Saturday, December 29, 2007

Why I left the City behind to fight poverty in Africa

from The Guardian

Former Aviva boss Richard Harvey tells Ruth Sunderland how he and his wife abandoned a comfortable lifestyle to work for charity, and gives an insight into their experiences from his diary

* The Observer,

During his years in the City, Richard Harvey was accustomed to the purring engine and leather upholstery of a chauffeur-driven car to whisk him smoothly to and from engagements in his job as head of Aviva, the world's fifth-largest insurance company.

So it was something of a contrast when he and his wife Kay found themselves on a rudimentary, pot-holed road on desolate African terrain, with smoke pouring out of their four-wheel drive, three hours away from the nearest mechanic.

Harvey had taken the almost unthinkable step for a FTSE 100 chief executive of giving up his £1.9m a year job to go with Kay on a mid-life gap year to do charity work. He is part-way through his extraordinary 'life-swap' experiment of abandoning his luxurious, but workaholic City existence and has spent three months mainly helping Masai people in Kenya, whose traditional way of life is under threat from climate change.

The breakdown, he says, was one of the moments when the scale of the change hit home, though the fact that one of his biggest business coups was his takeover of the RAC did come in handy.

'We got the bonnet open to find that a battery clamp had worked loose and fused to the live terminal, so a massive short was burning out the wiring harness. With my RAC training and clean gentleman's handkerchief I was able to pull it apart and the smoke gradually subsided. But we were a long way from the King's Road in Chelsea. With British determination, we set off walking, but were saved the effort of a 5km hike up a hill by a pick-up truck owned by Richard Leakey, of anthropological fame.'

It was indeed a long way from the King's Road, Richard's and Kay's local shopping street. In their other life, the couple - who were childhood sweethearts and have been married for 36 years - had an enviable existence in a multi-million-pound Chelsea townhouse.

Harvey had a highly successful career, helping to float the former mutual insurer Norwich Union on the stock market and transforming it into the company now known as Aviva, an international giant. His decision to 'retire' at the relatively youthful age of 57 - when many executives feel they still have many years of status-seeking and money-making ahead of them - was inspired by his youngest daughter Jenny, who worked in Uganda for nine months before taking up her place at Oxford University.

The couple were given an added impetus by the fact that a few years earlier, Kay had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was given the all-clear three years later, but that trauma made the pair, who have two other grown-up children, Adrian and Kate, all the more determined to spend time together and do something worthwhile.

Although Harvey relished his job, it was hugely demanding and meant he was sometimes an absentee husband. 'My diary was packed with breakfast meetings, appointments all day, then often finishing with dinner or an engagement in the evening. In Africa, you can only do one thing a day. Kay and I were not used to spending so much time together. The experience has bonded us even more closely,' he says.

In the 10 or so years I have known Harvey, I have seen him flush with the success of pulling off a deal, like the takeover of the RAC, and also weathering disappointments, such as his failed attempt to take over Prudential. But I have never seen him so energised or enthusiastic as in a little cafe near his former offices at Aviva, telling me about his African experience.

'It is like deja vu being back here in the City,' he says. 'It is a bit surreal. Many people I met in Africa would be amazed that here you can just turn on a tap and have running water inside your house. I haven't missed my old life at all so far. There has just been so much to take in.'

He does, however, miss the comfort of going to a clean loo. 'The lack of toilets is frightening to a Westerner. You could improve health so much by replacing the pit latrines in schools. It would help combat the basic digestive diseases the children suffer, and sometimes die from.

'I would freely admit we have been living in a very comfortable fashion compared with most other people. We have a rented home in Nairobi and have stayed in basic hotels. I couldn't survive in one of the local dwellings.'

He does not, he says, feel guilty about having so much while the poor of Africa have so little: 'You do have bouts of it, just as you do here, because there is poverty in this country too. But I am not interested in guilt. I am interested in doing something positive about it.'

Their stint was largely in Kenya, where Harvey has been looking at how communities can improve water supply, sanitation and agricultural development, and Kay, a teacher of PE and English as a foreign language, has been working in local schools.

'They call her Madam Walks Quickly, because they think we walk too fast in the hot sun,' Harvey says. 'I just love the children. They arrive at school at 6.30am and study quietly until the teachers arrive at 8am. It makes you wonder where we have gone wrong here.'

One of the most horrific things, he says, is the widespread genital mutilation of young girls. ' I had no idea it existed on such a scale, with 80-90 per cent of the female population subjected to it. On a basic level, the men want it in order to subjugate the women, but the grandmothers are among the main enforcers. People won't talk to me about it so much, but some of the women teachers have begun opening up to Kay, asking things like how often men in the UK beat their wives - and of course there are men who do that here. It takes time to get to know the unspoken truths about things like that, and about witchcraft and HIV.'

He is under no illusions about the hard work and commitment it will take to alleviate conditions. 'The easy part is delivering a sack of grain, or whatever. Take a school where Kay and I did a lot of work. Putting in a bore hole of 60 metres for water is about 24 hours of drilling. Teaching that community to build up a plan to use the water for good quality sanitation, cooking and growing food to break them out of their current dependency on food aid, is probably a three-year project. They need to think about how they are going to pay for the pump and the diesel it uses, how they will grow enough crops to pay for that and a sinking fund for repairs and maintenance.'

'The people there are Masai, and their whole life up till now has been nomadic herding of cattle. But that won't work any more, because there is simply not enough for their cattle to eat and they are dying in the drought. The concept that they need to get water from the ground is a complete cultural change for them.'

Harvey and his wife believe education is key to a better future for Kenya. The government is encouraging parents to send their children to school by making it free, and providing food.

'The World Food Programme is using the grain mountain from the US and Europe to provide children with one very basic meal a day, but that is unsustainable because the grain mountain is collapsing. That food is all the children are going to get to eat in current climatic conditions. They will walk 10km to school to get that. The hope is that in 10 or 15 years' time we will have a generation of educated Kenyans even in these very poor areas.'

At Aviva, Harvey was involved in providing pensions to a population in the UK which is living longer and enjoying better health, but in Africa it is the reverse, with life expectancy in Malawi just 37 years and decreasing. And while his old company is paying out large sums in Britain for victims of this year's floods, in Africa the impact of climate change is much more devastating.

'Here in the UK climate change has brought flooding which has been terrible and there are people who are still not back in their homes. But in Kenya or Malawi it has stopped a subsistence existence from being an existence at all. You are talking about starvation. Worse still, it has not been their carbon production that has done this, it is ours.'

Companies such as Aviva have committed to becoming carbon neutral, reducing their own emissions and buying carbon credits to offset their usage. Harvey believes that one way companies and individuals can help would be through the development of more high-quality carbon offset schemes.

At the schools he and Kay visited, food - if there is any - is cooked over an open fire. 'That is incredibly inefficient. One thing you could do is build a brick cooker with a fire box in the bottom, which reduces the amount of wood you use by 50 per cent. Someone wanting a carbon offset can fund that sort of stove across a number of schools.'

When he returns, Harvey hopes to take on some mainstream City projects but to leave enough time to carry on with his charity work. His status has given a much-needed boost to Concern Universal, which is not one of the best-known charities, and he says his management experience has helped him to organise people in the villages. 'Whenever you put people together in teams to carry out a task human behaviour is the same, whether you are in Kenya or in the City. Some individuals are more awkward than others,' he laughs.

· Concern Universal works with people in some of the poorest countries of the world to help them find sustainable solutions to poverty and inequality.

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