Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Jan 31 2023
“It’s Not the Same World”: Reflecting on Nearly 40 Years in Development

Nick Clinch in Mongu, Zambia in 1996. Nick retired from Palladium in December 2022 after decades with the business. 

In 1984, the BBC premiered a landmark news broadcast from Ethiopia. Produced and presented by journalist Michael Buerke, it brought the world to a remote part of northern Ethiopia where people were experiencing what he called a ‘biblical famine.’ The broadcast was transmitted by over 400 television stations worldwide and sparked a flurry of fundraising, including the ground-breaking Live Aid concert a year later. It also changed the trajectory of Nick Clinch’s life.

“I was working on the farm at the time, and I gave my next two weeks wages to the Ethiopian famine,” he recalls from his office in Bristol, UK. “In those days you didn’t have wall to wall disasters and cameras there watching people die, so actually seeing the Ethiopian famine on your tv screen was a bit shocking.”

The broadcast, which shocked much of the world, shocked Clinch right into a career. “It really made me think, and at that point in university I didn’t have a particular career in mind, so I thought, let me do that.”

Since then, Clinch’s work has spanned over 35 countries and at least 50 different development projects, mainly for the company known since 2015 as Palladium.

At a recent Palladium team meeting, he recalls looking out at his younger colleagues and wondering, as one does when nearing retirement, about the careers that lie ahead of them. “Where are they headed?” he asked himself. “Is it the same as when I was young and enthusiastic?” The reality is, he says, the world is vastly different, and it’s changed how so much of the work in the sector is done.

Seeing the Work

His first posting with the British Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) involved two years on a small island north of Zanzibar. “In order to get a job in development, you had to go off and do a bit of volunteering to prove yourself,” he explains, noting that at the time, this inevitably excluded anyone who couldn’t afford to volunteer from entering the field.

For his part and for a salary of about £20.00 per month, he was part of a team introducing crossbred dairy cattle onto the island and trying to keep them alive. “I only spoke to my mum every 6 months, and it struck me that I was really getting into something serious.”

His early experiences only strengthened his desire to work in development. “I vividly remember walking around the hills of Nepal and thinking it’s crazy that someone is paying me to do this,” he laughs. “I’ve always felt that we’re very lucky to do this job and do development work. You’re helping people, or trying to help people, and in the process, you’re seeing all these different and wonderful things.”

Are young professionals today having the same experiences? Clinch sees a lot more development work happening behind computers and from a desk, and at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, he laments some of the ways the sector has changed. “The work is no less important now, and as a career, it’s different than when I started, but my advice is still to get out and travel – to see the work if you can.”

“I’m grateful. We’re extremely lucky to do this job.”

Clinch’s long-time colleague and Palladium CEO Christopher Hirst has similar advice, frequently urging staff to seize the opportunity to visit teams and offices beyond their own. “It’s the best way to learn, to ensure that we’re having the impact we intend, and to hear directly from the people we want to support,” he says. “COVID-19 kept many of us apart, and our emissions reduction targets mean we need to travel more efficiently, but I firmly believe we’re at our best, strongest, and most impactful when we’re face to face.”

New Avenues

The world has changed, technology has improved, and these days you don’t need to tune into a special report on the BBC to see what’s happening on the other side of the world. “We were naïve in those days,” says Clinch. “I didn’t know what was going on in the world, and now we have a much better grasp on world affairs and what’s happening.”

But Clinch notes that it doesn’t mean that the impact of development is any less; if anything, there are only more and different opportunities for creating that impact. “Now, there are so many more ways that we can do development; more avenues that you can get involved in,” he describes. “It doesn’t have to be the traditional donor-funded project that’s contracted out to an organisation – we can work with the private sector, investors, and the communities themselves.”

In particular, the shift towards localisation has been game-changing for the field, and though it’s been a gradual change in the way programs are run, it’s a critical one. “When I started out, you were going out to do good to help those ‘poor people’, and I’d like to think that idea went away quickly,” he describes. “Now, it’s about working together to improve lives through collaboration.” Shedding the ‘white saviour’ complex as an industry has not only been the right thing to do, but it’s made the work more effective; more impactful.

Clinch recalls the many iterations of development work he’s witnessed over the decades and changes to the funding mechanisms, especially on the government side. “Donor agencies have changed a bit,” he says, “and I lived through the merger of international development agencies into a foreign office.” Though initially uncomfortable, he says that he “grew up” and accepted that things evolve. And despite these changes, his outlook on the work remained the same.

“I’m grateful. We’re extremely lucky to do this job.”

Saying “Yes”

Beyond his loyalty to the work itself, Clinch feels he owes a debt of gratitude to the organisation that hired him, GRM International (now Palladium), where he has spent the entirety of his career and from where he is now retiring.

When asked why he stayed with Palladium for so long, he says that it was the perfect vehicle for doing the work he was called to do. “It continues to offer opportunities and has for nearly 40 years, and even though it’s changed, the core principles and values are still there. If you’re willing to work hard, do development and do good, there’s a place for you.”

It helps, too, that he hasn’t spent those decades in just one job.

“I think I’ve done every single job possible, including cleaning toilets in the South Africa office,” he laughs. “Because when GRM and then Palladium got bigger, there were so many different things you could do and avenues you could take, and I’ve never felt the need to leave because every few years, someone’s come up to me and asked if I wanted to do this or if I fancied going there.”

In Clinch’s experience, “if you have ideas and want to try something, you won’t be told categorically no.” He says he’s always been impressed by that willingness to try different things, but it goes both ways, and his own willingness to say ‘yes’ when asked has meant moving his family of four to live long-term in six countries. “My wife and I met in the VSO and she’s similarly called to development work,” he explains. “We were both committed to this work and life, and it makes it a lot easier when both of you want to do it.”

Not Just a Job

Asked to crystallise four decades into a single reflection, Clinch balks, and then agrees. “It’s all about doing the right thing,” he says. “If you can put your hand on your heart and say I’ve done my utmost to try and improve things, to move in the right direction, then you’ve done your work.”

“And I’m confident that the projects I’ve been responsible for, they’ve done the right things,” he adds.

“You’re not saving the world. You are able to do good, but you’ve got to make sure that the good things work. There’s a lot of responsibility and you need to take that on board and make sure you’re committed, because it’s not just a job.”

And what would he tell the next generation of ‘young and enthusiastic’ people working in development? He recalls coming home one Christmas and his mother asking, not for the first time, what exactly it is that he does. “I’d try and explain it, and though I could never explain it to my mother, it was still important to remember what we do and why, and to be grateful for it.”

Give yourself a sense check, he says, to make sure you’re doing it for the right reason, feel strongly about it, and are still doing good in the world.

If so: “keep going.”