In Campsie cemetery where the hills descend gently to embrace the dead, we gathered last week to bid farewell to Garth Heffernan. As he was being laid to rest, 4700 miles away in Sierra Leone plans were being drawn up for a school that will bear his name. You probably won’t have heard of Garth Heffernan and here I must declare an interest. He was the father of one of my best friends and probably the first adult to engage with me in a grown-up manner about the intricate contradictions of life behind the old Iron Curtain.

Mr Heffernan was a senior executive in the old Scottish Development Agency where he’d been tasked with making deals with some of the Soviet Bloc countries to boost Scottish trade. Along the way, his recognised negotiating skills and a gnarly Lanarkshire charm helped open up a measure of cautious, long-term cooperation between the eastern Europeans and Scotland.

His success at both endeavours came to be recognised when he was awarded one of Bulgaria’s highest civilian honours by the country’s president.

Mr Heffernan had introduced the Bulgarian Department of Agriculture to farmers in Fife whose potatoes were producing a yield ten times more than Bulgarian ones. In return, the Scottish Development Agency were granted access to some coveted Bulgarian expertise in other areas of rural development.

Some of the children supported by Street ChildSome of the children supported by Street Child (Image: free)

His skills at doing business for Scotland in rough terrain were inherited by his son, Gary. After graduating from Strathclyde University’s pioneering Technology and Business Studies School, my friend rose to become a senior vice-president with Accenture, the global management specialists, with special responsibility for Africa.

It was in this role that he began to witness at first-hand the raw deprivation – eclipsing anything in our soft European imaginations – and felt moved to use his international connections and management expertise in raising funds for targeted projects.

“I was introduced to Tom and Linda Dannatt who’d given up their successful careers in the City to devote all their energies to founding and establishing Street Child, which seeks to address the plight of children in Africa’s poorest communities. They had encountered challenges in partnering with the large charitable behemoths which receive the bulk of western governments’ aid.

“My work with Accenture had given me access to the senior people in some of the world’s top 100 companies and so I was able to help. It was just the sort of project I felt could make a sustainable difference in the lives of children who were being denied their sacred right to an education.”

Sierra Leone currently sits 12th in the World Health Organisation’s list of the world’s poorest nations. The bulk of the top ten are also on the African continent. Centuries of western greed and brutality had culminated in the 19th century Scramble for Africa. This was the obscene 80-year pillage of an entire continent and the enslavement of its people by seven of the West’s richest powers as a means of feeding the Dark Satanic Mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Since then, western aid to these places in the wake of the instability and geopolitical chaos wrought by the west’s imperialism, has been conducted on a transactional basis: to fulfil minimum international obligations and always secondary to military and defence spending wherever the west’s perceived interests are threatened elsewhere.


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“What we’re trying to do with Street Child,” said Gary, “is not simply to take children off the streets and into schools. It’s providing an entire service framework, delivered over several years, with the aim of growing these schools and then handing them back to their communities.

“It’s not enough merely to hand them money; a little initial expertise and then to withdraw. We have a detailed strategy where we recruit teachers; lay down the curriculum under the guidance of local and trusted community leaders and then design the schools in sympathy with each community’s unique cultural and economic DNA.

“If we neglect the long-term viability of these schools and the potential of these children then we become trapped in a cycle of crisis, where the roots of instability and poverty become visible again just a few years after we told ourselves we’d discharged our moral obligations.”

The challenges in some of the 15 countries where Street Child is active are formidable. Yet, the numbers of children and their families whose lives are being transformed are embedding hope in what had been an endlessly depressing narrative.

They have reached more than one million children, including nearly half a million directly supported into education. They have also helped more than 150,000 adults through family business schemes and teacher training. More than 800 schools have been built or modernised to improve learning environments.

“You can’t begin to imagine what real wickedness and brute inhumanity looks like until you see hundreds of children in some areas of Sierra Leone missing limbs. This is the chief means of control by warlords and their death squads.”

The charity works in the poorest countries in the worldThe charity works in the poorest countries in the world (Image: free)

Some of the challenges stem from an economic dilemma facing many African families. When children reach school age they’re of more value to their households by working to help their families scrape a meagre subsistence.

“The purpose of much of our fund-raising,” says Gary, “is to provide families with an income by buying little plots of land they can farm or to provide seed money for mums and dads to set up modest local enterprises where they can make a living by utilising their creative skills. This then frees up their children to attend school. If done carefully and thoughtfully and with the knowledge and guidance of local people themselves we can make this transformational and sustainable over a long period of time.”

Thus far, Street Child has focused on building primary schools and creating a curriculum for them. The next stage is to embark on a programme of providing secondary schools. Among the first of these in Sierra Leone will bear the name of Garth Heffernan, former pupil of Our Lady’s High in Motherwell and proud Scot.

“The Scottish values of hard work, honesty, fairness and innovation which underpinned dad’s life and work will be embedded in the foundations of a school in Sierra Leone built in his honour,” says Gary.

Details of the work of Street Child and how to donate are here: