Eyes on the prize


Coco Gauff. Wimbledon, 2019.

I sat up and watched the first half of last night’s Women’s World Cup Final between USA and Netherlands, and it made great viewing. I’m no soccer pundit but I have immense respect for the idea of the game as a platform for many things. Exercise, competition, entertainment – it’s been called the most popular sport in the world.

A source of extreme sponsorship deals and extortionate salaries, soccer’s unique blend of controversy and celebrity continue to guarantee it a levitated brand status amongst millions of young wannabe players or ageing supporters.

In the UK, football is more important to some people than religion, family, work, or any truly higher plain or life calling. Without soccer, for these disciples, life would fundamentally cease to have meaning.

Where you fall on the side of loving or despising the “Great Game” itself, 2019 will surely go down as the year that the world woke up and recognized just how wholly discriminatory the world of soccer has been towards women. That will simply now never be the same again.

As disappointing as it is to realise that it has taken so long for this moment to come about – and, of course, we are way, WAY off of any kind of mainstreamed, cultural epiphany about actual equity in terms of men and women’s football – it has, finally, come about, and it must now never reverse and lose that momentum.

The Wimbledon tennis finals will also take place this weekend and, as I type this, Coco Gauff will be waking up somewhere in South West London, preparing to face her fourth round opponent.

Gauff is 15 years old. She dispatched Venus Williams this time last week, and is making history every time she wins another point. She is an incredible athlete. An inspiring, young fighter. And whilst I’d happily spend time highlighting the success of someone so young were she instead to be a young man, it really is that extra bit special that Coco Gauff isn’t.

Whilst Gauff’s inspiration is one that will naturally appeal to young women (Gauff admits to having always aspired to being as successful as the Williams sisters she watched as a young girl) let’s look forward in ten year’s time to hearing how Gauff’s role modeling helped shape the winner of Wimbledon 2029, or even 2039 – the person in question, perhaps, yet to have even been born.

As exciting and powerful as these sporting episodes have been of late, and as key as they will be in the future – milestones which chip away at our patriarchal structures and norms, barely altered for millions of years now – these public figures are only one part of a puzzle that still needs to be put together.

So many more pieces of which are yet to be connected.

It’s not anywhere near good enough that parts of the media might finally be promoting women in sport. Or that, say, future prize money might be adjusted in favour of equal pay.

It’s of no consequence at all, either, that a father of two daughters blogs his support of any type of conceptual gender equity.

It all comes down to institutional changes AND the changes we have influence over each day as individuals.

The choices and decisions we make for, and with, our children as they grow.

The ones we make with our peers on a day-to-day basis. What we do and say in public spaces, in the workplace, or on the football pitch. Each action and moment and choice counts.

Just as each serve, volley, forehand, smash and drop shot will, later today, contribute to Coco Gauff’s fourth round game, as well as to her story of change.

Like her, we must keep our eyes on the prize, try to do our very best, and hold on to the idea that one day this puzzle will be completed.


Friday missive from Colombo

I have been in Colombo this week, my last visit here in February coinciding with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations.

As I gear up for returning back to Saigon tonight, I’ve been combing through this morning’s report out from Donald Trump’s July 4th speech about America’s independence, alongside a rash of social media streaming Anne Widdecombe’s inauguration (which, let’s just say “touches” on the topic of independence) as a Member of the European Parliament.

Widdecombe, in case you didn’t seen her performance, compares those duty bearers inside the European Parliament to “feudal barons”, and the United Kingdom to the “peasantry” – a “colony” seeking to escape from the oppressive regime of an “empire”.

Trump, to paraphrase his day in the office, made a speech with lots of “uncharacteristic” words in it (such as “we are one people chasing one dream”) and then stood back as his country’s military arsenal flew overhead.

Some commentators are comparing Trump to presiding like a “Roman Emperor” at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. Others feel his patriotism is perfectly in line with a July 4th event (military parades, many argue, are a common enough occurrence at an Independence Day event).

Widdecombe’s monologue has predictably attracted similarly polarized responses.

None of this is new. None of this should, by now (meaning, since we’ve historically tracked issues of governance in society) shock us.

The topic of independence runs like a jagged seam through our history and will, it would seem, continue to do so long after a thick layer of dust has settled on the archives of each of the world’s current government administrations’ collective legacies.

The act of independence is an awesome one.

It simultaneously super-charges the potential for wide-scale liberation and conflict, for shaping societal norms and culture, and for empowering individuals to both leverage power as well as rage against it.

It’s exhausting even to wrap one’s head around the sheer concept of all these things. Almost as exhausting and exacerbating (I’m happy to show my hand on this one) as watching Widdecombe pontificate in front of her MEP colleagues, with Nigel Farage sat sneering next to her.

Thankfully, for me, traveling around a former tropical colony of the British as I was watching Widdecombe’s display, made the irony of her ranting too rich to allow for the biting embarrassment it evoked in me to really ruin my day. Plus, I’m still recovering from being flawed by the audacity of her fellow Brit MEPs turning their backs, the day before, during the European anthem…just ENOUGH ALREADY people!

Working for an international NGO since 2006, I’ve tracked the topic of independence inside CARE’s worldwide network of organisations which comprise our confederation.

We’ve accelerated, since 2014, a change process that is seeking to diversify those top decision makers inside of CARE.

This means pivoting away from our long standing dynamic of these decision makers being based in countries where we don’t deliver programmes. These are countries which are also known affectionately, and wholly inaccurately, as making up the “global north”.

Regardless of the parlance here, the objective is an exciting one.

To now have CARE representatives from Thailand, Peru, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia, residing over critical governance issues related to how we work, alongside the likes of the UK, USA, Australia, France, Germany and Canada, is a nourishing proposition.

And, moreover, it’s actually happening at CARE and not just being talked about. And, so far, it’s working.

In the miniature socio-political world of CARE organisations, our evolution in this way mirrors changes around independence that have taken place on the world stage.

Predictably and, in many ways, healthily, these changes have sparked debates and discourse at CARE, and opened up a platform for us to share ideas on how we best ensure the impact of our work, on the lives of our beneficiaries, also increases from a more diverse governance model.

We’ve a long way to go, however, on this journey. Turning a big ship like CARE requires time. Critically, what will become the real game changer, if we get it right, will be how we learn from the process of establishing new entities, as we have done in Sri Lanka, and what we then do with that learning.

Truly, I think these next 5-10 years could be some of the most influential and critical in CARE’s 75 year history. We adapt our model for doing business, and increase the impact of our work, or we close up shop, for good.

I don’t see any middle line we can take on this.


Also coming out of this week’s discussions with the Chrysalis team (CARE Sri Lanka, after 50 years of operating, closed their programmes down in 2016 and reincarnated as Chrysalis, a social purpose enterprise that focuses on engaging businesses and markets in Sri Lanka in order to support women and youth) a take-away resonating for me, is linked not simply to getting more to grips with the implications on a country, or on an organization, of seeking any form of independence, but also the need to accurately describe what it is that an organization such as Chrysalis actually does. 

Asking the question: “what do we mean by that?” is possibly one of the sharpest tools we have as development practitioners.

I recall feeling immensely fatigued, though, after joining CARE in 2006, from attending drawn out seminars and workshops in which long serving professionals would routinely ask this question.

Often, on reflection, I think I was right to feel that way, as it can become an addictive and distracting habit.

However, I’ve learnt to respect the art form of curious enquiry (my 8 year old has helped with this) and, when it comes to an organization like Chrysalis establishing itself, breaking free as an independent entity from the mother-ship, it seems to me that an opportunity is there for the taking, in carving out a fresh articulation of just what it is that this new entity is all about.

What does it mean, for example, to “support women and youth,” how does an organisation “economically empower” local communities, and what does it mean to “increase women’s voice” in public spaces?

This call out for clarity is aimed at all humanitarian and development organisations. Let me be clear on that.

CARE and Chrysalis, were they to describe more simply and accurately, what their work sets out to achieve – jargon free – would not be catching up with other peers but would, instead, be trail-blazing a refreshing type of new narrative.

One that, perhaps, would help gain traction with new audiences and would open up new possibilities for partnerships and collaborations.

Let’s see.

As “duty bearing” goes, it’s not a lot to ask to describe in plain terms what your organization is seeking to achieve, is it?

As a recently appointed member of the Chrysalis Board, I will hold myself accountable for doing just that.

To be continued…






A Letter to my 18-year-old Self

Dear Me,

Congratulations on your recent birthday, and on finishing up your ‘A’ level exams this morning!

Who’d have thought you’d make it through those intact, after such appalling mock results, and no University offers in the bag. You can now, at will, rapidly forget all those Shakespeare and Aristophanes quotes you learnt in the woods with ‘JR’, deliriously smoking packs of cigarettes, whilst counting down the days until this one – the day you got to put your biros down, walk out of the familiar, and off into a world of new.

Full marks, too, for all the extra-curricular activities safely executed upon these past two years at boarding school. It gives me considerable joy to report that no long-term damage was caused by any of said activities and exploits. In fact, you may well have been all the better shaped from them. Who knew?!

The summer holidays you are about to embark on will be some of the very best times of your life. Bettered only by each and every chapter that unfolds, year after year, from now on – all the new twists and turns you will encounter in the process offering up maddening and exhilarating experiences in equal measure. But, don’t worry, I can vouch for the fact that you at least get through to 44 years old, relatively unscathed.

I’ve no wisdom to impart to you that will be any more influential on your life than by learning it yourself, on your terms, and when you are ready. Although, if you are reading this, then a few things maybe to throw into the mix (you know how much you/I like to offer up nuggets, when given half a chance):-

With these unfolding chapters and experiences that I have just forewarned you about, seeking comfort and reassurance from different sources can tie you over (books, physical challenges, bottles of wine shared with entrusted friends) however, the trick is to create your personalized palate of truths, from within your own ample stock of resources. You don’t have to rush this. Let it come when the time is right;

We do all, of course, only go round once (as one of your future inspirations will reaffirm) and so, where we can, we’re the more fulfilled in the end if we spend these days with our ears open and our perspectives in a constant state of flux. You will travel, you will place yourself in situations to do just this – over and over – and you’d be wise to never stop doing so, even if that means staying in one place for a long period of time. There will be ways (technology, you’ll see) to do this, that haven’t been invented yet;

Be thoughtful, even when you don’t think you need to be;

Be present, even when you are not;

Moreover, find connection in as much as you can. People, places, objects, activities. Love.

All the rest is an assortment of choices, indulgences, emotions and circumstance. Life’s tombola. Full of surprises it can be, so don’t be afraid to ever buy a ticket and put your hand in to see what is there.

Believe in yourself (just look what you pulled off with those exams) and be sure to write to me in the future.

Your ever-loyal Self,


Day of my last ‘A’ level exam. June, 1993.


Transformation of the Third Sector

Today is February 4th, Independence Day in Sri Lanka, and I have the privilege of being in Colombo this week, spending time with CARE colleagues I’ve known for a good long while. The team I’ll be with over the coming days have been running a new organisation, named Chrysalis, since 2016, which has replaced CARE Sri Lanka, after they officially closed up shop.

Chrysalis is a Sri Lankan organization with the mission of transforming the lives of women and youth in the country. As such they are continuing to find solutions to some of the country’s social development issues, as CARE once did, however with a transformed operating model and role, inside of the global network of CARE.

CARE International in Sri Lanka was one of the oldest CARE organisations, established shortly after the country’s first significant move towards independence in 1948, when Sri Lanka became a dominion of the British Empire. Over a century beforehand the British had pushed out previous colonizing powers – Portugal and Holland – and, by 1810, had taken control of the entire island, naming it Ceylon.

This post is not about reviewing the history of Sri Lanka, in spite of the rich learning there is to be had from doing so (particularly writing as a British white male) nor is about examining how independence here has affected Sri Lanka citizens, instead, I wanted to dwell on systems change, and why I’m crossing my fingers right now at the thought of how organisations, including my own, might have this one last chance to redeem ourselves in the world of social development.     Continue reading “Transformation of the Third Sector”

Just Keep Going


Last sunrise of 2018 in Saigon, complete with my favourite ferry crossing.

Happy New Year from Saigon!

There’s nothing like the arrival of January to spark action. Resolutions, I’ve had a few. The most plausible so far being a commitment to eat and drink more slowly, rather than inhaling meals and bottles of wine as if food rationing and prohibition laws were about to be imposed.

Less plausible resolutions include: writing more; drinking less; reading more; and looking at my phone less.

I say ‘less plausible’ in that I’m fairly confident of being able to strike a balance with objectives like these – it’s just a fear of setting myself up to fail by insisting on rigid, self-imposed restrictions. Moderation, it’s often touted, is key, but then so, too, is our ability to feel in control of what we are doing.

More’s the pity that, in many ways, I simply enjoy so many of these pursuits (including my job, and the ebb and flow of travel and time it requires) that I feel more practice is still required to find a useful daily cadence to accommodate all the ‘things’.     Continue reading “Just Keep Going”

Innovations in Resilience


Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.     Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”

A short story of self


I remember the moment I started really thinking about inequality. I was 22 years old and part way through a year of teaching in Uganda. As cliched as that year has the potential to be (for the privileged expat that I am) and as eye-glazingly pathetic as this anecdote might come across, I’ve thought it through a fair few times over the two decades since, and it was out there, halfway down the main orange dustbowl of a road outside of the room I rented behind a local bar, that things changed for me.

It took only one minute – and it will forever raise the hairs on my arms.

It was Sunday, and I was walking into the local town – Kiboga – with Julius, the headmaster of one of the schools at which I was employed as an English (and football!) teacher.

As was customary, a walk into Kiboga, on any given day, would involve multiple greeting stops, and smiles and gestures to my neighbours. Students on bicycles might swing past me shouting “yes, Master!” or a group of half dressed toddlers would canter several metres towards me from out of their houses yelling “Mazungu! Mazungu! how are you Mazungu?”     Continue reading “A short story of self”