rahul Singh, a Toronto paramedic who rushed to the Haitian capital within hours of hearing the catastrophic news. A big, charismatic bear of a man, Singh becomes the natural centre of gravity of most rooms he walks into, and in the swirling chaos of the hospital, he’s the eye of the storm, someone people can’t help but look to for leadership. He doesn’t keep them waiting. Singh quickly sets to work with four paramedics, a general surgeon, and a water technician, all people he brought with him on a few hours’ notice.

The medical team begins to set fractures and amputate gangrenous limbs while Singh searches the surrounding area for a place to set up the water purification unit. He discovers a swimming pool that’s fed by a creek on the adjoining university campus. There are thousands of litres of water in the pool that they can purify. The creek will refill the pool, providing a continuous supply of water. He concentrates on the task at hand, blocking out the chaos around him. Later, he’ll describe it as a “Zen moment” in which time stands still. Within a few minutes, clean water is flowing from the tap. Singh and his team have only been in Haiti for a few hours, but they’re up and running.

In the immediate days after the quake, this was no small feat. The death toll was already estimated at 200,000 victims, and thousands more lay trapped or dead in the rubble. Non-governmental agencies tried to mobilize but faced complications because the country was in shambles without electricity or phone service. Wreckage, dead bodies, fires and homeless people blocked most roads. Schools, government buildings, and hospitals had collapsed, and even a prison was destroyed, leaving 4,000 inmates at large. Yet over an eight-week period, Rahul Singh and his small group of colleagues from the international aid NGO he founded, Global Medic, provided medical assistance to more than 7,000 people and distributed 15 million litres of clean water. Even more remarkable is that they did it on a budget of $400,000—miniscule by the measure of any humanitarian operation.

Global Medic’s work in Haiti earned Singh a place on TIME magazine’s “2010 TIME 100” list of the world’s most influential people, putting him in the company of Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, and Steve Jobs. The Globe and Mail named him one of Canada’s “Top 40 under 40” in 2009. Though the recognition is a recent development, he’s been doing his unorthodox humanitarian work for a long time: for the past 13 years Singh and his team have provided life-saving assistance in more than 40 countries suffering in the aftermath of tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones, floods,landslides, and other disasters. However, despite his numerous awards and considerable experience, Singh remains an outsider in Canadian international disaster aid.

Singh is naturally gregarious, with a natural everyman charm. Whether it’s chatting up Taylor Swift’s backing band in a New York elevator (they were also attending the TIME 100 awards in 2010, and he offered to share a cab) or addressing the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, he draws people in. Colleagues describe him as larger than life—the kind of person that can walk into a room and instantly captivate everyone’s attention. He brushes off any suggestion, however, that his rising-star status means he has any special talents. “I just work hard,” he says. “That’s all I’ve got. I see talented people around me and I can put them in a position to deliver.”

Born in 1970, Singh grew up as an only child with a single mother in Verdun, a former working class neighbourhood on the island of Montreal. “I was a poor kid. I was also an English kid in a French community and a brown kid in a white community,” he says. After his rough and tumble youth, Singh ended up in law enforcement and made his way to Hamilton, Ontario where he took a job with the Niagara Regional Police Service. He later moved to Toronto to work as a community patrol officer with Toronto Community Housing. The stress of working in a milieu of drugs, guns, and violence began to take a toll on Singh’s marriage, among other factors. He decided to leave law enforcement and become a paramedic instead, graduating from college in 1989.

The switch to working ambulances was a better fit for Singh, but it failed to save his marriage. At the age of 27, he was divorced, balding, and grumpy. Deciding that he needed to change things up, he took off travelling the world, and eventually wound up in Nepal where he worked with an organization that was training local medics. When a mudslide wiped out a nearby village, Singh was sent on his first humanitarian mission.

He slept in a hammock that was not at all designed for a man of his bulky frame; most nights it sagged so low that he ended up sitting in floodwater. Among the few comforts he enjoyed were cheese rations and listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” on his Walkman. But despite the deprivations of the job, Singh found he was enjoying himself: “I discovered that I’m good at this. I’m thinking, ‘it’s the bomb!’” But the project soon ran out of money and was forced to close down. Singh’s dedication to the mission had not gone unnoticed, however, and he was invited to a meeting in Kathmandu to meet the director of the aid agency. When Singh arrived, he found the director staying in a five-star hotel. “There’s people dying and he’s eating a $21 pepper steak,” Singh says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I couldn’t swallow it, so I told him off.”

That experience was the catalyst for the development of Global Medic. Singh wanted to create an aid NGO that would do away with the executive salaries, bureaucracy, equipment overhead, and the other expensive trappings of aid delivery that he saw as wasteful. He started the David McAntony Gibson Foundation (named after his best friend, who had died in 1998), of which Global Medic would be the operational arm. He raised $8,500 in the foundation’s first year as a charity. And he rounded up his dirty dozen, 13 fellow Canadian paramedics. They set off on their first international mission in 2003, assisting anti-landmine personnel in Cambodia.

Global Medic has now worked on more than 60 missions and their 2010/2011 budget topped out at $1.4 million. Yet Singh takes no paycheque; he still works full-time as a paramedic with the Toronto Emergency Service. He and his full roster of paramedics, firefighters, and police officers all volunteer for missions by taking vacation time or unpaid leave. “I think we’ve got more credibility when we are unpaid,” Singh says, “and more importantly, it’s pretty hard to question our motivations.”

It’s remarkable that Singh has amassed a team of volunteers to call upon at a moment’s notice. The model best suits shift workers who can take time off without losing their jobs. Julie Colgan, a London, Ontario paramedic who has served three missions with Global Medic, says she enjoys the experience of seeing firsthand the difference she can make in a community, but she also appreciates the opportunity to work with Singh because of his “no bullshit, get out of my way because I’m coming in’ attitude.”

It’s precisely that approach—Singh calls it “pigheaded,” and says it’s typical of the paramedic mentality necessary to cope with the job—that has enabled Global Medic to grow exponentially in such a short period of time. Singh’s persuasive skills mean money and supplies seem to multiply in his care. He asks companies to donate generators, medicine, tents, water purification tablets and food to supply the warehouse outside Toronto. The team goes to Costco to stock up on food, PowerBars, bandages, and gauze before a mission. “Store clerks ask us why we’re buying so much stuff, and when I explain that we’re taking it to earthquake victims in Japan they give it to us for free,” he says. He often persuades airline and helicopter companies to fly in personnel and supplies at no cost. He also donates his speaking fees—up to $10,000 per talk—to Global Medic. One of Singh’s signature maneuvers is to tell speaking sponsors that he donates his fee, then ask them to double it. They usually do.

All this chutzpah hasn’t won Singh many friends among government officials at home. Singh is one of the few NGO directors in Canada willing to openly criticize the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). He becomes livid when describing how long it takes for the agency to make funding decisions following a disaster. “They tell me they’re doing a good job but they’re sitting behind a desk,” he says, pounding a fist on the table. “I’ve just been in Haiti watching nine-year-old girls getting their legs chopped off, so don’t tell me you’re doing a good job, because you’re not.”

As a paramedic, Singh knows that time is of the essence when it comes to saving lives. It’s his primary focus—get into a country as fast as possible with life saving assistance—much like a 911 call—and then get out of the way so that longer-term agencies can take over. He believes Canada should have a prepackaged program like his, complete with inflatable hospitals and portable water units, ready to go at all times. “We get Canadian supplies, innovation, and boots on the ground within the first 24 hours of a disaster,” he says.

In the current system, the bulk of Canada’s humanitarian funding goes to the multinational organizations such as CARE, Oxfam and Save the Children. It frustrates Singh to see funding for immediate disaster response go to agencies that he says are better suited to long-term development. Trying to crack into that closed circle has put Singh at loggerheads with the bigger agencies, which—perhaps understandably—don’t agree with Singh’s assessment. “I get a real push back, ‘stay down young man’ type of vibe from them,” he says.

Agencies such as CARE and Oxfam have developed their mandate for disaster response in a way that takes into account their long term relief goals and advocacy work. They maintain the view that it’s important not just to get in fast after a disaster but also to get it right. “There are moments in which an organization that is first on the scene can appear to be more efficient,” says Kevin McCort, president and CEO of Care Canada. “In the long run, though, it makes sense for the community to benefit from a group that can stay there and provide value for a long time, rather than the person who gets their first with whatever they happen to have.”

Faster isn’t necessarily better, McCort says. He describes how the Canadian Medical Assistance Teams, a small NGO based in Brantford, Ontario, immediately got on planes to fly to Tokyo after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. However, once they landed they realized they weren’t prepared to deal with the radiation crisis, so they had to come home. The focus on getting into a country first is also not entirely altruistic. “There’s a macho component among aid groups,” says Susan MacGregor, professor of international development at Humber Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning. “Part of it is bragging rights to a certain extent. All the NGOs want to be first on the ground.”

In theory, getting into a country for the initial life saving response following a disaster should be simple. “It’s easy in the sense that the needs are clear,” says MacGregor. “When people don’t have water, you give them water. That is much more clear than trying to give somebody a livelihood, or trying to improve somebody’s life expectancy.” Yet providing these basic necessities becomes extremely difficult in the midst of chaotic conditions. The result is that disaster aid—an estimated $15 billion a year industry with more than 250,000 employees worldwide—has become a circus.

The size of the circus has gotten bigger in recent years as instantaneous news reports with images of suffering create awareness around the need for help. That prompts a flood of well-intentioned—but not necessarily competent—do-gooders into high-profile locations. While there is logic to having more players on the ground, it hasn’t yet resulted in a more effective response.

Many experienced organizations have become increasingly frustrated at the bottleneck of aid that occurs. Médecins Sans Frontières had their planes bumped off schedule in Haiti because flights for celebrities such as John Travolta and Sean Penn took precedence. Involvement of state actors such as military and government compounds the problem and seems to be an increasing trend. Add to that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of church groups and small NGOs with varying degrees of professionalism, capability, and contextual understanding and you have an atmosphere not unlike the Wild West. “There is a difference between ‘able to do’ and ‘has the capacity to do’ and those are important distinctions,” says Michael Fark, operations manager with MSF.

MacGregor describes a situation in which a group called Mothers Without Borders came to Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami in 2004. The group of women from Arkansas wanted to get to Banda Aceh to care for orphaned babies, but they arrived in the country without tents, water bottles, or food. “They came with a few thousand dollars in cash and had absolutely no idea how to get north in the country. It’s these types that are a huge drain on the system,” she says.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tries to coordinate the work of various agencies through a cluster system, which splits relief efforts into sectors such as shelter, food, water, and education. However, many small NGOs don’t know about it. Others, such as Global Medic, don’t have full-time personnel to attend meetings, and don’t consider the system useful to them anyway.

Singh prefers to find his own local partners to work with. “The meetings don’t even happen until a week after a disaster and by that time it’s too late,” Singh says. Outsider groups such as Global Medic are branded “cowboys” in the aid world by the larger NGOs. While OCHA is clearly still a work in progress, the UN believes the effort is worthwhile because lack of coordination results in duplicated efforts and wasted resources.

“It’s not that we want to have somebody sitting in a meeting all day,” says Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam. “But we recognize that if we don’t, we’re operating on partial information and we’re likely to be complicating, rather than helping the situation.” Yet even the UN system has its limitations. “It’s difficult to coordinate 50 agencies,” says Fox. “ It’s impossible to coordinate 5,000.”

Global Medic has now joined Policy Action Group on Emergency Response, a network that promotes coordination between aid agencies. It’s a signal to others in the industry that Singh is willing to play along—up to a point. It’s an acknowledgement that Global Medic may ultimately have to temper Singh’s shoot-first bravado in order to grow. Singh wants access to CIDA funds, which means courting the very agency Singh has spent more than a decade antagonizing.

There have already been some tangible results of this new, more congenial approach: CIDA provided $535,000 to Global Medic to assist with relief following the 2010 flooding in Pakistan. Still, Singh is impatient as ever: “It’s like pulling teeth,” he says. “They’re taking their time to warm up to us, and I’m like, ‘let’s get into bed.’”

For now, however, Global Medic continues to depend on private and corporate donations. “Our donors are different. They don’t want to see pictures of crying babies,” Singh says. He recounts how a law firm in Toronto called up after the earthquake in Haiti and wanted to donate $50,000. When they asked him what he would do with the money, Singh told them “we’ll put another hospital and water unit in, and we can do it tomorrow.” It’s that straight-shooter response and apparent financial transparency that make Global Medic popular with a public that is increasingly aware that there is a gap in what NGOs claim they accomplish and what they can actually do.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by hundreds of framed press clippings, Singh sips tea and reflects on whether he can change the way disaster response is currently delivered. The TIME award has opened doors and in some ways leveled the playing field, but Singh is up-front about his limitations. “We need a CEO here. We need somebody that can wear a tie and go talk to government and speak the language and schmooze—because that’s just not me,” he says. It hasn’t escaped Singh’s attention that often he is the lowest-paid and least-educated person in the room. He shrugs it off. “It’s funny, this life that I lead, because I’m a blue-collar grunt. I’m not a caviar-and-Perrier kind of guy.”

Nevertheless, Singh is determined to change the way Canadian humanitarian aid is delivered, whether the caviar-and-Perrier set—or anyone else—likes it or not. “We’ll get there eventually,” he says. “But will the government open their arms and welcome me?” He throws back his head and a huge bellow of laughter fills the room. “Hell no!”

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