The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

My grandfather tried saving the world long before it became trendy — with mixed results

Our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, upon reading this month’s posts about those who displace themselves on behalf of those less fortunate, felt moved to contact her grandfather in Sydney, Australia, for a chat about his own experiences with international aid work, which began in the 1950s.

These days, it is a rare teenager who has not shown some evidence of civic engagement by a certain age: spending their summers beneath foreign suns in search of that fabled sensation, that fulfillment born of “helping others.”

Of course, no altruistic act is truly pure, but I would argue that it is better than nothing.

Nothing, however, is the word that best qualifies my own civic engagement. I have reached the age of 17 tacitly scorning the moral and spiritual quests of British gap-year students, as well as American Ivy-League hopefuls, from my comfortable desk chair.

I read Dostoevsky’s portraits of tormented youths, striving in vain and misguidedly to effect a change in society…and decide that changing the world is futile.

Yet a chastening thought sometimes breaks through this complacency: there are many who do valuable work. There are many who displace themselves — not only from their comfortable desk chairs, but from comfortable world-views and notions — to serve others, outside the framework of self.

My grandfather’s first foray into global philanthropy

One such person is my maternal grandfather, Robert Ayre-Smith. He entered the field of international aid before the idea of a “third world” even existed. As he informed me in our recent email exchange:

In the middle of the last century, there were the tropics, the Empire, the Americas, the colonies, etc. But they were not rated economically as is now the case.

Paradoxically, he chose animals over humans when he initially diverged from the family profession, medicine, and entered London’s Royal Veterinary College. His first appointment as a livestock specialist came in 1952, shortly after his marriage to my grandmother, Carol. The newlyweds set off for Kenya’s Rift Valley, where Robert set up a research station by Lake Naivasha, working with cattle, sheep and pigs. As motivation, he cites scientific interests in “tropical animal production” — a topic he’d investigated while doing graduate work at Louisiana State University.

As is often true of those who move from the halls of academe to real-life applications, Robert soon found that what he calls his “enthusiasm for science itself, and then for the benefits bestowed by scientific advances,” matured into “some feeling of disillusionment.” His focus shifted away from books to people — and looking at what small-scale farmers in Kenya’s villages were realistically capable of accomplishing.

But while he found fulfillment in these human interactions, he remained bothered by the tension between his “lofty agricultural scientist’s perspective” and the perspective taken by the farmers whose cares he was attempting to alleviate.

Some thirty years later, an “Aha!” moment

Fast forward to 1989, by which time my grandfather was working in Indonesia. During a roadside breakdown, Robert experienced an epiphany. Watching a nearby farmstead owner and his family tending their crops and livestock, he “started to question the appropriateness of much [then] current agricultural research for increasing crop and livestock productivity.”

His own knowledge, “derived from vastly different circumstances,” seemed markedly out of place. Until then, he’d been seeing agricultural development in the Third World through the lens of First World research, where commercial farms are relatively large-scale operations, and where farmers are literate and can therefore study results and adopt them to increase their productivity.

Yet most Third World farmers are fighting an altogether different battle. Their farms are small in scale, with “only two acres for the house, food crops and animals and virtually no machinery except hoe and sickle.”

From that time on, my grandfather thought it would be unreasonable — and betrayed a lack of empathy on the part of the professed do-gooder — to expect farmers in Indonesia and other developing countries to make changes according to developed-world research. He became a founding member of the Asian Farming Systems Association in 1991, which aimed to “undertake research of relevance to the farmer that it was hoped to benefit.”

As he concludes in his message to me:

So you see, Charlotte, it took time to mature my thoughts and approaches — a lot of time.

The world as one’s oyster — whatever that means

This being the Displaced Nation, I felt obliged to ask to what extent my grandfather ever felt himself displaced in the course of his work. “NEVER!” came his emphatic reply. He traces the desire to live and work abroad to his mother, “a great traveler in body and soul.”

Born and raised in India “at the height of the Raj,” my great-grandmother was educated in England and Switzerland before traveling widely in the United States and then working in France as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during World War I.

Even after marrying, she continued to travel the Continent.

As Robert puts it: “I believe I may have learned from her that the world was my oyster — whatever that means. Certainly I have never had fear of the world.”

The only environment in which he recalls being ill at ease was Bogotá, Colombia, in 1980, where he was conscious of an underlying malaise about a possible recurrence of La Violencia, the nation’s horrifying period of civil conflict that had taken place from 1948 to 1958. He remembers being “hoicked out of a bus” between the Amazonian Basin and Bogotá by “some roadside gang — or was it the police?” It did not help matters that he found himself “doing an impossible job that no one really wanted [him] to do.”

Even in the presence of immense danger, my grandfather appears to have taken things in his stride. Here’s how he described being in Baghdad in late 1956, when the city revolted as a result of the British and French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis:

I remember no fear although there was one moment when I was in the street of gold and silver smiths when a big and noisy mob rushed down a street parallel to it and all the merchants pulled down their corrugated metal shutters. Machine gun fire ensued.

A plethora of lessons learned

When I asked what he considered the most effective form of international aid, my grandfather’s immediate answer was “the health and welfare of under-privileged people, maybe I should say village people.” Yet this, he added, is not a form of aid, it’s an aim of aid. He went on: “Moreover, it sounds very pompous — as there are plenty of under-privileged people in all parts of the world, not just in villages.”

On the matter of food aid, Robert had this to say:

I could make a good case against food aid, and against some of the inappropriate advice that I gave in the past to small and large landholders. But what I can say with some confidence is that people in the front line of providing development aid must have empathy with those towards whom the aid is directed.

Empathy formed the heart of his approach — coupled with a saying of his father’s, borrowed from Hamlet (Act I, Scene iii):

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not thence be false to any man.

Robert and Carol now live in Sydney, Australia — the last in a long series of displacements. Though he contentedly remembers his work in developing countries, and those with whom he worked, Robert prefers to focus on the present. Yet from time to time, he allows those close to him glimpses of the past — cuttings from the swathes of his memory.

His experiences have persuaded me that it does not pay to be defeatist about “changing the world” — and that the world, even amid current extremes of xenophobic paranoia, is nothing to be afraid of.

Readers, questions for Charlotte — or responses to her grandfather’s insights?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by the Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, Mary-Sue Wallace.

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img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London

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3 responses to “My grandfather tried saving the world long before it became trendy — with mixed results

  1. ML Awanohara November 28, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    @Charlotte
    Thank you for asking your granddad to participate in this month’s theme! He certainly makes a welcome addition to the Displaced Nation ranks. Personally, I found a couple of his points very intriguing: 1) that he learned his fearless approach to travel from his Victorian-Edwardian mother(!); and 2) that he never felt “displaced” as in out of place or dislocated, despite working in some of the most remote (and dangerous) corners of the globe.

    Concerning the latter point, I wonder now if that’s the response Albert Schweitzer would have given, had we been able to ask him if he ever felt displaced during his time setting up a hospital in Francophone Africa.

    When writing about Schweitzer, I was imagining he took to Africa like a duck to water because he’d been born displaced — in Alsace, which doesn’t know whether it’s French or German. But it seems that he and your grandfather were birds of a feather (to continue my avian metaphor). They were born believing that the world was their oyster (moving on to mollusks!), as your grandfather put it, thus that they had some role to play in it.

    Perhaps that’s the good point about the old-style imperialism, that it got people off their desk chairs, as you might say, filling them with optimism about setting forth in the wider world as well as a determination to serve (save?) people in other lands.

    The imperialism that the US practices, by contrast, doesn’t foster internationalism. Indeed, the world is a tightly-closed oyster for many Americans…and there is precious little curiosity about prying it open.

    Say, if you get a chance, can you ask your grandfather what he thinks of Schweitzer? I’d be curious…

  2. vegemitevix November 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    I loved that line ‘machine gun fire ensued’. There’s something very droll about the expression there. I love too the way your Grandad reached his own conclusions about how best to help the Third World farmers. That’s true grass-roots aid in my humble opinon.

  3. Kate Allison December 2, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Charlotte, thank you for another fabulous post – what a great insight into international aid decades ago. I love the sound of your grandfather; one of those interesting people who could well find their way onto my Fantasy Dinner Party list…

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