Charles McJilton is the founder and CEO of Japan’s de facto national food bank, Second Harvest Japan. Several years ago, he and several others founded Second Harvest Asia, with the aim of creating a community through which food banks can share best practices and support each other in order to support more hungry people in Asia.
Aidpreneur editor Roberto De Vido interviewed McJilton at his office in Japan several weeks after the two had spent a few days together in the Philippines visiting disaster relief operations in Manila, and shortly before McJilton was due to return to the Philippines to oversee his organization’s first donation of aid to victims of Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda.
Q. On this trip that you made to the Philippines to do a needs assessment, who did you want to see and what were you looking for and what did you come away concluding?
A. Well, going into any disaster, I really firmly believe it’s like the three blind men approaching an elephant: it depends on what part you feel … you’re going to come away with a different idea of what the disaster is and what it means. So that I really fully understood, because I talked to other people who saw different things and said, “Well, it’s this way.”
What I walked away from this time – and you never know who you’re going to meet, and I think this is the difference between the Philippines and Japan, is that it’s much easier to get things done in the Philippines, just by chance meeting, networking, using someone else’s name. That’s unheard of here in Japan, and it hit home to me again, that whatever I needed to do, I had to be there, to meet that person, have that conversation, make that contact, get that number. I wanted to make sure that … who was going to be the end user? How were we going to get it to the end user there?
Just sending stuff down blind, was not something I would be comfortable with. And so what I came away with was, two things: one, we’ll send out large donations, through Cebu, for distribution in Visayas – Leyte, and those areas right there – and then mid-term to long-term projects, we’ll work on the northern province of Iloilo, to help people recover their livelihoods.
But the issue is complicated, I think, in the Philippines, because everything devolves to the baranguay level, to the local government unit, the LGU. They’re the ones who have a large say in who is helped, and how the help is going to be done. And in some ways it seems like a very good system, because these people know where everyone lives, and who they are.
The downside of this is that it’s a very political system. These are elected officials, who sometimes do not support those who did not support them, and favor those who are on their payrolls. And I’m not saying anything that people down there won’t say. So, we’re very cognizant … we just heard back from one of the communities that we visited last month, that the local baranguay captain will not accept any aid, unless it can go to every single person. Even though not every single person was affected.
The other thing I found, coming back away from this, is that the Philippines has a very “wet” approach to providing aid, and Japan is very dry. When I say “wet”, I mean emotional. People want to express themselves, they want to do something. So you get a lot of activities that are highly inefficient, but are very tactile, that allow people to have that experience of packing food, or something, even though you could … get a forklift.
Japan is very dry. Let the professionals take care of it. There are not a lot of expressions of emotion.
In the Philippines, the second weekend after the disaster, they had two concerts on national TV to raise funds. When I was down there – I arrived on Wednesday night and stayed until the following Wednesday – I saw cause-related marketing in many stores saying, “Support the victims of Typhoon Yolanda.” I cannot imagine that type of response here in Japan, so quickly.
There people say, “Let’s just do something, let’s do it now.” And that’s a response from their emotions. Whereas in Japan it’s more clinical, it’s more dry, it’s more focused on how we’re going to do it. It was an interesting contrast in how people respond to disasters.
Q. Japan is far from the Philippines. Are you decided yet on whether or not you’ll be able to send relief supplies down there, or decided yet on whether or not that’s needed?
A. We’ve sent two containers. And I will go down there and assess how smoothly we can get the first container through. The heartbreaking thing is that we definitely know there is a need out there. Obviously people are still suffering. But I am concerned that the aid goes to the people in need and is not diverted to other places. Unless I can feel that that’s going to happen, I’d rather try to think of ways that we can provide assistance in the medium- to long-term.
I’ve got plenty of aid here, in Japan, that I can send down there, and it’s pretty cost-effective to do it. For example, it costs me about ¥200,000 ($1,928), including all expenses, to send down around ¥26 million ($250,707) worth of food. That’s a pretty good return, and all that aid was free. Those costs are just the shipping charges, and things like that.
But if it’s going to go down there and I’m not sure who’s going to use it, or if it’s going to end up back on the market being sold, or being used for other political ends, then I’d say, you know, no, we’re not going to participate in that.
Q. So on your trip, the day after tomorrow, you’re going to make some final decisions, I guess. What are you specifically going to do and where are you going to go and who are you going to see?
A. Our container actually arrives tomorrow. I’ll arrive there the day after, and either today or tomorrow our container will hopefully have cleared customs – that’s a big hurdle – and then we will unpack on Sunday, and the mayor of Javier, south of Tacloban and south of Ormoc, has dispatched two 10-ton trucks to Manila, and we’ll load up all the product there.
We’ve promised some aid to other agencies, but they have not followed through on contacting us, so we’ll see what happens with that. We’ll go to Javier, and see where it’s distributed, and then fly back to Manila. And hopefully based on that assessment – how easy it was to do the paperwork, to get it in, did it make sense for the recipients to get this? – then we’ll come back and make our decisions.
Q. So then, what’s in the containers?
A. Half the container is filled with a donation from Kellogg’s, three different kinds of cereal. The other half of the 40-foot container, of all things, is emergency food! Like freeze-dried rice, freeze-dried soup …
Q. You mean the sort of food that companies keep on hand in the event of earthquakes?
Q. We didn’t discuss this earlier, but I know that companies rotate those supplies, and some companies throw them away, some companies offer them to employees, and some companies donate them to you, isn’t that right?
A. Exactly, and so this company donated 13 pallets of freeze-dried rice. And that’s a lot, and it’s very expensive. All the items were things they were going to throw away because they were going to replace it with new product. And it hasn’t expired, and will be consumed well before the expiration dates. I think it was an easy call for the company, and I was very pleased with this donation because this was a new donor to us. They responded to our appeal, got in touch, and 13 pallets of product is a lot. And for them to pay to get it to our warehouse where we did our packing was very helpful. And I helped pack that 40-foot container, and on Sunday I’ll be down there unpacking it, and we’ll see what happens after that. And after that, I’ll make the determination about what’s the best next move for us.