Early Success Comes To A Crashing Halt (Chapter 14)

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IMG_1861Quixotic is perhaps the best way to describe this beginning of this epic quest. I had shape without substance which created a hollow man, unable to stand. A hollow man is worse than a straw man. At least a straw man can be ripped apart and repacked.

I was reading more about child mortality and the condition of extreme poverty which plagued many locations which coincidentally were found in developing countries. I was gathering an education safely at arms reach. Statistics galore, and most of the literature was based from the same content generated by the same agencies. Where there was first hand accounts of the problem, this information seemed to be generally written specifically for the purposes of providing a hook to solicit fundraising for a particular organisation.

The United Nations was the leading agency in providing information to inform a global audience on the issue of child mortality. Since 2000, this had become measured in the context of the eight Millennium Development Goals which had received an almost unprecedented support from all member states of the United Nations. The intention was to reduce child mortality by two thirds from the recorded 1990 levels before 2015 when the MDG would be due.

The method I was intending to pursue sought to raise awareness of this situation by running 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries. Initially, I wanted to run in countries which together would help frame a narrative to understand the issue of child survival. It was a global issue in that we were all responsible to help effect a solution. By running, my sense is that during the journey I would learn more about the issue and also have the opportunity to open a global conversation that would address the question of child mortality. I was calling this conversation the Design Forum, and intended to convene this in each location where I ran. I knew the task was difficult, and that was to mirror the fact that reducing child mortality itself was no easy task. I had proposed to run 24 km because it mirrored the information available through UNICEF in 2010 which recorded the 2008 recorded figures for child mortality that claimed 24,000 children under the age of five we dying every single day. This is an appalling statistic, and by running across this distance my sense was that I could make a point which others might pick up in conversation.

I was not new to the United Nations organisation. I had previously had a lot to do with the United Nations in East Timor where I had served as a peacekeeper following the intervention which resulted in the creation of a new state with sovereign independence set apart from Indonesia. I knew of the frustrations of working with the United Nations, and the entrenched culture inside the United Nations which attracted a particular calibre of worker. I had a familiarity of working with the security framework which was the convener for so many issues affecting security in places where through my previous Army experience gave me responsibility for management where the United Nations was the lead agency.

The United Nations is a curious organisation, a sometimes dysfunctional mixture of bureaucracy, corporate communications and good intentions. It is a juggernaut which often succeeds in spite of itself. Opinions vary, and it is easy to be critical of a large organisation. John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the UN has been among the staunchest critics, with provocative quotes to argue in favour of his perspective such as when he claimed: “The [United Nations] Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

My early sense was was that the information I was reading about child mortality from the United Nations showed that the world was coming from a low base to understand the issue. Most discussion I read seemed to promote a view that was heavy on explaining the MDG rather than questioning how people might get involved to make a difference besides signing petitions of making financial donations to large charities. Something seemed to be missing from the conversation.

Early success seemed to come in response to my appeal for friends to help with my crowdfunding effort which I had executed through PayPal. It was not really a good solution for what I was seeking to achieve, because it created a 1:1 relationship between myself and those people I was asking for help. There was not much capacity for people to partner by sharing my vision for success. People seemed to be responding because of the enthusiasm I had for the idea, but also because people genuinely recognised this was a difficult problem to address.

My website was picking up traffic, and I think that was also visitors who were curious about such a bold vision for change. I was buoyed by this support. It was a good feeling that what I had proposed might be possible.

I had promised to start on a particular date that was aligned with the 2010 UNGA at the end of September. I thought that having a firm schedule was important to sell the idea. People had to know what I intended to do, and I also had the need to book flights and warn out places I intended to travel that I would be visiting in the coming weeks or months.

While I had this schedule organised, deep down I knew that it was All Backswing. I had made no contingency in the event that I did not raise enough money, and while the response was promising, I also knew that I was falling short on being about to execute a meaningful intervention. Perhaps I ought to have opened my conversation around funding more candidly, but I thought that if I had done so, people might have understandably asked me to step back from the edge and be reasonable.

How we discuss backswing with others is important. Admitting that we are heading towards possible failure or at least a messy train smash is an important conversation that should be undertaken by those who have invested their time, energy and money into supporting such an endeavour.

I knew a travel agent who I visited on several occasions to plan the route. She was extremely helpful to help map out flights and dates. The endeavour seemed achievable, and there was a known cost for the endeavour which I was fast approaching the requisite amount of money to undertake. For the moment, this was going to happen, or so I thought.

I eventually raised just enough money to pay for the plane fare, and thought I would pay for the ticket which would commit me to action, and from there work out how to fund the remaining expenses even if that meant beginning the journey first with less than the required resources needed and then resolving that issue later.

One morning, I headed to see my travel agent friend after withdrawing from the bank the necessary amount of money I needed for the plane fare. I sat in her office, and we confirmed the route. The total cost was around three and half thousand dollars from memory. She confirmed this, and then said those dreadful words which I had completely not anticipated: “and so the final cost with tax will be…”. Tax! I hadn’t considered the cost of tax. I didn’t have enough money.

As if a small boy in a lolly shop who had counted the coins from his money box in anticipation of buying a handful of chocolates after diligently saving up for this special occasion only to find the cost was five cents more than he held in his hands, I felt awful and embarrassed. It wasn’t the travel agent’s fault. I was responsible.

I had to ask the travel agent to postpone my plans, and that I would work out a way to return in a short while to pay the remaining amount due. It was one of the rare moments in my life when I had wished the building would collapse into a pile of rubble rather than having to admit that I didn’t have the money to pay for the ticket.

But who had been let down? Was I the person let down, or was it the travel agent, or maybe more likely I had let down the supporters by failing to meet their expectations that I would deliver on my intention? In actual fact, the greatest let-down was unseen by us all. This was a collective failure to undertake an initiative. That is not to say this was the only initiative that mattered, but perhaps earlier advice that might have sharpened my resolve or cautioned me about beginning half-cocked would have been valuable so as not to disappoint a long list of supporters who had the expectation that something wonderful was about to take place. The people who were let down by all of this were those who were most in need. These people were real, even if faceless, and not simply a statistical phenomenon.

The wheels seemed to have fallen off my early success. I pondered what to do next.

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