Volunteering in a brave new world

WORKING TOGETHER: Linda Cruse shares a laugh with women of the Maasai Mara in Kenya.
Linda Cruse

WORKING TOGETHER: Linda Cruse shares a laugh with women of the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

What's that? A group of top Christchurch business leaders and students are going to be Skyping village elders deep in the Amazonian rain forest or high up the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, offering their skills to nut out some local problem?

Is this woman for real? Is this the way we are going to save the planet now?

Linda Cruse, a UK nurse turned freelance humanitarian aid worker who hobnobs with the likes of Sir Richard Branson - she once held the dunny door shut for him when they both had funny tummies at a Sowetan refuge camp - is passing through Christchurch as the University of Canterbury's (UC) social entrepreneur in residence.

HONEST DISCUSSIONS: Linda Cruse talks with dairy farmers in Sindh province, Pakistan.
Linda Cruse

HONEST DISCUSSIONS: Linda Cruse talks with dairy farmers in Sindh province, Pakistan.

The university makes no bones about why they went to some lengths to recruit her. Post-quake in particular, the way to be cool with the kids, attract students to Canterbury rather than Victoria or Dunedin, is to exploit that student volunteer army brand.

Come to UC where community involvement can become a big tick on your CV. And so this May, Cruse will be launching the grand finale of her residency - the UC 21 Day Challenge.

But as Cruse told a Ministry of Awesome audience last week in launching the challenge, her own story - which is already a book, Marmalade and Machine Guns, and set to become a movie by the producer of Downton Abbey - is also rather remarkable.

The tale begins with her driving home on a motorway and being struck blind. She was a nurse turned pharmaceutical rep in England, divorced with two near adult children, living a stressed and pointless life.

"It was after a sales conference, a dark winter's night. I had this stabbing pain come behind my eyes. All of a sudden the curtains came down."

Somehow, she says, she made it to the hard shoulder and sat there for a couple of hours while she recovered. But that incident left her with the resolve to sell her possessions, chuck it all in, simply go out into the world and help others.

With the advantage of her nurse training, a 40 year old Cruse soon found herself doing organised aid work - teaching hygiene in back country China.

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Then she worked in a Tibetan refugee camp across the border in India where one of her jobs became to broker internships and job experience for young Tibetan's struggling to find work in a new country.

CONNECTED WORLD

On Boxing Day 2004, Cruse happened to be in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with five years of hopping from one aid mission to the next under her belt, when news of the Asian tsunami began to unfold on her battered laptop.

That led to another impulsive decision. She bought a plane ticket for the next flight to Thailand.

Cruse says emergency aid situations like natural disasters and wars are meant to be handled by United Nation agencies, the military, heavy duty organisations like the Red Cross. However in a connected world, she felt she had to go.

So she arrived at the tourist resort of Phuket and made a chaotic taxi ride to the worst hit area of Khao Lak, bluffing her way through the police cordons by posing as a member of a forensics team.

But once she made it there, looked over a cliff and saw the dead bodies washed along the shoreline, tangled in the trees, Cruse knew she was out of her depth. "I came back from the edge of the cliff and collapsed. I couldn't speak."

A vision of her old nursing matron telling her to pull herself together got her to a makeshift emergency camp where a volunteer doctor from Singapore put her to work bandaging wounds, a woman from Wisconsin recruited her to help with a tent of orphaned children.

Cruse found she wasn't alone. It turned out others had been triggered to direct action by social media too.

Of course, the official aid machinery is still absolutely necessary she says. Only it has the cargo planes, the portable hospitals, the government connections, the scale. Yet the global sense of immediacy, when everything on the planet feels like it is being captured on someone's smartphone, is changing the aid world.

She gives an example. Cruse had a surprise when she was contacted by Cadbury-Schweppes who decided it was going to shift an annual meeting - a sales jolly - to any hotel in Phuket left standing.

"They were about to go to Mexico. But the company asked if I could facilitate a hundred of its country managers to spend two days helping the Thai people recover. They wanted to demonstrate that the Thais had friends and support. They wanted to put money into the area's economy because after the disaster the tourism had all disappeared."

Another unlikely sounding initiative was her own - to ask the UK Magic Circle to rush out a children's entertainer.

Cruse says the idea came when she had been at the 5000-strong emergency camp only a few days while phoning her father, who happened to be a magician. One arrived within a fortnight, complete with dickie bow and balloon animals.

Cruse says it sounds wrong but the camp children needed a distraction from the horrors. "He became their Pied Piper." And it made such a difference that a travelling circus, with stilt walkers, fire eaters and clowns, eventually followed.

This showed Cruse that aid organisations are formal and lumpy in their thinking by necessity. But if you are on the ground, and you have a mobile phone, then a far more spontaneous reaction to disaster situations is possible.

A REAL DIFFERENCE

Cruse says her second big realisation from the tsunami is that the emergency agencies start pulling out after a couple of months. There is always another crisis to get to. Locals are then left in a shattered landscape, their fields and livelihoods gone, with no clear direction on how to rebuild.

It was here Cruse felt she could make a real difference. And it seemed a simple equation.

In Khao Lak, 90 per cent of the locals had worked in the hotels and now 90 per cent of those hotels were gone. What they needed was mentorship, business advice, to help them get back on their own feet.

After an email, Cruse got instant backing from the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum in London. In April 2005, 15 corporate bosses from Nestle, Deloitte and others arrived to see things for themselves. The Thai Navy provided two helicopters to ferry them around.

Again, Cruse says, it sounds swish and high-flying. But it led to the establishing of a network of contacts in which individual Thai villagers who might have lost everything were helped to set up a home laundry business, small backyard petrol dealership, or mobile catering service

On a larger scale, the local fishermen whose boats had been smashed and so could not fish were organised to become boat- builders themselves. And local rubber plantations which had been abandoned when the tourist hotel industry came were also revived.

"All the villagers required was a coconut shell, a knife to scour the tree, and a mangle which cost $200. In four months, they were earning three times the money they had been getting in the hotels,"Cruse says.

Cruse had her model. But she still had a lot to learn. She soon discovered the Thais as a nation had been particularly welcoming of outside aid. It was rather different when she flung herself into her next disaster, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake where 75,000 died.

Cruse arrived in Pakistan to find - even wearing a burka and going as native as possible - that operating on the border of the war in Afghanistan, was just too dangerous for an unsupported foreigner. Official aid workers were being kidnapped, their hotels blown up.

The military offered her an armoured car and armed escort, but it became clear that taking part of the earthquake recovery itself was going to be impossible.

Cruse instead went to the province of Sindh to test out her new mentorship approach there. She had been talking with the business community in Karachi and found it was too worried for its own safety to travel to the poor countryside. "If you were rich, you risked being kidnapped and ransomed."

But some of these company bosses ran the country's dairy industry. "They had a huge demand for milk yet couldn't access it." So she developed a project where Cruse worked on the ground in Sindh to establish a new farmers co-operative.

It was facilitating a change. "When I met these farmers, it was quite extraordinary. They had the cows out in 50 degree heat. And tethered so they couldn't drink. So you can imagine the amount of milk they were producing."

Investment paid for shade, water troughs and better food. There was a measuring of milk solids to get around the farmers' habit of watering down the milk. And the farmers were paid daily when the milk tanker called so they in turn came to trust the co- operative.

THE NEED TO LISTEN

From Pakistan, Cruse continued to travel the world, knitting together these kinds of connections and projects. She formed her own Be the Change Foundation where she started taking groups of four or five business leaders - "self-made millionaires and chief executives" - to remote villages.

A recent trip was to Nepal. Cruse says it turned out the village women were throwing out old leather shoes that could be reworked into belts to sell in Kathmandu's tourist markets.

The trips are something of a Dragons' Den in reverse. "At the end of three days, the business leaders have to produce a viable business plan. And they are competing against each other, so of course they do their best."

Her journeys have not always gone smoothly. One episode sure to feature in any film is when Maoist rebels in Nepal captured her and her guide on a motorbike in the forest. They managed to escape - shots whistling over their heads - after the rebel band got drunk and insensible around the camp fire later that night.

But Cruse says by continually plunging in, she has learnt important lessons. Like the need to listen rather than immediately impose solutions from an outsider's perspective.

She was working with one Moroccan village that lacked every basic. But what the people wanted was not sewers or teachers but a hamman or Turkish sauna.

"As Muslims, they had to wash five times a day and it's cold in the mountains." A hammam was also a place people could meet and talk. So in reality, it was a community centre they were asking for.

A similar thing in Kenya's Maasai Mara where a foreign aid organisation wanted to give the village a water pump. Cruse says the women smiled politely because they felt they couldn't say no. But when she got them alone for more careful questioning, they told her they loved the long walk to the river because it was the part of the day they got to gossip. Please, think of something else.

Discovering how another community ticks is what is going to make the coming 21 Day Challenge an interesting competition, Cruse say. "You have to learn to walk in their moccasins."

SMART THINKING

Cruse confesses she sometimes gets cynical reactions to her work. Yes, people say, it is valuable. But how much of an impact can you really make when the world is such a large place?

And social entrepreneurship is achingly hip. Which universities are not adding it to their business courses to create a fashionable addition to a CV?

However, Cruse repeats, it is not about treating traditional aid as redundant. The world still needs the familiar organisations turning up in a crisis. And even managing the regular development programmes.

But this is about the rapidly growing possibility for direct personal involvement. And about recognising the world has to spread its smart thinking as much as its money, food and medicines.

As she concluded in her talk to the Ministry of Awesome - part of Christchurch's own social response to the earthquake recovery: "Contribution is the greatest human need.

"And it doesn't have to be like me - give up your whole life. Literally, it can be an hour a month."

 - The Press

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