Nik Hartley (pictured), our CEO who will be stepping down next year, reflects on the life of Restless Development’s founder Jim Cogan, who sadly and suddenly passed away 10 years ago this month.
As I begin to reflect on my work at Restless Development over almost two decades, I re-read the eulogy I wrote for Jim Cogan, our founder and my inspiration for everything I have tried to achieve with the Agency since. And now it is ten years almost to the day since Jim tragically passed away. And so I thought it was worth sharing the thoughts that I wrote as a reminder to all of us who associate with our work and values, just why Restless Development remains such a unique agency.
Here is the slightly abridged eulogy in full. Enjoy!
Our Founder Director: A Eulogy to the most restless of them all, by Nik Hartley, CEO Restless Development, September 2007
My first memory of Jim is in 1998, nearly ten years ago; he was barefoot in the Westminster staff Common room. I was interviewing him for research for my M.Phil. I was building an analysis of all British organisations that focused on education in a development context, and was trying to find the source of their focus – research, policy, bureaucracy, that kind of thing (which I was receiving in spades from the big wigs I had interviewed).
Jim’s reply: “Because, Nik, there is no other way [referring to the youth-led and non-formal approaches of his organisation SPW]. What do you mean criteria for our focus? Have you seen the Victorian style schools, the irrelevant subjects, the European way, being rolled out across these countries as if it is helping anyone except the system itself?”.
But where did you get this information, your evidence, your research I asked. “I was standing in a classroom in Tanzania last week and do you know what the teacher was teaching? In a classroom 20 miles from a road, 100 miles from a town. The Brownian motion! The ****** Brownian Motion!”.
And so there it was in a nutshell. He was there, he was watching and experiencing; he was a teacher (an inspiration at that I believe); a traveller; always on the ground as they like to say. He saw it and he saw it with no shade of grey; none of the shadows from technocratic theory or institutional policy hung over his head.
Jim’s approach through Restless Development was both radical and obvious. He saw that there are millions of young educated people who are qualified, ready and able, and the most appropriate people at that, to be leading big swathes of development initiatives, if only the development community would give them the platform to do it. And Jim was determined both to do it (money or no money) and also to persuade the development community to support the movement, whether they thought they were ready to or not.
“Determined to do it (money or no money)”
I have worked out that there are over 15,000 young people who have committed up to a year of their lives to work full time with Restless Development since its inception. Not 15,000 people targeted, or 15,000 young people attending a week’s workshop, but 15,000 young adults who took on a massive task and a long-term commitment, and have changed so many lives including their own forever. 15,000 people who have proved Restless Development’s vision is so clearly achievable.
“Persuading the Development Community”
“I am not sure whether to ask you to leave Mr Cogan, or to call Clare Short and tell her to halt what we are doing everywhere and listen to what you are proposing here”, a DfID Country Head said to Jim as we sat across the room at a meeting once. Jim was the greatest and worst fundraiser. The greatest because he believed every word he said. He knew what was right, he knew what was wrong and he was on a mission to prove it. The worst, because if all that didn’t work he did not let go and once they were point blank refusing he told them what was wrong with them. “Hartley, man” he said once as we left a nameless multilateral office – “if you ever work for one of them I will… “. Well the rest is unrepeatable.
And what of the fun? I literally could write a book of stories of Jim and the fun and funny things that went on day to day whenever Jim was around in Restless Development. Jim who managed to decide that swimming off a renowned beach in Dar was a good idea, only to look back and see his clothes and brief case snatched, leaving him in Dar-es-Salaam, no work, no passport… and a pair of underpants on; Jim being chased down the streets of Iringa by a ‘man with a machete’; Jim who told some parents at the airport that he could not understand why they were all there. “This is the problem with modern families. Go home! They are perfectly safe with me.” And then proceeded to hand out sealed packages which he said the volunteers were not allowed to open but should be handed straight to Gabriel Amori – “a man who will meet you in Kampala”!
Yes the fun, the laughter, the teasing. The incessant teasing with such a smile. James Flecker – his great friend and colleague came into the office one day fully padded up from his bike ride – helmet, yellow jacket, yellow arm and ankle bands. Jim looked up: “For God’s sake James, die like a man!”. (Many of you will know Jim biked around Westminster, no helmet, on the pavements, as if circa 1910. I think of the modern day policies that I spend my time on – motorbike use for instance – and wince!).
Jim loved and wanted to look after every volunteer and staff that ever passed his door. Every marriage he felt personally responsible for (and yes volunteers and staff, we have many), every illness he wanted to solve, every upset he wanted righted. Even for candidates for a job, he admitted to me that he wanted jobs created so that we could take the unsuccessful ones. He cared so much that he never ever stopped thinking about people, Restless Development and what we could do better.
Which leads me back to that criteria for Restless Development’s work I interviewed him about. Jim had that absolute determination to do what he knew was right not just what the pages, the policies, the researchers said was right. Not desk research but what he had experienced and knew. Why are we focusing on HIV prevention today in many of our Country Programmes? No, not research, pilots or in-depth enquiry. But a phone call to me in the office from Jim… in the bath.
Quite literally, another Archimedes. And thousands have been affected by that thinking process; that moment. (Though it is disconcerting to hear the splashes of your boss in the bath). Restless Development’s young people are uniquely placed to affect behaviour change and HIV prevention needed just that. That was what he realised in the bath. And yes our more conservative modern systems now confirm that he was right.
And now Jim is gone. But for Restless Development not really. 15,000 former volunteers. 176 present staff and 1000 volunteers joining the programmes this year – 900 from Africa and Asia*. And, yes a whole load of robust systems to back it all up nowadays. Jim and I never really agreed on them systems. But we agreed on the end goal. And so I have no doubt wherever he is now he will be bursting with satisfaction at Restless Development, bubbling with excitement for Restless Development as well as Alive and Kicking and all of his other schemes. He will be itching to do more, and having a good laugh at my attempted eulogy on what he has founded, and on what he has meant to us all and our partners and fellow young people. Indeed when Westminster School wrote a eulogy about Jim, when he retired as a teacher there (and deputy head), he was annoyed with the elaborate way it described him; more annoyed when we displayed it on the Restless Development Board to get him going. And it did: “It is all nonsense Nik. All they needed was to say was: Jim Cogan, he never took a day off sick in thirty five years.”
That sure was Jim. Health personified, lithe, athletic, the Cat in the Hat, never a moment to stop (except a quick afternoon bath here and there). When he contemplated his years ahead, he once said “put a small hole in that boat, Nik, and send me off with a bottle of wine and a stone tied to my foot.”
Well, Jim, we did not need to do any of the above. Appalling as it is to contemplate now, I really hope that we will come to terms with the fact that Jim left us in the way that he would have chosen. He left us all behind, still flying around like an 18 year old Restless Development volunteer determined to change the word for the better.
He will rail against this eulogy, just as he did Westminster’s. He’ll be saying, “Come on Nik, it’s all nonsense. All you needed to write was, in 18 years running Restless Development he never took one penny in pay.”
Our first and longest standing volunteer; the youngest of us all; our Archimedes. We will never be quite as driven and instinctive again, but I promise that I, at least, will try.
*Post Script: Of course today ten years further down the line I am proud that those numbers are an amazing 465 full time staff and 4,500 full time volunteers around the world. But I think as I step down next year I will be more proud of how well we have somehow managed to retain and nurture his radical vision and values.