Ch.14 Overseas, FAO/UN


Overseas and FAO/UN

Joy and I have been fortunate to be involved with a number of experiences overseas plus a time with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

It started in the mid 1960s when we lived in Winnipeg and became involved with M.A.W.D. – the Manitoba Association for World Development. Quite a grand title for a small group of well-meaning people, mind most of them younger than we were. In 1966, six Winnipeg high school students – 3 boys and 3 girls – were chosen to go to St. Lucia in the Caribbean to work on an exchange program of importance to the St. Lucians. Joy and I were selected to act as chaperones. The trip lasted a month and what a rollercoaster it was! Beautiful country, but very poor. Several of our Winnipeg “charges” turned out to be rebellious and unsuitable in many ways (we were not involved in the selection process!), but we made it through and actually built the foundations and part of the cement block walls for a soccer field change house (as I said, it was their choice of project).

In 1972 I received a Commonwealth Foundation Award and was twinned with a Kenyan, Godwin Wachira, an important farm journalist from Nairobi. He was a much more significant farm journalist than I was. He came to Canada first and was the first guest in our new (to us) home in Brandon. I returned to Kenya and he was my host for 3 weeks. I stayed at Brunner’s Hotel in downtown Nairobi and thoroughly enjoyed my stay in that beautiful African country.

In 1978 I took a job as Senior Information Advisor with LNOR, FAO’s North American office based in Washington, D.C. The Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the UN’s most bureaucratic organizations, was very unpopular with both the Canadian and U.S. governments, mostly because of their intense dislike of FAO’s Lebanese-born Director General, Edouard Saouma. My job was to make Canada and the U.S. find FAO more appealing – basically a major job of lobbying. Here I was, a farm/small town/small province person trying to make things happen in the lobbying capital of the world! I didn’t “make the cut” and my 3 year term of office was ended in one year. I think I did a few things that worked and I got a trip to FAO’s head office in Rome. Our kids – and Joy – found Washington a fascinating place to live but were happy to return ‘home’.

I applied for, and with fellow-applicant/friend Larry Clark of Winnipeg, got a 6 month World Bank sponsored assignment to work in Nigeria in 1988. As with my other jobs outside the Manitoba Dept. of Agriculture, I was able to get a leave of absence. In Nigeria I was to work with the support staff for senior economists and lecturers at the Agriculture and Rural Management Training Institute, 17 Kms. outside of Ilorin in southern Nigeria. So from January to June of ’88, Larry and I worked there. Again, a fascinating experience treasured by both Joy and me. I was able to pass on some basic knowledge about communications, scheduling, work planning and other topics. For one thing, I started a once-a-week 2 page campus news sheet which, for the first time, gave the poorly paid support staff some recognition. Years later this little newspaper was still being printed though its thrust was not as egalitarian. As well, I organized a world class (overused term!) Communications Conference in mid-June. It went pretty well, even with the Nigerians’ propensity to dominate everything. When we returned to Brandon in early July of 1988, I decided to retire in October.

Other overseas opportunities were soon to present themselves. Bob McNabb, a Minnedosa zero tillage farmer, was a good friend. I had worked with him and others to produce a Zero Tillage Manual. Somehow the idea of linking zero tillage with overseas work started to take shape. No doubt Bob, wife Elaine and their four children’s time in Zimbabwe a short few years before had a good deal to do with how things turned out. The Western Manitoba branch of the Manitoba Institute of Agrologists and the Organization of Collective Co-operatives of Zimbabwe started a “twinning” arrangement. CIDA-supported, the project stressed zero tillage and basic farm management. There was also a twinning arrangement between the Home Economics Association (Canada) and home economists in Zimbabwe. Based on that, Joy was able to travel with Bob and I to Zimbabwe in the early ’90s (or late ’80s? – not sure). Anyway – it was a wonderful experience and for a time our Zimbabwe staff people, Dennis Chiwodza and Charles Sadzamare, did wonderful work with the co-op farms. “Plough – then plant” had been the ages-long farming mantra in that part of Africa, indeed in many other African countries, too, but the rains often came in between, causing horrendous soil erosion. Planting (maize, soya beans, etc) into the residue of last year’s crop – i.e. zero tillage – greatly lessened soil loss.

Unfortunately, the project faded as Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe went on a rampage to rid the efficient white Zimbabwe farmers of their land, transferring it to cronies and ill-trained former “Freedom fighters” who knew little about farming. The result is evident today (2009) as Zimbabwe descends into chaos. Mugabe is over 84 years old, but even when he passes on, will the country be able to recover? Who knows?

In the mid-1990s I spent 3 weeks in Uganda evaluating a project financially supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), but in cooperation with the Marquis Project in Brandon. Marquis, for over 25 years has been a strong voice for international concerns. I give Zack Gross credit for Marquis’ success over the years – and its viability. Marquis is virtually the only international development education non-government organization existing from west of Thunder Bay to British Columbia. It is still an active organization today. CIDA wanted to know whether the Uganda Rural Development and Training organization was worthy of continued support. I found that URDT was more than worthy; in my opinion it was “the poster child” for what aid projects should be. URDT was a group of young Ugandan men and women with lots of “smarts”. Trained in forestry, soil conservation, community development and a host of other disciplines, they were working in a poor rural area of western Uganda, in and around the tiny village of Kagadi. No electricity or running water in this area, of course, and people were very poor. But under the guidance of the URDT people, led by a charismatic Mwalimu Muchese, they were making the lives of the local people better. 

Women, in particular, were organized to work together in sewing projects and the improvement of an existing bakery. They had been taught how to budget and plan. Mary Bitekereza and I were amazed. Mary, a MSc. graduate from Brandon University’s Education Faculty but a native Ugandan, was my partner in evaluating this project. These women used flip charts, analyzing and forward planning enthusiastically. A couple of years later, Marquis Project staff people travelled to Uganda and visited the project in Kagadi. The group of women who had budgeted and worked so hard for a new bake oven, had the oven, and were baking bread and buns for local consumption and enough for several nearby villages. They had also started a small restaurant and guesthouse. Marquis people stayed there and ate there, too. Very little, if any, Canadian dollars were involved here. Another example of just how good a project this was could be seen in the local drinking water project, where a polluted stream, dammed up to direct the water through a filter of gravel and sand, now produced clean, potable water. CIDA’s role with URDT was minimal; the Kagadi people were doing 90% of it themselves. Mary and I gave the project top marks.

On all of my overseas projects, maybe because they were for relatively short periods, I rarely became ill. Malaria medicine didn’t bother me and I grew to love African food. However, in Kampala, Uganda, I stepped off the curb and nearly got hit by a car. I had forgotten that cars drove on the left hand side of the road, as in the U.K. In the Kings Hotel in Kampala where I stayed for several days while Mary and I were finishing off our report in URDT’s head office, I did get a bout of dysentery. By religiously following directions about how to recover from this condition, I was O.K. in a day or so and able to eat normally. One evening I ordered chicken in the hotel’s dining room. About 10 minutes later I heard a great squawking noise outside, then silence. Half an hour later my chicken dinner arrived! At least it was fresh – not frozen!!