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.
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.