Broken sandals, worth one more repair.

by Ken Burnett

This story sets out to answer every potential donor’s question about whether charities are really doing any good. I’ve included it because it shows even my broken shoes have a story to tell.Broken sandals
I took my broken sandals to the shoe-mender across the road from my London flat. ‘These are unusual,’ he observed as I handed them over. ‘They’re from Ghana’, I told him. ‘ I bought them from a street vendor in Accra for less than two pounds but they are the most comfortable shoes ever, leather throughout. Though, not stitched or glued very strongly.’ I saw that he’d noticed their earlier mends. ‘Yes, I responded to his query, one repair was done in Bangalore, India, the other in Kathmandu, Nepal.’

‘They’re expertly done’, he said with respect. ‘How do you get to travel to such a lot of exotic places?’ I explained that, at the time, I was a member of the international board of trustees of ActionAid, the poverty fighting development charity. Each year at least two of our board meetings were hosted in different programme countries, so I got the chance to go somewhere far-flung and interesting. He looked at me incredulously, then a bit askance.

‘That sounds like quite a game’, he said. ‘These charities seem to have no end of fun spending their donors’ money organising meetings all over the place.’

It’s a natural criticism, not an unreasonable observation. Sometimes, it’s best to leave people with their preconceptions. But I know this guy, so I was happy to enlighten him.

‘You know,’ I said, ‘one of the biggest problems to overcome when fighting poverty is the often low standards of leadership and governance in developing countries. It’s a major cause of grief in many developed economies too, as we’ve all seen recently. But many poor countries lack the culture, capacity and traditions of good self-management. These are particularly essential characteristics in non-government organisations that are campaigning for human rights and lasting social change. So in ActionAid we’re investing in building governance capacity in all our countries worldwide.’

‘It’s a huge task,’ I continued, ‘one that can’t be done on the cheap. Relative to other perhaps more tangible investments, such as delivering food aid, building schools, digging wells and such like, the outlay is small. But the effects are likely to be much deeper and longer lasting. Our aim is to create strong, competent, well-run, self-sustaining, independent national boards that are capable of determining their own local and national priorities within ActionAid’s broad strategy, Rights to end poverty.

ActionAid works in getting on for 50 countries around the world, from Afghanistan and Brazil to Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 2003 it was the first major international charity to shift its international headquarters from a base in the affluent North – London, to a capital in the global South – Johannesburg. Its chair of trustees when I was on the board was a Ugandan woman; its chief executive was an agriculturalist from Nepal. Seated around its top governance table you’d find representatives from national boards that ActionAid has created and is supporting in Malawi, Guatemala, India, Sierra Leone, Greece, Ghana, Denmark, USA, Australia, Uganda, Kenya, the UK and others. ActionAid’s international governance system enjoys all the colours of the rainbow and all the flavours of a Nepalese street market. Though it started in the UK, British trustees are determinedly and deliberately thin on the ground. At our most recent meeting there were more Indians and Brazilians than Brits.

Experience to date seems to indicate that ActionAid’s board does its job rather better now too. In many countries the new ActionAid boards have been able to secure top brains and experienced campaigners for change of a quality that would have been hard to find and attract if we’d only been fishing in British local waters. These new, developing trustees include many academics, politicians, business leaders, legal specialists and opinion formers.

But diversity brings better decisions by definition. In each country ActionAid’s new leaders know where the poverty is and what’s causing it, because they come from it and see it in their daily lives. It also brings credibility and acceptance too, as individual national ActionAids around the world are increasingly seen wherever they work as self-regulating independent members of a southern-led international family, not as agents of British or American influence. In today’s volatile international environment, this makes a huge difference.

But will this move increase the impact that ActionAid’s donors will have on reducing poverty? Without doubt, it will. ActionAid’s response to poverty includes not just the traditional pillars of rights to education, health, land, food, water, livelihood, reproductive and women’s rights but also the right to sound democratic governance at all levels. By building exemplary boards at the country level ActionAid is sending a strong, consistent message to the people and political leaders of each country where it works – a message that proclaims the importance of sound, just and equitable governance. And will train new generations to recognise what good governance is, and does.

Will this really help make poverty history? Not immediately, perhaps.  Rather, as I endeavoured to explain to my friend the cobbler, it requires persistence and substantial investment, starting now. But as my shoe purchase and their repairs showed, value for money in these countries is often of a different order of magnitude than we’d find closer to home.  Building better governance is a large and important step on the right path. And the evidence already shows it is working.

This article first appeared in 2008 when Ken was a member of the international board of the charity ActionAid, a role he relished for 13 years.

An uplifting solution

It’s inner city Glasgow, 1975, and a new teacher takes on some hard men and wild women who’ve been kept behind at school.

by Isobel Robertson 

Teaching secondary school is an awesome responsibility even at the best of times. I like this story because it shows that winning is possible whatever the odds, that even the hardest and toughest of youngsters can be reached.

43 Scotland's tawse

‘Take a deep breath, it can’t possibly be as bad as you imagine.’ I tried hard to convince myself that I would cope splendidly. Turning the door handle I stepped across the threshold into the lions’ den.

Thirty pairs of eyes swiveled to ‘clock’ my entrance, sullen 15-year-olds, the cream of the ROSLA kids. ROSLA, Raising Of the School Leaving Age, passed amid crisis and panic within the teaching profession, had just become the latest piece of genius theory to reduce unemployment numbers. These were the first class forced to stay the extra year in school, with no discernable syllabus, resources, or goodwill. And here they were, sitting in my classroom, thinking they’d rather be anywhere else. I pulled myself up to my five feet four inches, tried best as I could to scowl and marched to the comparative safety behind my desk.

The next few weeks were hell on earth. I tried a host of topics related to my geography degree; environment, weather, town planning, country capitals, quizzes, puzzles….even ‘draw your granny!’ The cries of ‘useless’ and ‘boring’ rang in my ears each night as I trudged home to mark jotters with nothing in them, or worse, comments I’d rather not decipher.

Then there was the discipline.

Matthew Mills was the worst. He goaded me every day, trying to force me to give him the TAWSE, or strap, a leather belt Scottish schools used as an instrument of punishment, even torture. I had decided, as a cultured human being, I would never give ‘the belt’. I could remember the pain I had suffered when it made rapid contact with my tender palms and fingers. Matthew was the leader of the pack and eventually I had to do it. I extracted him from the class; no way was I going to belt him in front of his adoring public. He was over six feet tall. I got a stool to stand on. Then I issued a warning. 

‘So help me, if you move your hands I’ll go straight into that class and tell your boys just what a coward you are.’

Then I hit him as hard as I could. And another twice for luck! His face was predictably impassive. I hadn’t really hurt him.

Then, unbelievably, he said, ‘Aye, you’re no bad.’

Things really improved after that, but in my professional opinion I was not doing a good job. Discipline had recovered, but what to do about the education part of my job? I had access to transport; I had imagination and a supportive head of department pleased to sign off any idea as long as he was not asked to participate. And I had a cousin who managed a factory on the edge of Glasgow. It was a small factory but part of an industrial estate. So began the germ of an idea.

In those days there was negligible focus on Health and Safety or parental consent and in any case most of these kids were untraceable in the evening hours, their parents or parent being only too glad of their absence. I did prepare. I thought about learning outcomes and rationale. They’d see a production line, see working in a team, learn about economics, advertising and so on. Some of these kids would end up working in a factory. I had my link to industrial geography.

All set! Seatbelts on in a minibus full of excited ROSLAs. On this their first ever field trip were Matthew and his pals plus five girls, with the distinctly unlovely Janice among them. Janice was a ‘big lassie’ and a member of the Orange band. Yes, the type that marches the streets throughout the marching season to the stress and discomfort of the city of Glasgow Police. Janice played the horn but her voice alone sufficed to create a deep bass background to any tune. With Janice and Matthew on board we left the playground, my heart fluttering in my chest.

‘Aw muss, gonae pass they busses so we can gie them the finger?’ ‘Certainly not. We must get there safely children.’

And safely we did arrive, amid raucous laughter, at our first stop, the lightbulb factory. But sadly the experience left the kids unenlightened. On to watch paint dry at a paint outlet on the industrial estate. Few questions were asked and little interest shown. I was thinking the whole thing was a disaster but I did have my trump card, my cousin’s factory. As we drew up outside the Lovable Bra Factory there was a gasp from the crew.

We entered the building to be met by Gordon. He gave them the uplifting story of the company and explained the production line. We were ushered in to the factory space where rows of Glaswegian ladies at their Singer sowing machines were blathering away nineteen to the dozen. Reams of pink, black, neon lace, ribbon and wire for the DD cups. I had never seen the boys or Janice so quiet and riveted.

The banter and the chat from the women was pure Glaswegian. Finally a brassy redhead addressed Matthew

‘Ah son, d’ya fancy a job on this line, eh?’

Immediate response,

‘Nah. Ma job’ll be taking them aff!’

Much hilarity all round. And the laughter continued all the way home with hearty singing and even a ‘thanks miss’ at the end.

I had found a breakthrough. The kids had to finish the term and we managed to get there but life for me was tolerable and I actually had a new group of minders in the school.

‘Aye, she’s ok her. Gie her some slack eh?’