Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Chris McIvor: aid worker and author

Chris McIvor: aid worker and author
22 Nov
2016
Chris McIvor OBE is the head of Save the Children in Sri Lanka and has worked for aid agencies for more than 30 years. His latest book, The World is Elsewhere, is available now from Sandstone Press

Midway through studying philosophy and English at Trinity College in Dublin, I felt I needed a year out. I saw a job for a teacher in Northern Sudan, applied and stayed for four years, having abandoned my plans to return to study after just a few months. I stayed for two years in a place called Dongola, another year on the border with Chad, and another year teaching in southern Algeria. It was during that period of time that I had mixed experiences of aid work.

My first experience was visiting a project quite close to where I was teaching. My fellow Sudanese teachers invited me to their village and there was an irrigation project nearby that had completely flopped. I can always remember the people in the village saying that they’d never been consulted, that if they’d been asked they would never have sited the irrigation scheme in that area because the equipment was of the wrong kind and so on. It was a rather negative first experience of aid work.

What strongly came across with that and subsequent interactions was that as it wasn’t their project, local people felt no stake in maintaining it. The projects that seemed to have a reasonable chance of being sustainable on their own terms were ones where locals across the board had been systematically involved, while the ones that seemed to collapse were those where there was a very heavy external influence, with very little interaction with local people.

I was country director in Zimbabwe for Save the Children for seven years. We had a community project digging boreholes in communities in the Binga district in western Zimbabwe. It’s the driest area. We thought we had it right because we’d consulted the community as to where they wanted the boreholes sited and had trained them to repair minor damage. I visited a year or so later and had a discussion with a group of schoolkids, asking if they were happy. They all complained that the holes were miles away from the school, the clinic and their houses. I said that we had consulted the communities but the kids replied that we’d only spoke to the older gentlemen in the community whose principle priority was getting a good enough supply of water to have a ready supply of beer. We had never spoken to the children or the mothers.

From that we learnt that in the process of consultation, it’s not just about asking anybody in the community, you have to be selective about who you speak to and how you speak to them so you get a wide range of opinions.

Engagement with the public is not just about commercial transactions and putting money in boxes, it’s also about engaging with people in the countries where we come from about the rights of children

I had challenges in my own team in Zimbabwe. For example, my old staff would say ‘why are we bothering to consult kids? We’ve got it right’. That experience with the boreholes did more to change views than any kind of philosophical argument because people saw that it resulted in a flawed project.

We’ve had pushback at times from government officers saying ‘why are you bothering consulting kids? They’re under the age of 18, they’re meant to be seen and not heard’. But diplomatically and constructively, and through examples like the boreholes, you can go back to governments and say ‘we collectively constructed the boreholes in the wrong area because we omitted to consult kids’.

I think sometimes there’s a misconception when it comes to aid that dealing with a national government is dealing with a single, homogenous entity. It isn’t. Same with governments at home. Through experience, we know in Egypt not just the ministries that we can work with, but the people within them that we get a good deal from, and that we can have a constructive relationship with. These are your allies.

Sometimes you run into… conflicts, if that’s the right word, or ministries that may have different priorities, and that becomes a dialogue. Their priorities have to be things that we genuinely believe are in the best interests of children. We won’t put funding into projects that we don’t think are going to deliver tangible benefits for children.

What lies at the core of our belief is that children have rights. In every circumstance where we encounter children, there are rights infringements that need to be promoted. So engagement with the public is not just about commercial transactions and putting money in boxes, it’s also about engaging with people in the countries where we come from about the rights of children. We hope that, in turn, gets translated into their own circumstances in their own families and communities.

 

CV

1980 Moves to Sudan to become a teacher

1991 Joins Save the Children

2005 Awarded OBE for services for Save the Children in Zimbabwe

2008 Publishes A Bend in the Nile

2012 Becomes Head of Save the Children Egypt

2012 Publishes In the Old Chief’s Country

2016 Becomes Head of Save the Children Sri Lanka

2016 Publishes The World is Elsewhere

This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Click here to purchase The World is Elsewhere via Amazon

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Development

Many countries that are classified as being ‘not high income’…

Development

As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…

Explorers

Fifty years since the great Blue Nile was first traversed,…

Explorers

When author Lydia Syson set a historical novel on a…

Development

A new vaccination strategy aims to eradicate peste de petits…

Development

Over 100 years have passed since São Tomé could claim…

Cultures

As one of the biggest displays of Caribbean culture in…

Development

After 130 years in the diamond industry De Beers recently…

Explorers

From Calcutta to the Himalayas, in The Last Englishmen, author…

Development

As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…

Development

Using WhatsApp to monitor and predict deadly landslides in Colombian…

Explorers

During her time in Ghana, Sarah Begum experienced the lives…

Development

An investigation reveals how the illegal export of talc, used…

Cultures

Land rights for the indigenous are still a problem, but…

Development

New statistics suggest rising healthy lifespans in China, at the…

Cultures

The addition of traditional Māori names to Wellington’s urban landscape is…

Cultures

Native American communities in the US are devising their own…

Refugees

Calais’ continuing refugee crisis may not make daily headlines now…

I’m a Geographer

With fellow student Tom Micklethwait, Charles is travelling the route…