Pascale de la Frégonnière, Cartier Charitable Foundation’s executive director, relates how the water and sanitation project it is funding in Myanmar has improved the livelihoods of rural inhabitants.

Black Hawk Down was a 2001 Ridley Scott movie that dramatised the events of the Battle of Mogadishu, which took place in the Somalian capital in 1993. Pascale de la Frégonnière, executive director of the Cartier Charitable Foundation (CCF), lived through the actual ordeal and survived to tell the tale.

Back then, Somalia was in the middle of a civil war, and the United Nations was called in to carry out peacekeeping operations. French-born de la Frégonnière, who worked for the UN, was tasked to coordinate humanitarian assistance. It was her job to dovetail the activities of the different NGOs on the ground, to ensure that there would be little to no overlap, a job she describes as being “extremely frustrating” and a “nightmare” to accomplish.

“When I was in Mogadishu, I [had no point of reference]. It was hard to picture a country with no government, no law and order. We had to fly in from Nairobi, Kenya, on a military plane. It was a cargo plane, so there were no seats; we just sat on the floor. It was a good start to tell you that [Mogadishu] was going to be a totally different experience! When we got to the airport, no one checked our passports. And we had to know who was waiting for us, otherwise we would have gotten kidnapped in five minutes!

“The UN houses that we were all assigned to, there were 15 to 20 of us to a house. We each had a room but we shared a common bathroom. The houses were protected by Somali guards, and every morning we went by convoy into the office. We all had our flak jackets and equipment that we had to put on before getting on the bus. We had to avoid being too exposed because you never knew what was going to happen,” the 49-year-old says.

“In order to be safe, we needed to get on the convoy back to the house by 5pm every day. If we missed the convoy, we had to sleep at the office. That day we got back to our house safely. We wanted some fresh air, and the only place we could be outdoors safely was on the roof of our house. So we were on the roof when we started seeing helicopters flying overhead, and we felt that something was going on, because we had never seen that many helicopters.

“And then we saw one helicopter being shot down in the distance, and we could feel the tension from the crowds that we saw from the roof of our house. People were running, but we had no idea what was going on. We found out the next day that an American helicopter had been shot down and its pilot taken out and dragged through the streets. All this was taped on video and shown on TV as well; it was a way to send a very strong message to the US,” says de la Frégonnière.

It was not, as one can imagine, an easy life for a 26-year-old. It was only her second posting — her first was with Unicef in Barbados. “But it was our decision to go there and work. It’s not like we had no choice,” says de la Frégonnière, referring to her husband, who then headed Unicef’s operations in Somalia. “That was my first experience in a war zone.”

A unique foundation
Options is in central Myanmar with de la Frégonnière for two days to observe the CCF’s activities in this part of the world. Previously, the CCF had flown under the radar — even de la Frégonnière admits people are often surprised to hear of the foundation’s existence — precisely because the intention was to achieve some form of results before publicising its activities. The CCF, which was established in 2012, functions independently of Cartier’s commercial interests, and is managed by a separate team headed by de la Frégonnière. Buoyed by an endowment fund (the value of which Cartier will not disclose), the team has full autonomy to manage budgets and allocate resources to charities and programmes it deems fit — in the case of Myanmar, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects.

The CCF is the maison’s latest effort in giving back to the community, says Grégoire Blanche, Cartier’s regional managing director, Southeast Asia and Oceania. “We’ve done the [charity] galas. We’ve done the limited edition pieces where we give a percentage of the proceeds back to charities. We’ve also done the celebrity endorsements. But ultimately, we always felt uneasy at some point. The next logical step was to ensure that whatever decisions were made would be made without the influence of the commercial side of the business. This is part of our maison’s culture, of pushing the boundaries of what we do.”

Blanche reiterates that the CCF is less keen on publicity than it is to focus on the tasks at hand. “The motivation is not one of communication, or of buying ourselves a conscience. When we talk of philanthropy and of being a patron, in our view you don’t need to communicate it. It’s a genuine responsibility that we have and recognise, and if we do it, as with everything we do, we want to do it well.”

Part of doing the job well was to get de la Frégonnière on board. She joined in July 2013 and leads a team of four, who have decades of international NGO experience between them, from the CCF’s office in Geneva. However, she spends part of the year travelling to the world’s most impoverished regions to meet with beneficiaries and to determine the success rate of the projects.

A life less ordinary
De la Frégonnière admits she never envisioned herself being so involved in humanitarian work. Her interest was kindled in university, where as a journalism/ communications undergraduate, she was given the opportunity to do an internship at the UN. “One thing led to another, and from being in the UN headquarters in New York, to attending major international conferences that tackled tough topics, I felt I was part of something greater,” she says.

From there, she started working with Unicef, spending two years in Barbados. Back in New York, she met and married her Italian-born husband — from whom she is now separated — and shortly after, they transferred to Somalia. When Mogadishu became too dangerous, the couple moved to Nairobi, and de la Frégonnière started thinking about where her life was heading. She could have opted for a regular communications job, but she relished the thought of waking up with a sense of purpose every day and being able to tackle some of the world’s problems. “Not that I was going to succeed,” she concedes. “But at least I had to try.”

Her fate, it seems, was sealed.

A short stint back in New York was followed by a posting to Baghdad, Iraq, in 1997. It was the time when the UN ran its Oil-for-Food programme, whereby oil produced by the country was managed by the UN so that revenues generated could be channelled towards electricity, water, health and education for Iraqi children. De la Frégonnière describes this period as “extremely intense”, but on the upside, she and her husband made good friends among the locals.

Two years later, the couple packed their bags for Rome, Italy, where de la Frégonnière managed media visits for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a UN agency that aims to eradicate rural poverty. “There I learnt how important it was to work in rural areas and how important agricultural development was in helping people make a better living. Every step in my career was about discovering new things each time.”

In 2001, the couple moved again, this time to Beirut, Lebanon, where they would spend the next four years — de la Frégonnière’s longest stint yet. There she worked for Unicef once again, and was responsible for securing private funding for an education programme for children in rural areas. Next came a year-long tour of duty in Amman, Jordan, where foreign nationals working for Unicef had to be stationed because Baghdad had become too dangerous in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was the first time that Unicef had to work remotely.

It was during this period that de la Frégonnière began cultivating and managing relations with European Union and UK government agencies that were supporting the UN’s efforts in Iraq, contacts that no doubt come in useful in her work today. This led to a stint as head of the corporate fundraising team of Unicef France, based in Paris.

And then came the call from Cartier. These days, she finds herself on the other side of the table. “I had been doing the same thing on the other side: going to fundraisers, foundations, the EU, trying to convince them of the importance of funding. Knowing the field, I thought it would be easy to look at who to fund and how to fund them. I had come across so many organisations, so I knew who was good and who was less good. Once I was in the job, I realised it was time for me to tap into all my experiences to then do the job I was given,” de la Frégonnière says.

From Myanmar with love
Over two days, we visited three of the 27 villages where the IFRC is working to improve during the three-year WASH Programme: Kan Thar, Makyi Pin Thar and Kyar Pwar. They are remote — each a two- or three-hour drive from our base in Bagan, the popular tourist destination renowned for its plethora of thousand year- old temples and ruins. We ride in a convoy of three vehicles, together with the crew from the IFRC, who have been carrying out infrastructure improvements — building wells, pipelines, storage tanks, hydraulic pumps and latrines — over the past year.

De la Frégonnière points out that it is key for the IFRC team to get the local communities involved in the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure, so as to empower them and give them ownership of the projects. The villages comprise around 200 to 300 inhabitants each, of which about 10 volunteers form a village- level WASH committee. It is the responsibility of the committee to maintain the facilities, organise regular meetings and report the details to officials at the township level.

While the village set-ups were all different — some had school facilities while others did not, for instance — a common thread was that the water and sanitation systems brought much relief to the inhabitants. Speaking through interpreters, we gleaned that their lives had improved significantly. Where many of them had to fetch water from distant sources, today they have water within the village limits.

The IFRC’s aim is to install water points no further than 400m from each household. Contrast this with the daily 2km or 3km trek that villagers had to make prior, all while carrying gallons of water in 30ºC heat (it gets hotter in the dry season), and the difference becomes obvious. The time and energy saved as a result has allowed the villagers to devote more time to working on the farms, and hence earn more income. Many of them are paid daily wages for work such as clearing of fields or harvesting of crops.

“It’s making trips like this, meeting the team on the ground, and seeing the actual beneficiaries, that keeps me motivated,” says de la Frégonnière.

Decisive action
But how does she decide which charities to fund? “There are five fundamental questions we ask,” comes the reply. “What are the needs of the community that we’re going to work in? What is the right solution for this community, and what do we need to do to make that happen? How much is it going to cost? If we do it, is it going to be sustainable? And finally, what are the risks involved? Because nothing goes without risks. However the only ROI [return on investment] we seek are social improvements. And then I present my case to the Board.

“When we look at organisations, this is where my background comes in handy. If I look at water and sanitation issues, I know who the good ones are. Then I look at how an organisation wants to roll out a project. The project has to run in tandem with the government’s social objectives, otherwise it all falls apart once funding stops. Reputation is very important too. I don’t want to support an organisation that could tarnish the reputation of Cartier in any way,” de la Frégonnière states.

Blanche adds: “The most valuable contribution that we’re making is putting Cartier’s name on those projects. That’s why it is so important for us to make sure that when it is done, it is done so with the utmost level of scrutiny and seriousness that we apply to anything else we do. The Cartier name also helps generate awareness on a number of key topics. For us, it’s where the biggest contribution is made, and that’s why we wanted to ensure that Pascale and the team were seasoned professionals in their field.”

Besides chronicling developments in the luxury watch industry, Aaron De Silva also runs The Time Traveller SG on Instagram (@thetimetravellersg) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/thetimetravellersg)

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 753 (Nov 7) of The Edge Singapore.