The CDI Research Blog
A Doctor with a Difference
CDI Practitioner Series with Dr. Nigel Pearson
CDI Practitioner Series brings practitioners working on the ground in interaction with our research volunteers. Our researchers try to understand what inspires development practitioners working on some of the most challenging contexts in the world and what they are doing differently to help communities.
By Edward Saunders, CDI (Research)
Dr Nigel Pearson is a medical doctor by profession but works as a consultant for a variety of organisations including WHO, UNHCR, and The Gates Foundation. In his own words:
“I help countries that are in a state of conflict to develop health systems to meet the needs of their people – prioritising wider common medical problems that cause suffering.”
He works on the ground in ‘challenging operating environments’ (COEs) which face issues such as war, corruption, and oppression – the kind of places that commonly appear in the bottom 25 of various lists. These locations often have some of the highest disease burdens with killer diseases like Malaria, HIV, and TB.
On his motivations to do his work in challenging environments, justice is a common theme.
“I hate seeing suffering, and I think that it is an outrage that healthy women die when they have a baby, or young kids die of preventable diseases, or middle-aged people die from easily treatable conditions. It is about justice… It comes from personal philosophy and also Christian faith…. If the world was to spend a fraction of what it spends on arms – or even pet food! We wouldn’t have this problem. You need a very good understanding of every context of every country – sometimes break down countries into parts for big countries like Nigeria or Pakistan… If you want to help Somalia or Congo you really do have to understand how they work to cause lasting change. “
Forming partnerships is at the focus of Nigel’s work.
“I lived in a community in eastern Congo for 8 years and was hands-on doctor. I had to speak the language, understand the culture, and become part of the society. I had to enter into it to be empathetic and therefore really understand the problems they face day after day.”
Developing those partnerships is also key to his approach.
“Training needs to be a big component – peer example and getting to know people day after day. Working with people. You have to be very patient with countries – they’re not going to change overnight. But never give up. This is possible if you befriend people. If you really like and love people and respect them and respect their culture – their beliefs – and not impose your own. Then you can begin to try be a little bit effective.”
A big takeaway I got from talking to Nigel about his work was:
“Try to work with people who you can really work with. Brilliant inspirational people. Even if you don’t think they have that much influence… invest in somebody today and they will be running programs in 10 or 20 years’ time. They are the future transformers”
I asked Nigel how he stays safe.
“I go with organisations with big risk management capacity like the UN. Or I travel in Eastern Congo – where I know so many people and ask my friends to keep me up to date with information on situations… There are no guarantees of safety in any of these countries, but it helps to be well informed or have a head of security who is.”
Flexibility seems key to safety.
“Some days we will wake up in the morning in Congo and won’t have made an itinerary before hearing news, or sometimes we have made plans and have to move countries… We have to constantly revise our assessment.”
When I asked how he overcomes challenges, he lays out his method:
“My first principle is I have to see it… Often if you turn up in a town or health centre – within minutes you can see the problems. “
“Then get lots of people together. A cross section of nationals, government workers, religious leaders, business people… Keep asking open questions and keep an open mind… You always find something new you weren’t expecting. Always. And it can be a solution to a particular problem.”
“When designing interventions, try to model on what is currently working in that particular very difficult scenario. In Somalia, business people manage to move stuff and be successful despite ongoing war. Why?… The solutions are usually there, you just have to find them.”
I asked Nigel what were some of the impact of his work.
“Seeing women and kids not dying, more families planning for kids, and people getting the right health advice and not being ripped off. Sometimes it can be changing the ways organisations operate. It can be very exciting to see the impact.”
When I asked him what his future projects were, he remarked, “My timeline is only really 2 weeks ahead!”
However, Nigel does have an inkling as to what the future may hold.
“In 20 years time, I am sure I will still be working in Congo. Some things will be better, some won’t be… But hopefully day after day I will be able to help people… Just to be there with people, I think is really important… The greatest reward is friendship. To feel that you are lifelong friends with someone from a different culture – a different world – is unbeatable.”