ShelterBox CEO talks about need to adapt


This Q&A interview is excerpted from an interview with ShelterBox CEO Chris Warham, an English Rotarian, conducted by Rotary Magazine managing editor Allan Berry. Among other topics, Warham explains the rise in the use of ShelterKits when standard ShelterBox aid is not suitable.

Rotary Magazine: ShelterBox income is based around disasters or tragedies of some sort or other, correct?

Chris Warham: A disaster at some point in the world creates a response from Rotarians to do something to help, and they react in any way possible to raise funds for ShelterBoxes to aid people who have been displaced from their homes. [But] If you give me £10 today for the disaster that happened this morning it’s very hard for me to spend that specific £10. I actually needed that £10 six weeks prior to it because we have lead times on equipment and we can’t hold 30,000 tents.

RM: How do you then overcome the peaks and troughs in funding?

CW: It’s the key strategic challenge we have and why we need consistent regular support. We know that on that worst day that Rotarians up and down Britain [and the world] will shake tins and they will do extraordinary work and for everything they do we thank them. Our income will increase rapidly and we have to organize ourselves so we can get that money spent and we can move on very quickly to respond to that disaster. Then, after a few weeks, that income comes down again and we have to find ways to increase the base level of the funding we are getting so we can absolutely rely on it. It’s much more use to us to know that, for instance, 1,000 clubs commit to buying £1,500 of aid each year and we know that is going to happen.

RM: How did ShelterBox respond to meeting the needs of the “person in the empty chair”? (A reference to Warham’s observation that “The empty chair in the room is for the beneficiary who does not yet know they will have to flee their home, and every discussion we have, every decision we make, and every penny we spend has to be focused
on meeting the needs of the person in the empty chair.”)

CW: The aid world is changing, and today we could not respond to the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan disaster. The reason is that the Philippines government will not accept tents because tents are permanent, and we are seeing this from governments across the world. They want people moving back to their home sites with communities staying together.

RM: Explain how you respond to that, and what different approaches are available?

CW: Practically, in two contexts, ShelterKits become fundamentally important in an urban environment where it is very hard to roll tents because you have nowhere to put them. If you can provide a kit, which allows the householder to fix his property to make it weather-tight and, therefore, aids the process of recovery it is a more appropriate response than simply providing a tent.

If you look at Nepal [where a series of earthquakes caused widespread damage], there is no way you could use ShelterBoxes because of the transport issues. We could not move ShelterBoxes up the hills, so ShelterKits were used. We have just completed a response in Sri Lanka and Fiji and Malawi last year where ShelterBoxes were the answer, but in other places we cannot use boxes because there is a predisposition against tents. We have to develop the aid offerings we’ve got. There is no single set solution.

RM: What sets ShelterBox apart from the rest of the aid organizations?

CW: All of the aid is delivered by volunteers. There is a whole cost structure there;  transparency, accountability and visibility is a really important thing. We are not moving away from the concept of the box, but what goes in the box might change. Aid is of no use unless it meets the need.


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