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Sudan in the late 1980s

Sudan in the late 1980s: A personal view from the Oxfam Archive (Running time: 33 minutes)

This podcast is the first part of a recording (part two) made on 25 August 2005 as part of the Oxfam Archive Oral History project and is an interview with Maurice Herson, Editor of Forced Migration Review and previously Deputy Humanitarian Director and Head of Humanitarian Programme Advisory Team at Oxfam. Maurice left Oxfam in December 2004 after nearly 17 years with Oxfam. He made a huge and lasting contribution during this time which was largely with the Emergencies (later Humanitarian) Department. Maurice had many interesting and challenging times with Oxfam including in the Sudan and in the Great Lakes crisis of the mid-1990s. The interview was carried out by John Magrath who has worked for Oxfam since 1985, in a variety of communications and research roles. He was Press Office Manager during the Great Lakes crisis.

Running time: 33 minutes

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JM We're going to talk about Maurice's career and lessons learned and all sorts of interesting things. I first came across you when you were working in the Red Sea Province in Sudan. How did you get involved with Oxfam?

MH I'd been living in Sudan as a teacher and this was the time of the drought and the famine in the Horn of Africa and I'd got involved with some refugees from Ethiopia in the place where I was living in Eastern Sudan and then later got a job with Save the Children in Darfur. And I'd burnt myself out as lots of people do on their first kind of emergency job and I was back in this country and I was lorry driving, as it happened, and I heard Marcus Thompson on the radio talking about somewhere, I can't remember where, wrote a letter in and was invited to come and talk with somebody in Oxfam. And I thought I was coming to come on a talk and I got half way through the day and I was actually being interviewed for a job. And by the time I got home to where I was living in Canterbury that night somebody had rung up and told my girlfriend at the time that I was being offered the job. And since she didn't know that I was going for a job in Sudan it was all a bit irregular. Oxfam HR has moved on since then though maybe not as far as it might have done. Not good HR practice I have to say. And so I'd already lived three years in Sudan when I went back to work for Oxfam on the strength of a year with Save the Children doing food relief, and my knowledge of Sudan and Sudanese Arabic. And I went and lived for two and a half years in Port Sudan and working all over Red Sea Province in North East Sudan on what was at that time Oxfam's largest programme anywhere in the world. And largest office as well which was… I think it was some 70 people which is by today's standard moderate size. We have huge offices by comparison nowadays. But those were the days when although I was what was called a Relief Coordinator which was in charge of the whole programme which ran to several millions of pounds, I still used to do some of my own driving, change the wheels and do my own filing and all sorts of stuff whereas nowadays we've divided such things down into infinitely small, little gradations of tasks so you have logisticians and administrators and all sorts of things and I think that's one of the differences really from those days to these is that it was an unprofessional world in general and in Oxfam as well. We [have] professionalised ourselves quite a lot.

JM You came into it, presumably, just through this experience with SCF but with no kind of formal training in nutrition or what normally goes for relief operations. You were just a lorry driver basically.

MH Well, I was a bit more than just a lorry driver but no, you're right. I had no formal training. It was an unprofessionalised profession and nobody had MAs in Logistics or in Development Studies or something. Nowadays when you recruit people into the kind of posts that I took then there's no way you would have taken somebody who is as I was then; even less so than would Save the Children have taken me on because I had no experience when they took me on to do it. You know, I've always been a generalist and sort of made it up. And it was a kind of coming in through the back door in those days. Whereas nowadays, 20 years on, we've become, despite what job adverts say which is experience counts for more than qualifications, nevertheless there's an awful expectation that people will have all sorts of training. I'm not trained as a manager and I think that probably hasn't changed a lot. Oxfam still employs a lot of people as managers who are not trained in management in lots of different ways. I wasn't trained in administration, I wasn't trained in anything. I just came along and hacked it. As it happens, I think, we got away with it 'cos I think I did okay. But it was a risk and nobody had quantified or tried to - quantify's the wrong word - work out what that risk was. We needed somebody and I looked like I could do the job and I could make intelligent comments about the right things at interview and there I was suddenly running an enormous programme. Lots of staff, lots of responsibilities for which I had no training at all.

JM Tell us more about the programme. What was it that you were doing?

Food distribution programme and "post-cut monitoring" in Sudan

MH It was a programme that had been branded "Food for Recovery" because it was a rather unconventional food programme at the time, the idea being that many of the people in Red Sea Province were no longer starving, in desperate need of food, and by the conventions of the time, and still to some extent now, they didn't need food and therefore shouldn't have been getting it. But the argument had been made that since their livelihood was largely dependent on their animals which was probably slightly less true than we thought it was and animals [are] not like a crop where you plant one year and you've suddenly got a harvest and you're okay. Animals, herds of animals take a long time to recover. So there were these nice little charts showing if you started with three goats how long it took before you had whatever the viable number of goats was. And we were supporting people so that they didn't have to sell their young animals and could let them grow and mature and their herds would grow that much faster if they didn't have to sell the animals in order to buy grain. And the programme was terribly finely tuned. Much too finely tuned. Every little sub-group of people got a slightly different ration depending on some esoteric calculation that was partly based on nutritional statistics. [It] seemed very scientific but actually wasn't.

JM Just let me ask you a question about that because we seem to have moved back to that way of doing things a little bit in modern theory. Because there was all the criticism of mass food aid given willy nilly to everybody and we're now moving back to the concepts of safety nets which are much more individualised and every community gets something and the people in the communities [that] are identified to be particularly at risk get more and so on. You're saying this isn't a new concept?

MH Oh, it's not a new concept at all. I think what was wrong, if it was wrong, was that it was all too precise; it was pseudo-scientific. The programme was intended to run for another five years and I was employed to run it for the next two years and then either stay or hand it on to someone else. And I rapidly did two things. One was change from a very variable set of rations, from full ration down to a little bit, to basically three types. There was a big ration, a medium ration and a small ration. Like the three bears in Goldilocks really - in porridge. Because I didn't think we could be more sophisticated than that. We could say people need more or less but not to the degree which it had been defined before. And food aid is a fairly blunt tool and I think where we are now… we are trying to use it in a more sophisticated way but nevertheless it is still a blunt tool in as much as people need food to eat. We all need food to eat but the food that you give people to eat, they very often don't eat it. Sometimes because it's the wrong food, sometimes because they have other priorities and will sell it. And so the attempts to be more careful with what kind of food and how you distribute it and what sort of quantities and so on is a worthy attempt and is the right thing to do. I just think we were on the right track but trying to do it too subtly, if you like. And the other thing I did was I rapidly came to the conclusion that the food aid shouldn't go on for another five years. And I wrote a paper back to Oxfam House, which I'll come back to in a second, which caused a bit of a furore because we'd got funding [from] the World Food Programme and this was going to go on for another five years and suddenly the Programme Manager, me, said "No, I think we ought to stop it". And it resulted in a very interesting series of discussions and communications. But in the end I won the argument. I made the case and it was accepted. And we then spent the next year, year and a half, closing down the programme.

JM Who was your boss at the time that you had to persuade?

MH My boss in Oxfam House was Liz Gascoigne. But of course there was the Emergencies Unit as it was then that had an interest in this and that was Tony Vaux and Marcus Thompson. And in between I had my immediate manager in Port Sudan and then I had the Country Representative who was Mark Duffield. He's now quite famous in academic circles. And taken over from him was a very old Oxfamer called David De Pury who might be interesting for this archive as well. And there was also a man called Tim Foster who designed the programme; a very smart and very convincing person who didn't like the idea that his plan was being undermined and weighed in quite heavily. But we did a good and responsible job. What we did was we wound down the programme gently. We didn't say, alright, it's going to stop in three months. We actually spent three months planning it and then a long time telling people that we were going to do it and then quite a long time gradually winding it down, reducing the rations, the high ones down to the medium, the medium to low, the low ones phasing them out, sometimes keeping people on low rations for quite a long time while people who'd been on higher ones lost it completely. We did a very complex job over quite a long period of time and I feel very proud that we did that because World Food Programme, as soon as they saw the argument, that they wouldn't have to produce any more food, wanted to say right, cut off that, that'll be nice, good, save that money, save that food. And I spent a long time convincing them to do it the long, slow, responsible way. And I think that was the right thing to do. And I even persuaded Oxfam to go on paying me and some of our Sudanese staff so that after we'd stopped the distribution we could do what I call "post-cut monitoring" at the time which is to try and work out what was the effect on people of getting cut off from the food aid as though, if you like, to make a check that the decision was right. Not that I was sure that we'd be able to back track and get it reinstated if it turned out to be wrong but at least to go and look at it and talk to people about how we'd done it and whether they were surviving without it.

JM And what was the effect of that? Were people okay afterwards?

MH I think people were okay. I think the people were okay in two senses. One is they, like people in most parts of the world, plan their lives and the thing that we had enabled them to do was to plan their lives. During the food distribution we had said to them "every month or two months or whatever you'll get this much food for your community and it'll be divided up however you divide it up among your community". And so people, as far as the logistics allowed, could more or less depend on what they were getting. We did a reasonably good job or World Food Programme rather did a reasonably good job in fulfilling those promises. And we then said to people in six months, nine months, a year you will no longer get this food. And explained to people what our thinking was and heard their arguments about why it should continue longer. And some people said "Okay, that's fine. That's okay. We'll be okay." And it turned out that people, on the whole, had survived. I suppose the interesting thing is that since then, and that was mid-1990 we finally stopped that, there have been three more rounds of the same sort of thing in the same area because people have a chronic need rather than an acute need and I think we were right to stop it then. And I also think we did it reasonably well. I look back on that with a degree of satisfaction for having designed it well myself but also to have got Oxfam to do it well.

JM We must have had some excellent local staff to support you?

Local staff and gender dynamics in Sudan

MH We had some fantastic local staff. I mean there are some incredibly dedicated people. There were people who'd been in the programme for two or three years before I got there and I happen to know that at least one of them is still there. And what are we talking? We're talking 15 years later and the person I'm thinking of is a woman who in that society is very unlikely to be a public figure but has become one and during the time I was there she was one of the people who we promoted to becoming a team leader over some men which was almost unthinkable.

JM Who was that?

MH Her name is Fatma… I can't remember her other name. I can't remember her Father's name, which is the other half of her name. I have a very strong mental image of her. I've even got a picture of her downstairs. And we had some extraordinarily dedicated people. People who had to work with dilemmas that we didn't have to work with. You know I was an expatriate, I was an outsider, with an intense interest but not a base in the society that I was working in. I developed a kind of social base, a network of friends and I sort of belonged in a strange sort of way. But I didn't have the tribal interests and the power interests and the political interests that they had. And there were some people who took what were probably extraordinary risks for themselves in being very honest and straightforward in running a food programme in a responsible way rather than doing the other thing they might have done which is wheel and deal to get the best deal for their lot. And I'm sure that some of them had to do a lot of political work that, as far as I was concerned, was behind the scenes. Because they didn't want to compromise the work that they were doing but had to persuade the society they operated in politically that that was okay as well. And I'm sure that they did a huge amount that we outsiders were never aware of to enable us to do a good programme. Not perfect but good.

JM You mentioned that the food went to communities and, I suppose nowadays, we are very conscious of communities being divided and women particularly getting a bad deal. Had you got built into the programme looking at specific needs of women and girls?

MH Um. We could get into a very long thing about Beja society in the Red Sea Hills here. All of our teams were made up of a mixture of men and women because men can only talk to men and women can only talk to women. Well, that was the theory. In fact, as I said, we managed to make people like Fatma in the end team leaders who could develop the confidence to talk to men and I suppose many of the men had got used to us enough to accept that we had ways that we wanted to do things [and] accept talking to her. And those women were our eyes and our ears with the women. But the way that society is structured made it very, very difficult to have access to women in groups and in fact women don't often operate in groups in that society. And so many of the communities that we were dealing with are mobile and split up and we were delivering food to places where people weren't but they would come by and pick it up so… It's a very odd sense of community in a way. We were conscious of the need to consider gender dynamics as we'd put it nowadays. And, in fact, when I left I wrote a whole series of papers about the programme, the society and what we'd done and why and so on and one of them was about gender. It still exists on some common drive in Oxfam somewhere probably. And I'm not sure that today's gender advisers would see our analysis as having been terribly sophisticated but we certainly worked on it and thought about it and my assistant was a very intelligent woman, a Sudanese woman, who was very aware of gender issues and wasn't going to let a lot go by so she and I worked very closely together and I find it hard to remember details now but I'm sure I was very dependent on her. She wasn't a Sudanese woman from that area which made it more difficult actually but, anyway, I was very aware that I needed her support in getting things like that right. You know, you think oooh 20 years ago we were cave men and we didn't think about these things but we did. And, as I say I'm not sure that we were terribly sophisticated but I am sure that we thought about it and took it into consideration in our programming decisions, in our planning decisions, in our decisions about the way we organised ourselves and our work.

Communications were very difficult in the sense that we didn't have communication around town and we certainly didn't have communication out of town. So if we wanted to get a message to Oxfam House - you know, no mobile phones or satellites or anything like that - we used to have to get the message right and then go to the WFP office

MH So we'd go to the WFP office and wait till they had electricity when they would type on their defunct telex machine - this is the days of telexes before faxes - a punched tape which we would then take away and one of the staff would be taken down to the bus station at one o'clock in the morning to get on a bus to Khartoum which would arrive at about 10 o'clock at night so that was one day and then they would get up the next morning and try to find an office with electricity in Khartoum that could send the telex from the punched tape to Oxfam House. And then hang around until Oxfam House had deliberated over whatever the telex said and sent back a message which would then arrive somewhere that had electricity and this person would pick it up and would then get on the bus at one o'clock in the morning to go back to Port Sudan and arrive at midnight back in Port Sudan and then come into the office. So it was a minimum of three days to have any communication with Oxfam House. And it was so liberating! You could actually get on with your job. You could make decisions. You could be responsible and accountable as we say nowadays. You had a job to do and you got on with it. Because you only got in touch with Oxfam House either with your regular reports, you know, weekly or monthly report that you'd send in with the pouch or else in desperation you would use this minimum of three days method because there was no other way of doing it. There were no phones out of Sudan at all really. If you went down to Khartoum it was unlikely you'd be able to get through yourself anyway. And it was very empowering. We had a job to do and we were expected to get on with it. Nowadays, of course, you've got not only your manager, and your manager's manager, and your manager's manager's manager but a load of advisers watching you on the email constantly and expecting answers to things and you're… ah, it's such a different position as a programme manager in the field now to what we were then and the technology has changed things so enormously.

JM And changed things for the worst?

MH Well, I'm sure that it's better in some ways in as much as there were times when I wanted advice and I couldn't get it and nowadays one wants advice and can get it. We had a very unfortunate incident where we were digging a well and there was a de-watering pump in the well and unfortunately the fumes overcame one of the well diggers who died and we really could have done with a bit of support over that because clearly it was an accident. Now whether there was negligence or not was the kind of thing that was arguable but we really needed help and support over that and we couldn't get it easily. So there are times when actually you're very pleased that you can lean on headquarters, if you like, but in other ways it was much better to be given the responsibility to do a job and to be able to get on with it without being watched all the time. And particularly in high level, high profile crises. You know, you talk to anybody who's in Bam or Aceh or somewhere and I'll bet they spend half of their time dealing with people who want to communicate with them over the e-mail and the mobile phones. So there's pros and cons but I have to say I liked it better then than I think I would like it now. And I was amazed going back to Darfur last year in the middle of 2004 to do a real-time evaluation of the programme that is being done there now in relation to the conflict in Darfur… everybody's got mobile phones. And last time I lived in Darfur in 1985/86… well, there wasn't a working phone in the whole area that I was working in. So, big changes from the technology in the ways that… it's more than ways that we work, it's the ways we relate to each other because of that, I think.

JM Yeah. You were talking earlier before we started the tape about how it was very physically a hard life. I don't know whether that was in Red Sea Province or whether that was in Darfur that you were talking about but for a white guy, even though you'd lived in Sudan for some years, it was a very difficult and strenuous life. Can you say a bit more about that?

Life in Sudan

MH People who know me are sick of me talking about how difficult Port Sudan was. It's the climate that's so difficult in that part of the world. We had a period in my first year there of 14 weeks when the temperature every day was over 50. And at night never went below 42. Never went below 42 all night. And it's a very humid environment as well and it is incredibly hard physically. As it happened, as you've said John, I'd lived for a few years in Sudan and I like Sudanese people, I speak Sudanese Arabic, I know my way around, I'm happy living on Sudanese food and so on. But people who didn't have that advantage I think found it even harder than I did. And there were very long days travelling in Landrovers over impossible… well, they're not roads they're just rocks that you travel over. Sometimes two, three days at a time to get somewhere. Two little anecdotes if I may. I remember one journey where we had 17 flat tyres in the space of a week and that was… you take the wheel off and then you have to take the tyre off the wheel and repair the inner tube and then get the tyre back on. And getting a heavy-duty tyre on a Landrover wheel with nothing but brute force is a game, you know. None of that fancy stuff you get in tyre changing shops. And the other anecdote, the Red Sea Programme is very big and very inaccessible and there were places we had been distributing food to for years literally that nobody had ever visited… had met people from there, had talked to people about it but nobody had been there and I decided it wasn't good enough. And besides I felt like going there. And I had the most amazing two week trip on a camel. Somebody set it up and we drove the Landrover as far as we could into a dry stream bed where we were met with guys on camels and we headed on up into the hills towards the Eritrean border. And it was absolutely fantastic and my back has never recovered.


MH My first job with Oxfam was in Sudan and one of the last things that I did, in one of my last roles in Oxfam, was to go and do the fashionable real-time evaluations that we're doing. And I think rightly by the way. That shouldn't be a put-down. I think it's exactly the right thing to be doing. But I went and I did a month in Darfur in July 2004 and then about three weeks in Chad on the other side of the border in September looking at the programmes we were doing. I have to say they were fairly sorry programmes in lots of ways. And it's rather easy for an old Sudan hand like me to look at the young sprogs who are coming in there, you know, never been to Sudan before, don't speak the language, don't understand bugger all about anything that's going on there and be critical about it. And I suppose I have to control the tendency to do that but the truth of it is that there's two sides to it. One is that Darfur is a very different place now than it was when I worked there for Save the Children in the mid 80s. It's a very different place. And we have to take cognisance of the fact that while I, in those days, was able to drive myself around Darfur on my own, nowadays it's a very different security environment. It's a very complex political place…

MH Sudan was formative for me in many ways in my relationship with Oxfam. I mean Darfur now is a very different place. It was a peaceful place although a difficult place when I was there in the 80s and now it's not a peaceful place and travel there is very difficult and we have a much more complex way of looking at the world which I think we've referred to in some of the other earlier bits of this conversation. And I think we really struggled to bed ourselves in, in order to produce a good programme. I'm talking about the operational programme rather than the advocacy programme. 'Cos there was an awful lot of undoubtedly valuable work at the UN and the Sudanese Government in one way or another or with DFID and so on. And I'm sure that's very valuable but when it came to going to a camp where Oxfam was committed to doing latrines for 40,000 people and was saying that's what it was doing but hadn't dug a single one several weeks in, you know… doesn't make you feel good. And I didn't feel good about it. I don't know whether I should be saying this on record but I wrote a very critical report which spent an awful long time whirring around nowhere and it's probably ended up in a safe somewhere stamped "confidential" because it sure didn't get out in anything like the form that I wrote it in. And I suppose that I was looking at it with a slightly jaded viewpoint maybe after these 17 years with Oxfam but also with what I have to be careful of which is my happy memories of Sudan and Darfur 15-20 years earlier which I know I mustn't do. But just seeing that, really, we were not hacking it after the fact that the humanitarian world and the humanitarian world in Oxfam has made leaps and bounds in doing more, growing in size, being more expert, having more strength of expertise and knowledge and specialist skills and so on. We were doing a lot worse job in Darfur than I think we used to do 15-20 years ago. And I suppose that's worrying. I shouldn't make that criticism of Oxfam overall but it is indicative of the fact that there are two things going on. One is our increasing sophistication, our understanding, our management techniques, our advisory skills, you know, all that sort of stuff on the one hand. And on the other hand there is this endless intractability of the real world where however good you are at livelihoods programmes or digging latrines or whatever, if you get somewhere that's in the midst of a really vicious civil war and with all the political complexities of Darfur as it is now, it's difficult. And somehow you frustrate yourself more by having all of that expertise that you can't deploy… almost. And it's much harder to be imaginative and think out of the box. You know when I was in Port Sudan, the Red Sea Hills, I would have ideas and people would come back and say "Oh, do you think that's a good idea" whereas nowadays you have an idea and there's somebody who's got a library to throw at your head about what you haven't thought of. So, that sounds like me being an old fart doesn't it really? But I do think we've got ourselves into a little bit of an overspecialised trap. And I've had this reflection in relation to, well I remember very specifically, in relation to the Bam programme in Iran after the earthquake there. When was that? Christmas 2003. Reflections on that were that we were sort of stuck in our expertise, you know… we had to have the health adviser and the gender adviser and the water adviser and the livelihood adviser and the shelter adviser and the logistics adviser and everything. And it kind of stopped us getting on with it in a way. So I think there's a real tension in there that I've watched Oxfam over the years try to resolve, not well enough maybe, but we're sort of digging ourselves into the pit… and not quite sure we know how to dig ourselves out of it. You know, I've left now. It's six…nine months on you know. Everybody knows these things and maybe, maybe we're getting somewhere. But I do feel that that has not been all that helpful in all circumstances. In some circumstances, yes, but we have to get out of this one size fits all. You know, if you employ advisers they all have to be on everything.

JM We're overloaded.

MH Yeah. I think we overload ourselves. And places where we really need to be simpler and sharper, we find it hard to be. We don't differentiate enough between those. And particularly the big, high-profile crises. If you went in there with a skimpy team you'd get criticised for it but maybe that's what you actually need to do. You know, I'm not saying something I wouldn't have said or haven't said in the Humanitarian Department before I left.



  • John Magrath


  • Rosie Dodd

Recorded: 25 August 2005

Rwanda and the Great Lakes

Rwanda and the Great Lakes

Rwanda and the Great Lakes: A personal view from the Oxfam Archive (Running time: 35 minutes)
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Filed under:
creative commons logo (CC) BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Oxfam team meeting. Sudan, 198#. Photo: Oxfam / Maurice Herson.

Food distribution: Oxfam holds a meeting with a Sudanese community.
Sudan, 1989.

Photo: Oxfam / Maurice Herson

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Last updated Sep 09, 2011