How international development needs to change
Watch our interview with Mike Penrose, head of the charity set up to handle the sale proceeds of Chelsea Football Club and co-founder of The Sustainability Group and FuturePlus.
For almost 25 years, Mike Penrose provided humanitarian relief in disaster and war zones around the world. In 1996, he was held hostage by Chechen fighters. After heading up Unicef UK, Mike founded the Sustainability Group and FuturePlus, and leads the charity set up to distribute the proceeds of the sale of Chelsea Football Club to those impacted by the invasion of Ukraine. In an interview with Cazenove Capital, Mike discusses his career, the importance of education and the meaning of sustainability.
Click the image above to watch Mike’s conversation with Kate Leppard.
An abbreviated transcript follows:
Kate Leppard (KL): Mike, welcome and thank you for joining us today. What took you into humanitarian work?
Mike Penrose (MP): I was in my early twenties and wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. My aunt was a fundraiser for Oxfam and my dad asked her to find me something to do. So I started volunteering for Oxfam and ended up working alongside a chap called Sir Brendan Gormley, who ended up becoming Head of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in the UK. I was very lucky because he’s a well-known and very knowledgeable humanitarian. Working for Oxfam triggered something in me and I decided I wanted to do this for my career. I started with Oxfam in Rwanda and then moved to Action Contre Le Faim, the French agency. The first place I went with them was Chechnya.
KL: And you were kidnapped there I understand. Can you tell us about it?
MP: I was held for several weeks by Chechen fighters. It was a strange experience. I think part of the reason I didn’t get particularly badly affected was because I was so young and you tend to think you’re immortal at that age. I’m not sure I would fare as well now. It gave me two valuable perspectives. Firstly, in other conflicts, I could have chosen to leave. But here that opportunity was taken away from me. I had to live through it, just like most of the people affected by disaster and conflict. Secondly, I realised that most of the young men holding me had been brutalised for most of their life and hadn’t had the opportunity we have. You start to understand how they got there. So it gave me a perspective on how we need to deal with conflict. So often, it is a lack of opportunity and a lack of education that causes it.
KL: I want to come back to education. Before I do, it can be very difficult for us listening to the news to truly understand what it’s like on the ground. What insights can you share?
MP: I think Spike Milligan said “war is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror”. So, for the most part, life goes on and people have the same needs that we do. Day-to-day routines may be more challenging, but there is the washing and the preparation of meals and the work. It’s just surrounded by real challenge. People settle into a routine even though that routine involves things that may risk their lives.
So the first thing I’d ask people to do is to have a sense of empathy. Knowing that people are doing many of the same things that we are makes it easier. The more we can build on that sense of empathy, the more likely we are to come up with longer-term solutions. Sympathy can breed knee-jerk reactions, but empathy creates communities of understanding, which actually contribute towards solving these problems.
The other thing I’d caution against is applying our own morality to societies that may not have had the luxury of living to the rules and standards that we do. We can be very quick to demonise and apply retrospective morality but slow to try and understand. So again, with empathy, I’d encourage people to think about the context that people grow up in.
KL: That leads me to a TED talk that you gave a few years ago. You were talking about the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand and the different outcomes. And you made a very compelling point about investing in education.
MP: Yes, the Haiti earthquake killed close to a quarter of a million people. It was the same size as the Canterbury earthquake, which killed just one person – and that was because of a heart attack. What’s the fundamental difference between the two countries? It’s the level of education in the population.
I think there are two or three key things that really contribute towards true development, not just a sticking plaster. The first is education. The second is nutrition, because children who are not well-nourished can’t learn. And then there is public healthcare. If a child grows up healthy, well-nourished, with a good education system, the rest falls into place. You get doctors, you get civil servants, you get business people. If not, society is doomed to continue the same sort of cycles we see at the moment.
That TED talk was inspired by my experience responding to the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. Towns were completely flattened. I was trying to figure out why somebody who lives in an earthquake zone would put their family in a house that had no reinforcement. The conclusion I reached is that it was all about education. It’s so crucial because it gives perspective. When you have perspective, you think beyond tomorrow, you think about the future.
KL: That brings us to the earthquake on the Turkish- Syrian borders. You could see a real difference in outcomes and response on either side of the border. It must be very frustrating to see that again.
MP: The one phrase I’ve heard in my career more than anything else is “never again”. It also applies to building standards. We spend vast sums of money on responding to immediate problems and very little on disaster risk mitigation. The trouble with disaster risk management is it can be difficult to say we’ve done well, nothing terrible happened. But that’s precisely the point.
KL: I look at some of the extraordinary generosity of people responding to disasters, even at times of hardship and a cost of living crisis. How do we make development more sustainable, more long-term?
MP: I think we are extraordinarily generous, but we are not always generous in the right way, or we’re not always well-informed as to how to be generous. So for example, the drive to donate goods that we saw after the invasion of Ukraine. There was a wonderful outpouring of support and solidarity. But if you look at it from a purely economic perspective, it is far cheaper to buy nappies in Ukraine than it is for someone to donate them here and ship them to Ukraine.
Real sustainability, when it comes to development, is when we start to think of it as an economic and commercial activity. Aid logistics is good – but Coca-Cola is better. When you can actually build a sustainability argument into commercial activity, it does better than aid over the longer term.
Of course we also need humanitarian aid. We need the capability to respond when there is a natural disaster. But so much can be solved through economics and not necessarily just through charity.
KL: Three years ago you co-founded The Sustainability Group. Why the change?
MP: It’s linked to what I’ve been talking about. If the vast majority of your economy is commercial and not charitable, then you have a far greater impact by encouraging businesses to improve their practices. The other issue is that nearly all the sustainability solutions out there are being championed by big multinationals. However, 98% of the businesses in our economy are small and medium-sized enterprises. Many of them would love to have greater social and environmental impact, but don’t know where to start. We have a technology product called FuturePlus that helps companies understand what sustainability means for their business. We can help them quantify their intent and monitor their impact in real-time.
KL: There’s been a lot of press comment over the last few weeks about the charity you’ve been involved with to deploy the sale proceeds of Chelsea Football Club for the benefit of those impacted by the invasion of Ukraine. What are the stumbling blocks?
MP: We are ready to go. The stumbling block is a difference of opinion on the extent to which we have to limit the application of aid within the geographical border of Ukraine.
There are humanitarian needs inside Ukraine, but it is one of the best-funded humanitarian crises in history. The refugees in Moldova, Poland, the UK and elsewhere are receiving far less assistance than they should. We need to be an independent charity free to help the most vulnerable – and that includes refugees.
There are fundamental humanitarian principles at stake here. Under international law, humanitarian aid must be applied impartially and neutrally. What we’re seeing now, with these arguments about how to best apply the money, is actually the politicisation of aid. The consequences of that can be quite profound.
For example, in Afghanistan, the military would always ask us why we wouldn’t work with them. I explained that my organisation had worked in Afghanistan for years and would continue to do so when Western armies left – potentially under the Taliban again. And that, of course, is exactly what happened. If we take sides at any point, we jeopardise the ability of humanitarian organisations to operate in a conflict zone.
With the foundation that we’re setting up, we have strict rules in place to adhere to sanctions. However, we should still be able to operate with all civilians. The trouble at the moment is that if we ally ourselves politically with one side and the tide of war changes, it could affect the provision of humanitarian aid. And that can’t happen. I believe in that really profoundly.
KL: I could hear the passion in your voice as you’re talking about that. Mike, thank you so much. I have enjoyed every moment of our conversation.
MP: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
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