In his own admission, one needs to be “nuts enough” to take the kind of job he was doing in Ethiopia, saving lives of millions of children. For 30 years that was what he did, first arriving in Africa in the mid-1980s. It was a time of youthful enthusiasm and idealism in social justice. He was admittedly leftist when he first came to Mozambique.
He was not a naive backpacker but well-meaning in his determination to fix Africa`s problems. As a student of history at the University of Calgary, Canada, his thesis on Africa and its economic history had earned him honour in his class when he graduated in 1979. No less recognised was his paper on Kenya`s economic development in the 50 years beginning 1913, under the British colonial rule.
If these were not enough, his time studying media coverage of third world topics, for his post-graduate studies at the University of Victoria, Canada, ought to have prepared him for what to expect while working as a development specialist. His particular focus was on humanitarian responses to crises of both natural and those inflicted upon people, by people.
Multilingual in English, French and Portuguese as well as with modest skill in conversations in Afrikaans and Amharic, John had traversed south and north of Africa for over three decades. Early on, he was a passionate activist against apartheid in South Africa, organising civil society groups to oppose the regime. He was delighted to take a role as an election observer when South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994. Little did he expect the African National Congress (ANC), which has been winning elections in a landslide since then, to turn out to be what it is today, a disappointment.
His leftist idealism has not stayed with him during his adulthood. He had evolved to see that despite all its flaws, liberalism is perhaps unmatched in helping society move forward and prosper.
Working for Oxfam Canada, he had seen a lot of sufferings and pain in Africa – partly orchestrated in the name of Marxism – making him grow sceptical of the claim on the equality of all. He saw the rise to power of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe where he was active in the planning for and response to the massive drought in 1992, which had also affected Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Malawi. Once a celebrated anti-colonialist Marxist revolutionary, Mugabe too turned out to be a regret for clinging to power until he was forced out by the military, but at the age of 94.
In Sudan, he saw in the 1980s how the country`s oldest political party, the Communist Party of Sudan, was brutally repressed by the very person it had helped rise to power, Jafaar Nimeri (Col.). Nonetheless, his work in Sudan was very much linked to Ethiopia, supporting drought victims in the areas under the control of the insurgents in Tigray and Eritrea.
It was during this period of national tragedy, where close to a million people were believed to have perished of famine in the years 1984 and 1985, John came to acquaint with many of the leaders of the TPLF and the EPLF. Their success in defeating the military Marxist regime and take control of Ethiopia and Eritrea had given him hope to the dawn of a new era. Later on, though, he was not as generous in his views of their obsession with power as their idealism and determination had captivated him during their years of insurgencies.
Despite his reservations about what they came out to be, he was determined to stay on and help Ethiopians overcome their recurrent challenges in battling against nature. His years in the late 1990s as an aid worker with Save the Children UK, and subsequently the amalgamated international office, had given him practical experience valuable in helping him see the indispensability of realism.
“That gave me both the ability as well as the responsibility to speak out more and to even go out on a limb in order to make sure the right message was heard,” John said of his long years of experience in the aid community in Ethiopia, right before his early retirement in June last year.
Speaking truth to power, he did well. He was deeply affected by the average response from both of the international community and Ethiopian authorities to the drought in 2013, where close to 14 million people had been affected. Only a decade ago, the BandAid inspired world had promised “Never Again,” after the biblical drought of the mid-1980s.
It was a moment of reckoning to those in the humanitarian world to see handouts were no longer sufficient to help society overcome recurrent droughts whose cycle was getting shorter with the passing of time. It was a time of awakening to the fact that famine is a consequence of failed politics; hence policies are all that matter most.
John was one of the very few to not only realise this early on but forceful in his voice that the politics need to get fixed and programs to resilience should be developed, tested and deployed. With USAID, an American aid organisation dispensing close to a billion dollars worth of humanitarian and development support to Ethiopia, John found a place to nest.
For nearly a decade, he stayed with the USAID Ethiopia Mission, advising successive directors of the organisation on programs from humanitarian assistance to the protection of social services and from policy formulations to economic development and governance. Nothing paralleled his passion in debating the subject of social resilience and its impact on youth, debates held in boardrooms as much as among aid workers congregating at the Greek Club, every Wednesdays. His wit matched his intellect and used to quip these evenings as “humanitarian beer nights.”
His extensive travel in the Somali Regional State, where a clan adopted him around Fik Zone, and profound knowledge of the region`s history, culture and politics helped the US government execute a successful program of 200 million dollars, in 2007. Implemented at the height of the Ogaden crisis in the mid-2000s, ensuring the provisions of humanitarian assistance to a population caught between government and rebel forces was nothing but nerve-racking.
A massive drought hit again in 2015, this time with more force and covering a large area, and affecting one-third of the entire population. It was a time for John to show a battle-hardened experience in practice and realistic policymaking can pay of. Despite the enormity of the drought, the size of the population affected and the race for ever-dwindling resources across the world, Ethiopia overcame the drought with hardly any casualty to human life, perhaps for the first time in 500 years.
In his own words, “the proudest moments we will end up with are the ones where you can look back and say the lives of many children were saved or dramatically improved because of the efforts we have made.”
He continued his efforts of helping Ethiopia`s children moving on to Save the Children, in 2013. This time though, Save the Children was a much larger and consolidated international aid agency. Its programs in Ethiopia involved a 160 million dollars annual budget and 50 offices across the country employing 2,500 people.
On his departure, his staff threw him a going-away party at the Hilton. A brief documentary was projected, showing staff members use one word to describe John; the word “engaging” stood out.
John loved to debate and in as much as he liked to bet on electoral outcomes. He was deep into the American politics, accurately foretelling the results of elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012. He saw Brexit was inevitable. He would have mastered the art of election forecasting had it not been for his disappointment with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He had lost a bet to a friend; he was for Hillary Clinton.
John was an avid reader of history and current affairs as he was a prolific writer, authoring numerous essays on humanitarian responses, agricultural productivity, poverty and healthcare as well as destitution. His two books – Ethiopia: Off the Beaten Trail (2001) and Exploring Ethiopia (2010) – are instructive for visitors to a country he described as “a big part of my life.”
Although too young to retire (Canada has retirement age at 65), John retired last year, for he was away for too long from his native land, where his two children reside.
“My wife and I feel it is time for us to go back to Canada,” he told his staff writer for a newsletter published under Save the Children. “Our family in Canada has complained for a long time.”
He had plans to return in October though, to attend events here in Addis Abeba.
John was not a man to “get bored easily.” In his final years, he was busy working on academic papers on drought resilience, after spending some time at the University of Manchester. He was deep in thoughts, reflecting on a post-capitalist order for developed economies, worried so much about the growing inequality in the prosperous societies. But he was stubborn in his optimism that capitalism has the innate capacity to redress itself.
He firmly believed the West needs a little dose of statism in as much as the developing world needs more of capitalism. Such would have been the thesis of his next book. He died too soon on May 25, 2018.
John is survived by his wife, Gillian, and two children, Danielle and Iain.