Human Studies: The lessons I've learned from a life in international aid

Prior to his retirement in 2016, author Neil MacDonald worked for some of the world’s most recognised international aid agencies, including Oxfam and Save the Children.

During that time he ventured around the world, from Central America to Africa, providing on-the-ground support to the most vulnerable. He learned of their dignity, resilience and community spirit, but also of the oppression and abuse of their basic human rights.

His experiences, both good and bad, helped inspire his newly-published debut novel, The Tears of Boabdil. In this exclusive article, Neil reflects on what he has drawn from his career, and considers what the most needy can teach us back home in Britain.  

By Neil MacDonald

A lifetime working in international aid has been a privilege. 

You might think it would be depressing, spending your life with dirt-poor people, but the reverse is true—it’s inspiring to witness the resilience and daily heroism with which ordinary people in Africa, Asia and Latin America respond to enormous challenges. It gives me hope for us all.

“For you, electricity is easy,” one Latin American shanty-town leader told me. “You just pay the bill and you flick the switch. We have to figure out where we source the generator, how to get diesel, who is going to repair it. This takes the whole community.”

Her story is repeated around the world. There are no individual solutions to poverty. It needs the effort and the collaboration of scores, often hundreds, of people.

This makes the authorities in some countries see them as dangerous. Organised, self-reliant poor people may make difficult demands. People I’ve known have been threatened, attacked, and even killed. The police keep an eye on them constantly in case they become restive. 

We too once treated our poor this way, crushing demands for safe working conditions, better pay, and voting rights.

But before we congratulate ourselves that this is all in our past, we should remember that police agents have actively infiltrated democratic, peaceful protest groups and trade unions to spy on them—a clear infringement of the right to privacy. 

This scandal, highlighted by independent reviews carried out by Mark Ellison QC which found “appalling practices in undercover policing”, led to the setting up of the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) in 2015, and which finally started evidence hearings this month. 

My experiences with people struggling for their rights in the developing world, and developed world as the UCPl reminds us, prompted me to wonder what kind of person infiltrates a community, lies to its members, and even sleeps with them to gather intelligence.  

The Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) reminds us that it is not only the down-trodden in the developing world who have their rights violated.

We may never find out from the enquiry, since the majority of police witnesses have been granted anonymity. That may be where fiction comes in. My literary thriller novel, The Tears of Boabdil, which has just been released, tells us why an undercover policeman—in this case the protagonist, Vince—might do this and what the lie does to him. 

Indirectly, this has drawn on my experiences working in conflict zones in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. In fact my fictional policeman’s victim is in part modelled on a colleague I worked with in Yemen. 

When I first saw her at home in jeans and tee-shirt, without her headscarf and abaya, I asked if she felt strange without her cultural clothing. She laughed and said, “Those aren’t my clothes; they’re my biohazard suit” (meaning that they stopped men harassing her). I was so struck by that that I stole it and put it in the mouth of my character, Ayesha, who is lulled into a relationship by Vince.

There are hazards aplenty in the developing world. Disease, scarcity, and wild animals. Contrary to popular belief, the beast that kills most people in Africa Is not the lion or the elephant, it’s the hippo, an extremely bad-tempered creature. Or, maybe, the most dangerous animal is the human one.

International aid worker and author Neil MacDonald.

Sometimes, these perils are eerily familiar. In Brazil, I witnessed armed conflict between cattle ranchers and small farmers, the theme of so many Westerns I saw as a boy. Ranchers want their cattle to be able to graze free. Farmers want to put up fences to protect their crops. The fences become a battle line. This story plays out again and again in countries across the world. It’s as common in east Africa as in Brazil.

And, as we have all come to know only too well in our own times, disease threatens and challenges us all. And again, the solution lies in acting together. I met Valeria almost thirty years ago. She lived with her unemployed husband and three children in a shanty town on the outskirts of Chile’s capital, Santiago. Many of the houses were shacks built of spare wood or even cardboard. She led a community health group.

She told me, “It’s not just a matter of looking after your own family’s health. I have to be concerned with the health of my neighbour on this side; my neighbour on that side; my sister across the road. We have to help people to prevent illness because they haven’t the money to be ill and there isn’t enough medical attention for everyone.”

And yet the authorities, in what was then a military dictatorship kept Valeria and her friends under surveillance. Just as our police do today. The Undercover Policing Inquiry is investigating 139 agents who infiltrated more than 1,000 political groups. At least 18 grieving families trying to get justice for their children’s deaths were spied on. At least 21 of these officers had sex with those they were spying on, just like the “spycop” Vince in my book. 

And in these times of pandemic, as we huddle in our homes, the poor and oppressed in the developing world may have an vital lesson not just for me but for all of us. 

The importance of the everyday heroism of simple people pulling together, of community and solidarity. Neighbour must look after neighbour; the individual must play their part in preserving the social order; and those at the top must honour and respect their citizens’ basic human rights. 

The Tears of Boabdil by Neil MacDonald is published through Matador, priced £7.99 in paperback and £2.99 as an eBook. It is available on Amazon and for more information visit www.neilmacdonaldauthor.com 

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