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The Disillusioned Humanitarian

Andrew Macleod tells Hussein Kesvani why people who want to make a difference don't "do" politics and why Einstein would call the UN insane.

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a life half lived

If ever there was a parable that championed the virtues of principle, no better would it be found than in the remarkable story of Andrew Macleod.

A native of Melbourne, Australia, Macleod's resume boasts a vicarious portfolio, ranging from humanitarian aid work to business management. Such diversity has taken him all over the world, including places few would wish to find themselves. And indeed, it is these places- disaster zones and war torn regions- which form the subject of his new book, "A Life Half Lived: Surviving the World's Emergency Zones."

Macleod was a Law student at the University of Tasmania when he became interested in Humanitarian aid work. While many of his colleagues saw futures in city firms, it was after a speech given by Michael Tate, a former Australian politician and Minister of Justice, that he realised the law may not lead to fulfilment. Knowing that "need was greatest in the developing world", he instead chose to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) upon completing his degree, with his first postings in Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia.

Working in the heart of these turbulent regions allowed Macleod a more genuine insight into the everyday lives of people affected by conflict. He tells me that while local people generally responded well to the presence of the Red Cross, the real issues came about when negotiating with governments and military forces, particularly when the latter were heavily suspicious of those considered as outsiders. But it was the more harrowing experiences of war that really formed an impression on the young aid worker. One of the most haunting lay in Rwanda, where Macleod distinctly remembers the sight of dead corpses that piled around the Arama Church in Rwanda- one of the major killing sites in the 1994 genocide.

In this darkness were some glimpses of light. When I ask Andrew about the fonder memories of his time working in humanitarian aid, he recalls a touching story in Bosnia; A small refugee child, so affected by trauma that he had not interacted with anyone for over a year, suddenly responded by touching his shoulder and crying. Perhaps it's this event, in all its pureness, that shaped Macleod's understanding of aid- far from current debates fixated on financials, the purpose of such work lies in its true humanitarian values.

Upon completing his work in Bosnia and Rwanda - for which he received the prestigious Overseas Humanitarian Service Medal, he attempted to enter the Australian parliament, running for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2001. Although he didn't win the seat, the experience taught him a great deal about the political scene in general.

Such sentiments are still held today, as he tells me that he gradually became "disillusioned about the Australian political process". According to Macleod, "the people who wanted to make a difference didn't do politics". He also found that the issues he had a great passion for were rarely of interest on a domestic level. He tells me that this situation still continues, and has ultimately resulted in a devaluation of the quality of Australian politics.

In many ways, the absence of a serious dialogue on issues of overseas development remains in Australia to this day; one only has to see the controversy surrounding issues of immigration and asylum. On this issue, Macleod tells me that Australia has "its policy totally distorted". Rather than stricter border controls, he argues that a "policy of allowance" would be much more suitable, especially because diversity remains one of the greatest strengths in any nation.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

It was in 2005 where Macleod felt his energies would be best put to good use. Joining the United Nations, he became the Chief of Operations at the UN Emergency Co-ordination Centre, which assisted NGOs and other charities in delivering aid relief to some of the most brutally hit disaster zones, including Pakistan after its devastating earthquake. And while he lead an excellent team in delivering aid and resources to thousands of refugees, despite the appalling, and eventually unstable conditions in Pakistan, the experience of the UN brought a bitter taste to Macleod.

"It's an enormous bureaucracy" he says. "Process matters more than outcome". Rather surprisingly, he tells me that the UN isn't designed to work efficiently, but rather follows its own constructed fiction, in which it projects to the world that it cares". When I ask him about the moment he became disillusioned with the UN, he cites the effects of the Mindanao's peace process in the Philippines, where millions were left displaced with little UN assistance. At the same time, he also suggests that recruitment methods of the UN are extremely damaging to developing economies; "Staff comes mostly from the developing world on high salaries, which provides a disincentive for innovation or risk" the latter which he views as essential in any meaningful development initiative. Summarising the inner workings of the UN, Macleod cites Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result".

It's this dictum that forms the basis of Macleod's book, which he says is a primer on "rethinking the way we do foreign aid". Much of the books analysis stems from his transition into private sector organisations and companies. Having previously been the General Manager for Communications and External Relations for global mining giant Rio Tinto, he now works as an advisor for numerous organisations including Cornerstone Capital and the Sustainable Accounting Advisory Board.

His move into the private sector offered a freedom and flexibility that tends to be rare in larger, more established institutions. He tells me that such organisations offer a "fresh approach" to existing aid problems, highlighting the need to create different aid models". Further, he says that newer organisations also work toward more basic goals, and he advises people in the field to think: "What do we want as a final outcome?".

"It all comes down to jobs" he says. "If good, long term jobs can be created, families will be able to get enough income to thrive in the future". It might seem obvious, but perhaps that's just the point. In Macleod's experience, he says that the existing dialogue between aid organisations and the developing world focuses too much on jargon, more preoccupied with funding than people, and on short term results rather than communities. But to do this, Macleod states that existing policies will have to step out of their comfort zone, which includes making tough decisions on installing modern technology, at the risk of confronting old communal structures.

So what would Macleod say to anyone wanting to go into humanitarian work in the future? "Don't immediately look into government departments or the UN. Look at other organisations that have proven results- they're the ones making a bigger impact". However, it's his final piece of advice which I believe should be heeded by anyone interested in the development debate; "Read beyond the newspaper headlines and always be sceptical about the claims being made".

Book cover provided by Andrew Macleod.

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