The co-founder and CEO of Choose Love on the role of technology in humanitarian work, COVID-19's impact and much more.
What started out as a hashtag in 2015, #helprefugees, Choose Love has now reached over one million displaced people across 15 countries, had over 35,000 volunteers and supported 150 grassroots partners, raising close to £40 million. They say that part of the reason for the success and growth of the organisation is that there has never been a strategy other than to “just get support to where it’s needed.”
A lot has changed since we last wrote about the Choose Love store in 2019 – the first shop in the world where you can buy real items for refugees. With the pandemic forcibly displacing communities in a multitude of ways and technology evolving faster than we can barely keep up with, it was time that we touched base again and received some Wise Words from this inspiring organisation.
Keep reading for some insightful perspectives from Josie Naughton, the co-founder and CEO of Choose Love; featuring how we can avoid becoming normalised with the idea of refugees and the role of technology in humanitarian action.
— Katrina Lane
1. What change does Choose Love want to facilitate and why is it important?
Choose Love’s vision is a world that chooses love and justice every day, for everyone. We identify, close and prevent gaps in services and protections for refugees. We do this by supporting grassroots, civil society-led organisations that are working on the frontline of the forced migration crisis across Europe, the Middle East and the US/Mexican border.
It’s important because we are living through a time of change and it’s up to every one of us to create the change we want to see in the world and if not now, then when?
2. Where did the idea of Choose Love come from and what inspired you to materialise it?
We never intended to start an organisation. Initially, we just wanted to do something to help, which was by raising £1000 to take a van load of tents and sleeping bags to Calais in northern France. The more we learnt about the crisis, the more driven we became to continue this work.
3. What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work?
I didn’t have a background in the humanitarian aid sector. I had been a PA in the music industry and prior to that worked as a waitress, a barmaid and a nanny. Doing all of those different jobs were the best training possible and provided me with a broad set of skills. So much of this work is about just getting the job done and finding ways to achieve things. I was very lucky to work with Coldplay where I got an amazing inside view into how logistics, press, media and merchandise work. I also learnt how important it is to be as kind as possible to everyone that you interact with.
4. How do we avoid people becoming normalised with the idea of refugees?
I believe in many ways we should normalise the idea of ‘seeking refuge’. We are only seeing the beginnings of mass displacement – the broad estimate is that by 2050, around a 6th of the world’s population will be displaced by climate change. Globally, we need to get better at facilitating safe and legal routes, and at inclusion within areas where there are many new arrivals.
We also need to put more genuine reflection into the language we use. News cycles are so fast nowadays that most people will only interact with a simplistic, dehumanising summary of a situation, hearing broad and misleading statistics. For one thing, it’s impossible to talk about ‘refugees’ as one single population. Sometimes we’ll see people of more than 20 different nationalities living in the same reception facility. For another, these are not inherently ‘vulnerable’ groups of people – they are vulnerable because they have been rendered so by governments.
5. How did your campaign with Iranian refugee artist Majid Adin align with this?
Majid Adin is an example of a powerful individual who would never have been ‘vulnerable’ were it not for the broken asylum system. We met Majid in Calais where he was living after fleeing Iran. He’s a brilliant artist and has had a lot of professional success since arriving in the UK, including illustrating for the likes of Elton John (see the Rocketman video here). We have partnered with him in our own fundraising films and mural projects around London. He is an example of how lucky we are to have refugees living in this country.
6. Do you think technology advancement is creating opportunities for humanitarian support to reach people in new ways? And if so, what role does technology play in how Choose Love functions?
Technological advancements have completely changed the sector and how the public interacts with that sector. Choose Love was born through social media. We started as a hashtag on Twitter in 2015. Today half of our funding comes from public crowdfunding. Our network of partner organisations connects and grows together through social media and we can communicate with our community who then advocate for change. People in their homes in the UK can donate to a crisis in Lebanon, and we’re then able to be transparent, showing where that money has gone.
7. What can you tell us about how Covid has impacted refugees? And how has Choose Love adapted its work during the pandemic?
When the virus first broke out, we were initially very worried about it spreading uncontrollably because people are living in overcrowded camps, often with very little access to running water, soap or sanitiser. If people do get sick, they often don’t have access to medical care. Therefore, this year we have significantly increased our funding for medical infrastructure, buying extra PPE, soap, sanitiser and trying to get people into more suitable accommodation.
The consequences that we didn’t foresee, was there would be less funding available globally for refugees. In contexts like the Middle East, the currency has crashed, making cash worthless and resulting in a huge need for very basics like food and clothing. People who have re-settled in new countries rely on community centres and food banks for their support and this has all become compromised. There is also a mental health crisis, notably not just in the refugee population but globally and we are seeing the effects of that.
8. Moving forward, what role do you see as the role of humanitarian action? And is it time to recast the role of large humanitarian organisations based on the principle of ‘subsidiarity’?
Wherever we go, first and foremost communities know what they need, and we just need to support community-led organisations wherever possible. There’s a lot less bureaucracy and the response is fast and flexible. We’re by no means the only ones following this model. The humanitarian aid sector as a whole is moving towards this and it’s a step in the right direction.
9. What is one book, podcast or movie that has inspired you that you might recommend?
Even though it’s now a few years old, there is a documentary called Exodus: Our Journey to Europe which is available on BBC iPlayer. In this you see people document their own journeys to safety — Hassan Akkad, one of our dear friends, colleagues and ambassadors being one of them. It’s really powerful as it enables the viewer to put themselves in another person’s shoes and when you do that you completely empathise with them. Another great podcast to use as a resource is The Worldwide Tribe.
10. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My advice would always be to believe in yourself, don’t be afraid of failure, and to listen.
6th April 2021