It’s not surprising if you’ve never heard of the Cartier Charitable Foundation. The maison has been extremely low-key about it, allowing the organisation first to grow and find its footing before publicising its work.
The foundation was set up in 2012 by Cartier. Essentially, it is an independent vehicle that supports and funds projects across third-world nations in four main areas: access to basic services such as water, women’s social and economic development, responsible management of natural resources, and emergency response.
In October 2016, Singapore Tatler was among the first journalists worldwide invited to join the foundation on its inaugural press trip to Myanmar.
Joined by Cartier’s managing director for Southeast Asia and Australia, Grégoire Blanche, and de la Frégonnière as well, we visited villages that had benefited from a water programme developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Read more about the trip here.
Over three days, we discovered the core tenets of the foundation, and the projects it has supported across Africa, Asia and South America. Its success can easily be attributed to the woman who runs the show: de la Frégonnière. In this line for over 20 years, she has worked on the ground in war-torn areas such as Mogadishu and Iraq, as well as countries ravaged by natural disasters including Haiti. We highlight the incredible life and times of this affable French humanitarian.
1) De la Frégonnière found her calling in humanitarian work following an internship with the United Nations (UN) in New York. She enjoyed the stint so much that she moved from Paris to the Big Apple, sans job, waiting for the opportunity to join the organisation full-time. Eventually, she got a job working on major international conferences at the UN.
“Sometimes I feel like I didn’t necessarily make very strong decisions. Things just happen and you seize opportunities and just do it. From being in the UN headquarters in New York, I was given my first travel experience with UNICEF, and moved to Barbados—I had a choice between Barbados and Afghanistan, for once I took the easy choice!”
2) Her next stop was Mogadishu. This was the early 1990s; the country was in the throes of a civil war. It was a dangerous time, as the country was run by militias who were fighting for control of the city.
“I was working for the person who was coordinating humanitarian assistance on behalf of the UN; we were trying to coordinate the activities of different NGOs on the ground, and made sure that we optimised the time, energy and logistics of the organisations as it was very dangerous to go from point A to point B. It was just terrifying.”
3) And then she experienced Black Hawk Down in real life. She was on the rooftop of the UN’s living quarters in Mogadishu, and could see the helicopters flying overhead.
“We could feel there was something different; we felt something was going on. We saw one helicopter shot down, we saw smoke; we could feel the tension from the crowds who were running. We only found out the next day that the pilots had been taken out of the plane and dragged through the streets. It was all taped on video and shown on TV. We had to get out.”
4) That didn’t put a stop to her adventurous spirit, however. In 1997, she transferred to Iraq with her family during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Despite the controlled environment, de la Frégonnière remembers meeting the most incredible people there.
“The environment was tense, but we made very good friends. They knew that after meeting us there would be questions, because if they met foreigners, Saddam Hussein’s government wanted to know. It was a terrible time for Iraq; Saddam was building palaces as people were starving. Before him, Iraq was the Switzerland of the Middle East; it was a fantastic place and the people were so great and so well-educated; it’s terrible that the government prevented them from thriving.”
5) Following Saddam’s execution by the Americans, she worked remotely with charities in Iraq from Aman, Jordan.
“Everything was decided by the team in Aman, and we got our Iraqi colleagues in and out when needed. We strategised remotely and I was in charge of donor relations, essentially governments that were supporting the efforts of the UN in Iraq. I made sure that they funded the right things and what was needed from them.”
6) This experience on the ground has given her the invaluable insight into the needs of the underprivileged, and the organisations best equipped to meet these requirements. It has been an essential skill that she has harnessed at the Cartier Charitable Foundation, as it supports and funds projects within its four main focus areas; she knows exactly the questions to ask, and instinctively can perceive the long-term sustainability of a programme.
“I already knew that side of the coin. Once I was in the job (at the Cartier Charitable Foundation), it was time for me into tap into my different experiences, as I had come across so many different organisations and knew who was good. It is interesting that I can contribute in a different way.”