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Lucy v Sasha. Who is right? Ask Doris!


This is my third and final blog about St Helena, at least for a while.  I must turn my attention to more pressing issues and ones that I can maybe influence.  A report today in the Guardian shows how futile trying to change DfID can be, but at least one Ethiopian farmer succeeded.  So there is hope for a brave Saint!

I suspect that the farmer’s success will be just one more rare exception to the rule.  With donors like DfID one quote comes to mind attributed, some believe wrongly, to Albert Einstein:

Insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results?”

Yes, the British Government (FCO and DfID) thinks that imposing a third expert on the island, the latest in a very long line, will work this time round.  I question that fallacy.  This blog is a bit longer than it should be but I think the extra explanations are needed.  One thing clearly emerges for me. Very few of the experts sent out from the UK during this latest saga have applicable overseas development and human rights experience.  It shows.

Just to recap too.  I think that this latest episode in a long series perpetuates the error of  FCO and DfID sticking to colonial solutions in a post-colonial inter-connected world.  Apart from people within developing countries being quite capable of producing their own solutions, they should be able to look and learn from other developing countries.  The "mother" country needs to accept that it does not have sole expertise. Saint Helena can learn from other small island states. (For more on this access my article here.)

Lucy v Sasha. Who is Right? Ask Doris!

How can two expensive inspections reach almost diametrically-opposed conclusions?

Actually this is not unusual in the human rights field.  It is certainly not unusual in law – as the jocular phrase infers: “Where you get two lawyers, you get three opinions”. 

We need to see where each side is coming from.  What are their frames of reference; their “comfort zones”?  And then we need to find the common ground, or the universal standards, if we are to make sense of it all.

Lucy took the absolute view that a healthy society should not tolerate whatsoever any kind of child abuse, under any circumstances. It must be rooted out.  Her thinking is accentuated because of recent revelations in the UK. The most prominent case is of course that of late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile.  There is today little doubt that he abused vulnerable people, entrusted to his care, throughout his life-time.  He got away with such wrongdoing due to failings on the part of many in authority. Folks in the “establishment”, it seems, have a tendency to deny; to cover up, and even worse, to treat the “victim” as harshly as the accused.  Radio listeners of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) around the world can bear witness to this in the ongoing harrowing public Royal Commission hearings in to institutional child abuse in Australia. The UK has not been brave enough to “hang out its dirty washing”.

Sasha takes a more legalistic evidence-based view. She was given much credit in pursuing the "Rolf Harris" case and a reason why she was chosen for this enquiry. She insists firstly upon “proof beyond all reasonable doubt” to test for criminality. Secondly she applies “the test of the balance of probabilities” to assess for unacceptable social behaviour falling short of a crime.  Shasha wants clear evidence so that she can assess both the scale of any problem and the quality of the response to it by authorities.  Otherwise she feels that justice can not be done. Indeed she is concerned not to compound potential unfounded injustice, such as through adverse publicity. That can easily invoke, or as in Saint Helena’s case re-invoke, the notoriously unreliable court of public opinion.

Both ladies say that there has been some child abuse on St Helena, but neither can say how much or how severe. It would help if they could agree on a definition of “abuse” and one appropriate to the local context. Neither examined this sufficiently. They assumed that the UK definition suffices.  It may not.

Sasha and Lucy may differ too about the meaning of “consensual” as linked with behaviour.  Lucy worries about relationships involving unequal partners.  Is one party mature enough to make a free informed choice? And what if neither are?

Am I right in thinking that missing from Sasha and Lucy’s teams are social scientific professionals, as well as people with overseas development and human rights experience?

When any investigator asks sensitive questions, especially of vulnerable individuals, he or she needs to be sure that they are obtaining true answers. They must avoid a human tendency of respondents to give the answers that they think the questioner wants to hear.  Behavioural and social scientists seek to eliminate such errors during their interactions with subjects.  Anthropologists are even more discerning when they observe - they have a strict rule of non-interference so to prevent any direct influence from them that distorts natural behaviour.

There is one recurring statement prompting me to draw attention to the methodology.

“Relationships form between post-pubescent girls and older men”.

Sasha gives an explanation based on the young men leaving to work on Ascension Island (Page 11).  I have a feeling Lucy regards this as an ominous sign of latent abuse.  I ask simply - should such an issue not be left to Saint Helenians to deal with, and to do so without predetermined stigma?  My knowledge of the island is out-of-date and certainly social media coming to the Island will necessitate another re-think.  However I thought that Saints on the whole had a very rationale approach to such things.  Girls definitely matured earlier than boys.  Most boys were slow to grow up. even well in to manhood – some didn’t have to. They did know that work and income would bring status and material possessions to them.  For girls, who were much less likely to obtain work, their higher social status was often gained from early motherhood, thankfully accompanied rarely with the kind of prejudice to her or her child found in other societies.

One phrase from my own studies of behaviourial sciences comes to mind:

“A daughter’s a daughter all her life.  A son is a son till finds a wife”

Saint Helena is a unique community; it is still closely-knit both on the island and off it.  Strong female ties do predominate, a kind of matriarchal society, as once existed in working class East London.  If you think back to Saint Helena once under the East India Company from 1658–1815, its merchant vessels plying to and from the Island, the comparison may be apt.  Certainly Saint Helena has retained to this day many old world charms. I end this blog on my most salient point – please ask Doris!

Social scientists could therefore disagree with both Sasha and Lucy.  So could human rights advocates.

Rather than focus on things that apply in the UK, they may have been better off to start with universal or international standards.  The United Nations Covenant on the Rights of the Child is the main one as its name indicates.  Like most such documents, written by and for lawyers, it is full of legalese and makes for hard reading.  However  the well-known children’s charity “Save the Children” has kindly produced a “child-friendly version” (attached here)

The Covenant leaves plenty room for local interpretations, for countries to determine their own standards.  Who says that Saint Helenians lack the confidence or ability to derive their own? Must external expertise be imposed on them?  Development workers like me know one thing for sure - what never works, at least for long, are things arbitrarily imposed from outside. 

Sasha and Lucy would have done well to spend more time with Saint Helenian children.

Article 12 of the Covenant says “Children have the right to an opinion, for it to be listened to and taken seriously”. 

The Kampong Chhnang Child Advocacy Group
Cambodian children, most disabled, advocating at a national conference for better disaster preparedness based on what happened in New Orleans, United States with Hurricane Katrina.  Their message was not heeded.  Their province was badly flooded a year later.  However, their talents first learned to advocate for the right of disabled children to go to school, extended easily in to other social issues.  Yet people deliberating about Saint Helena seem to think that children there cannot do the same, despite a social safety-net in-place; better education, etc.  A close look will show the name of this group "The New Horizons Society" an uncanny coincidence with an emerging community group of the same name on Saint Helena.

At this point I wish to digress from Saint Helena to illustrate to Sasha and Lucy that we should not restrict ourselves to the UK frame of reference.

When I was in Malawi, Africa, I encountered the ancient traditions of elaborate rites of passage ceremonies for boys and girls on achieving puberty.  No child passes through this formative stage of his or her life without detailed preparation and education.  In recent years, the rituals have added knowledge of the dangers of HIV/AIDs. Some aspects of what these communities do may shock us such as the candidness of activities to ready girls for sex.  There again, some people on the island, who can trace their ancestors as slaves from African tribes, may feel that these ways are not so alien.

Here in North-East Cambodia, we have something similar in one of our indigenous groups, the Kreung ethnic minority.  They allow teenage boys and girls to build their own “tall houses” where they can begin to experiment in relations with the opposite sex as a prelude to marriage.

Who are we to suggest that these communities and their culture have got things wrong?  Their ways-of-living have worked for them for thousands of years. They are perfectly capable of adapting as we see when HIV/AIDS come in from the outside world.  Furthermore [to quote Joanna White]:

“Crimes common in larger-scale societies (theft, rape, murder) are virtually unheard of due to deterrents in both the spiritual sense but also to the heavy fines in sacrifice and feasts in ceremonies to appease that would be levied”.

So all this leads to the final question “Who has the responsibility to protect children?”  Is it the government? Is it policemen, lawyers and social workers? If social workers, only those with a UK qualification?  Or does the primary responsibility rest with parents? And what about teachers and other community leaders and members?

It is all of the above.  And most importantly, it includes children themselves who often know more than anyone else what goes on with their friends.

If you do place trust in the wider community, it has one benefit that external solutions never gain.

Our children's "self-help" peer-to-peer groups, some children-only, some with responsible adults, work very effectively.  Indeed for some it's the only protection as local officials and police are just as likely to be involved in the abuse and exploitation as they are to prevent it.

When people come up with their solutions, they own them, they are responsible for them. It makes them far more likely to work!  It means one more universal lesson applies.  Problems are best solved as quickly as possible at the lowest level.

Before I end here is one final observation. The UK Government has decided to award an extra UK£1.2 million to this as yet unquantified social problem on Saint Helena.  That is US$1.75 million.  It is a huge sum by any standards.  It is almost double the annual budget of each one of Cambodia’s two Human Rights NGOs. A last Annual Report reported 130 full-time staff; 2,364 new clients; 258 rape investigations; 219 child rights violations; 75 Child Protection Groups with 528 male and 469 female active members. They are all at the sharp end of the worst forms of exploitation in human trafficking and labour. (I communicated with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation suggesting community-based self-protection groups.)  Let me be very clear, the kind of human rights abuses on Saint Helena fall far short of the depravity we deal with in Cambodia.

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee should therefore examine closely this decision-making.

Back in 1987-8, I tried for one school year to teach on Saint Helena at the Country School just before Prince Andrew School opened.  I learned more than I passed on.  There were five lady teachers as well as Stedson George, the Headteacher.  I am sure that they and their families will not mind me naming them. Doris Williams; Pat Williams, Heather George, Shirley Francis and Dawn Thomas.  Those ladies had encyclopaedic knowledge of their children and their families. They certainly spotted if anything was untoward.  They also had very clear understanding of right and wrong.  Now I do not think that their collective wisdom was every fully-utilized. But then that is a constant refrain in all my postings.  Local knowledge, grassroots upwards, is usually missing or relegated from development plans. The colonial administration I saw consistently undervalued; undermined and discounted Saint Helenian knowledge and ability.

So who is right Sasha or Lucy?  In my view neither! They and Ginny should ask Doris!

Previous Blogs and Article about Saint Helena

As well as the two other blogs in the past month, Saint Helena has featured quite often in my musings of a lifetime career in overseas aid and development.

My last blog questioned “Where does the buck rest” when it comes to decisions about Saint Helena?  The “I love to go a-wanderingone before that continued my thought that DfID has fallen well short of what is needed to make sure that the new airport project will be viable, as well as to pose the same question as in an earlier blog about the risk of destroying one of the world’s rarest cultures.

My time at Country School in many ways was the start or a key turning point in my overseas work,  I explained in this blog how FCO and DfiD (then called ODA) were at cross-purposes, each one carrying out conflicting policies. This came to light from a class of 11 and 12 year old children on the island, who inadvertently exposed the bizarre consequence.

My main theme of international donors messing up – DfID  is not the only culprit – is summarized in my “We need Smarter Aid” blog.

Interestingly in the lead and actually my second-most popular blog is about the Saint Helena Fish and Chip Millionaire

In January 2015 I set out in some detail my views about Saint Helena and the way that it was governed. So far Saint Helenians, both those at home and those working away, and their full diaspora are largely excluded and disempowered.

The Wass report does recognize failings, but these are expressed more in terms of management than in governance.  Ultimately Saint Helenians must take responsibility for their Island's affairs. FCO and DfID should have clear plans towards that end.  That means ending the constant import of "experts" from the UK and export of local talent, often never to return or repatriate earnings.

In essence as stated at the start of this blog - all of us must think beyond colonial solutions to what will work best in a post-colonial world.

Update October 2021

Anyone interested in how legal processes are working on St Helena since the Wass enquiry will wish to see this judgment. No doubt the case will also have cost an enormous amount, out of proportion to the original claim.  Commonsense should come before resorting to [Common] Law! It again reflects poorly on certain professional staff sent as experts from UK. (See also a previous similar judgment.)

The Attorney General is paid over £100,000 per year plus other fringe benefits. 

Update July 2021

Unfortunately the now merged (from DfiD and Foreign Office) Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has pushed through constitutional changes that in my view will lessen not enhance addressing the issues I have raised here and in other blogs.  For the latest go here and scroll down.


  1. Tweet 19 January:
    @amworldtodaypm Informative spot just now #ChildAbuse, If bar set high, far more “incidents” than if low. #StHelena should tune in. http://www.abc.net.au/pm/rss/pmrss.xml

    This show is worth downloading,as it endorses my view that St Helena has much to learn beyond the mother country of the UK. It is about child protection in Northern Australia with people grappling with the same issues. In particular, they talk about "setting the bar". Too high and abuse seems rife, too low and you are likely to miss cases. With the Royal Commission ongoing in to past child abuse in Australia, it is good that there is a debate and it is not left to "experts".

  2. February 2016
    Excellent article by Matthew Emgel in the Financial Times http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/42979e74-c534-11e5-b3b1-7b2481276e45.html