A Renaissance Man


A Conversation with Michael Daube
by Shaun Mader

June 2011

Speaking with Michael Daube, one gets a sense that his parents never handed him the rulebook for life. And if they did, he was clearly infused with the notion that the rules are made to be broken. As we sat down for his portrait session, the topics of conversation meandered from art and sound design to the local politics of rural tribes-people. The personage of a Renaissance man quickly emerges. This is only reinforced when phrases like, “painting one’s life,” offhandedly find their way into an explanation of how he makes his ambitious projects erecting schools and hospitals in remote areas of India and Nepal happen. I first met Michael at a fundraiser for his organization, CITTA. We came to find out that we had both worked in the same area in Calcutta and the conversation grew from there, so we decided to sit down to discuss some of the issues that affect social work in that part of the world.

Shaun Mader: CITTA has projects spread throughout India and Nepal. Could you give me an overview of CITTA’s mission and how that’s translated into some of these projects?

Michael Daube: CITTA focuses efforts on remote or marginalized populations that lack basic infrastructure and opportunities. We help build and support hospitals/schools/women’s cooperatives in the most remote and poverty-stricken regions of developing countries where we work. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. We focus our efforts in the poorest and most remote District of Nepal, Humla. We have a hospital in the capital city of Simikot situated deep in the Himalayas. There are no wheels or roads in the district! The population is cut off for a large part of the year due to intense snowfall. We are their only access to health care. In India, we focus on Orissa. This is the poorest state of India and home to many of the country’s “tribals.” In the village of Juanga, we have a hospital that treats around 1,000 patients a month. The hospital has the only surgical facility within a radius of 40 kilometers.

SM: You’ve told me the story about CITTA’s inception moment before.  If I remember correctly, it started with a little garbage picking. Care to elaborate on that?

MD: Being an artist, with a strong interest in anthropology and archeology I traveled to many remote areas of the world studying and experiencing different cultures. After a trip to India for a year, I returned home to open an art studio in Jersey City. While I was looking for sculpture materials in a dumpster, I found a David Hockney portrait of Ozzie Clark and decided to sell it and take the proceeds and build a hospital in the region from which I just returned. The area was in desperate need of basic health care. It’s just grown from there! Now we have a full board and regular meetings here in New York City. Dr. Christopher Barley is the President and one of the main forces sustaining the organization’s efforts.

SM: What were some of the initial issues when you first started working in these countries? How have the issues changed as you’ve grown and spread into multiple areas?

MD: The beginning was very difficult as we were upsetting old systems. In Orissa, there was a wealthy family every 3-4 villages’ distance. They usually made their money by lending to the rest of the poor locals in exchange for labor or land. Even for 10 cents worth of medicines, people would sign away their life to slavery and lose their land. Wouldn’t you do the same if your child had an ear infection that could lead to death? So, providing free health services definitely upset the wealthy local families controlling the area and we had bombs placed in the road and had to take alternate routes out of the area frequently to keep from being confronted by bandits. Also, no roads and heavy monsoons led to their own set of difficulties. I remember carrying an 85-year-old elder on my back out of the region to get him to the city to sign the Trust documents, as he was a board member.

SM: I think the idea of sustainability has become common language amongst the aid community, but still poses a challenge when it comes to achieving it. What are some of the competing factors and do you see trends emerging that may change the traditional models of how aid is delivered?

MD: I agree with the idea of sustainability. But when you provide services to the poorest regions, sometimes you can’t even ask them for school fees of 20 cents a month, if they only eat one meal a day consisting of basically rice and potatoes! But we have developed a women’s cooperative in Bhaktapur, Nepal, that rescues women from vulnerable situations. It’s been quite a  success. They have had clients like J.Crew, Anthropologie, Donna Karan, Golfini della Nonna, Lucy Barnes, and Kate Spade. We are always looking for more clients!

SM: Many of your projects are located in very poor areas with little or no infrastructure.  I’m sure this must force one to be very resourceful and improvise with what is available.  Are there instances that have surprised you or forced you to look at the situation differently because of this?

MD: Each region has its different materials for building as well as unique political environments. We not only have to deal with hard-to-traverse mountains, monsoon-muddied jungles, and barren deserts; but in building, politics can also be a big factor. When we made the hospital in Humla, Nepal, the Maoist conflict was in full swing and we were forced to pay the rebels and the government to bring wood and stone from the forests. Our clever “cowboy” builder sat around all day and slowly pulled the fiber fill from his tattered jacket and spun it into a woven rope! This way he could pull the wood across the river at a non-bridge site and bypass the revenue-greedy forces fighting each other. That was definitely thinking out of the box!

SM: In light of the 3 Cups of Tea where donors found their funds being misused, what kinds of pressures does that put on you when your work happens in areas few are able or willing to personally go to themselves?

MD: When the general public’s attention falls on one character to symbolize “giving” it gets a little dicey. When 3 Cups of Tea became a bestseller, I felt Greg Mortenson wanted to capitalize on getting his message out while the attention was on him. He did a lot of footwork and talks. In doing so, he became even more iconic and I feel lost touch with the activities that he was actually preaching about. Many people came to trust him as the ultimate source of dedication and charitable giving in the farthest parts of the world. It all seemed to spiral out of control. Generating so much funding and attention just seemed to require more of his attention to the lack of focus on his groundwork. It’s difficult to manage projects in remote regions. It requires a lot of attention, patience, and creative thinking to dodge all the obstacles that come your way.

I think having such a small budget as we do and having such an incredible output in the regions we work in, should be something we pull to the forefront of our message. None of our programs have ever diminished or closed. They only grow and become more productive. I think in the future, organizations like CITTA have to make sure people connect more with this information, maybe through increased volunteer programs. Donors will be more skeptical in the future I’m sure.

SM: I know from personal experience that international aid organizations often have administrative costs that result in a low percentage of donated money reaching the people most in need. With your organization’s projects being in such remote areas, how do you deal with those issues?

MD: It’s very difficult making giving to remote communities sexy to donors. Especially when you have so much social focus and attention on places like Africa. You have Bono and Oprah jumping into a “red” convertible to raise funds for Africa. This has a lot of pull in the public. But this also comes with a high price to get the message out. Look at the overhead recently exposed at Madonna’s Raising Malawi Foundation: they spent over 3 million dollars before even dropping a brick for a school! We are in the process of opening 3 new schools this year in the northwest of Nepal. It is a district that is so poor and remote that 10,000 dollars will fund those three schools annually! Though it’s difficult to fundraise 10,000 dollars without getting the word out. Especially when you see someone putting 1.5 Million into advertising their mission, and getting 3 million back! I don’t know the answer, other than we try to move slowly, in small increments, to maintain a low budget and stability in the projects as well as make sure almost all the funds reach where they are meant to.

SM: When you travel to these areas what would be a typical trip to one of the project’s locations in Nepal be?

MD: I usually land in Kathmandu after seeing the projects in India. It’s much cooler there and always a relief when I arrive. After meeting at our office and contacting the local government and other agents I need to communicate with, I make plans to go to the hospital in Humla in the northwest of Nepal. It’s the most remote and poorest District in the country. When I plan a trip to Humla there are so many factors to consider: climate (they get up to 13 ft. of snow in the winter and no flights can travel there), political situation (Maoist rebel movements often hampered travel in the past), etc. The only way to get to the region is by flight. There are no roads in the District! The first flight is from Kathmandu to Nepalganj, a city in the southwestern part of Nepal. It’s on the Indian border, flat landscape, and is usually very hot. We make our way to a hotel, usually a not-so-charming small cement room. From there we wait to see if we can secure tickets to Simikot, the capital of Humla. At the small cement bunker-looking airport in Nepalganj, there is usually chaos! Flights are often delayed or canceled due to weather and high winds over the Himalayas. Many locals are backed-up due to cancellations and are all vying for tickets as well. After lots of negotiating and waiting, we clear tickets and make our way through security.

The flights are usually small 15-seat aircraft filled with locals. It’s a very colorful sight to see: Tibetan-looking local women with large nose rings, some breast-feeding, eating, men screaming and moving about staring out of the windows, most flying for the only time in their lives. The view as you leave the flat terrain and enter the deep Himalayas makes it a dramatic flight! It’s only 45 minutes to reach Simikot. When you near the city, the flight makes a plunge to meet the dirt runway. You can actually see goats out the front window as you make the descent!

The flight pulls into the airport like a taxi, spinning around at the end, coming to a stop then throwing all the supplies and luggage on the ground like bales of hay. I’m usually greeted by some staff that help me carry supplies to the hospital. After reaching the hospital, we drink warm water from thermoses and eat dahl and rice, and sometimes Tibetan bread dishes like Kaposi. Sleeping there is difficult the first few days due to the altitude. I wake up frequently at night breathing deeply trying to pull air into my lungs. After meetings and discussing the project for a few days, it’s just as difficult to leave. The winds might pick up and no flights will land for days or weeks!

Michael Daube is a NYC-based artist who founded and is the Executive Director of CITTA. He is also the subject of an upcoming documentary titled Way of Life.