Mark Gorman joined HelpAge International in 1988 as Development Officer responsible for growing the global network. He remained at HelpAge until 2021, having had roles including Policy Director, Director of Programmes and Deputy Chief Executive, and Acting Chief Executive – twice.
Mark looks back on the pioneering vision of HelpAge founder, Leslie Kirkley, for a global network and how it became a reality when he founded HelpAge International.
What can the last 40 years tell us as HelpAge plans to work more closely with the network and be more locally led?
Bringing a vision to life
When founding HelpAge International, Sir Leslie Kirkley’s ambition was for an international network of equal organisations where everyone would have a voice and where the work would be truly open.
He had tried before – first at Oxfam as one of its founders, and then at ActionAid when setting up ActionAid International. Both took steps in that direction but were not, from Leslie’s perspective, democratic enough.
As the Chair of the Overseas Committee of Help the Aged (now Age UK), Leslie saw an opportunity. In November 1983, he and the Overseas Committee formed HelpAge International, securing the support of HelpAge India, Pro Vida in Colombia, HelpAge Kenya and both Help the Aged in Canada and the UK as the founding network members.
Leslie was a man ahead of his time. He foresaw today’s sector-wide momentum to redistribute power, to collaborate equally and to localise.
Growing the network
In the 1980s HelpAge operated as the Secretariat to the network, with four staff and a tiny budget. It managed networking activities of the five original members and started to attract new members. There were about 20 network members when I started but it was relatively small compared to the more than 170 members in 93 countries today.
Regional offices opened, first in Kenya two years after I started, then Bolivia and in Asia, first in Sri Lanka before settling in Thailand. The last region was the Middle East where, despite efforts to engage national organisations, we didn’t manage to make a breakthrough until much later.
One of the challenges in developing the network was to create an incentive to join, showing how organisations might benefit from being part of an international network of like-minded organisations. The solidarity of network membership appealed to some, who valued the idea of being part of a global movement. But others felt it might force them to take on the corporate image of HelpAge and preferred to retain their own identity and independence.
Developing a global network like this had not been done before, and we see similar concerns today across the sector and beyond.
HelpAge Global meeting in Delhi, India, 1991
We explored the idea of associate memberships so organisations could join without having to take on HelpAge’s corporate image. These grew significantly – peaking at around 40, with many being very active and perhaps better aligned with the direction we were taking than some of the earlier members.
While some therefore questioned why a distinction was being made between full and associate members HelpAge has always been pragmatic, prioritising the actual work for older people. Over time, we became a lot more relaxed about expectations around membership and categories, leading to the diverse network of equals that we have today.
The evolution of our programme work
Leslie identified that funding from programmes could be the engine that drove the network.
For the first ten years, we ran eye-care programmes funded by Help the Aged’s successful appeals in the UK. Adopt a Granny was another effective fundraiser by Help the Aged. Though criticised by some as patronising, it raised a lot of money to support innovative grassroot projects. HelpAge was also working with Help the Aged on various humanitarian responses, even as early as the Ethiopia famine in 1983-85.
But in 1994 all Help the Aged’s international work, including programme staff, transferred to HelpAge. Our first emergency response was in the same year, supporting refugees in Tanzania who had fled the genocide in Rwanda.
This expansion brought more income which helped fund the network but it could be a two-edged sword because we were now also responsible for running programmes. This could create a tension between delivering programmes and supporting network members in managing sometimes complex work.
Poultry keeping project in Kenya, 1988.
The global network gives us a connection linking grassroot national organisations with global reach. It is authentic and was part of our identity from the very start. People recognised us for the work we were supporting at the grassroots which gave us unique credibility at the global level.
I always liked the idea of membership because it’s about belonging. It’s different to being a partner where you go your separate ways after a project. Being a member is about feeling responsibility. We found opportunities for people to work together, run workshops and learn. The connectivity of the network made us all stronger, important particularly in low and middle-income countries where working for older people can be a tough proposition.
The global network was a success in the early days because nobody else was doing it. It also helped fuel HelpAge’s success. Together, we have challenged ageism and discrimination, campaigned for older people’s rights and needs, and shown the contribution that older people can make in society.
For example, the network has:
spear-headed social protection and evidenced the need and impact that universal pensions could have.
awakened the world to HIV / AIDs not being exclusive to younger generations
accessed hard-to-reach areas to support older people caught up in humanitarian emergencies
pushed doors at the UN for the rights and needs of older people so they are included in the Sustainable Development Goals and are more likely to be heard
challenged national Covid policies that isolated older people or exposed them to danger so they could access information and be safer
acted as a convenor, enabling the voices of older people to be heard at a national and global level where debates affecting them are taking place.
Diana, Princess of Wales, innagurating HelpAge office in Brussels, Belgium, 1990.
That HelpAge embraces all sorts of organisations and remains the only network with both a grassroots and global facing aspect (and has at its best successfully made links between the two) is inspirational.
As HelpAge rolls out its strategy 2030 with its emphasis on the role of the network, some might feel like the organisation is on repeat. But I like my wife’s view that you don’t ever go full circle, you go up a spiral. You pass the same point, but you’ve moved on and that’s where HelpAge is, with all the learning and experience of the last 40 years.
There were a lot of the things we didn’t get right but I’m optimistic today. People have realised you can’t create a network where all organisations look the same with the same brand. We realised it didn’t matter what you were called. Organisations have their own identity and it’s the great work they are doing that’s important.
It’s a journey and of course, there’s uncertainty because the destination is yet to be reached. But change doesn’t happen overnight. So long as the momentum keeps going towards a really devolved network where people share knowledge and experience, can do great work, and be supported and encouraged, then the journey continues to matter. I think Leslie and his fellow pioneers would approve.
Photos from the personal archive of Mark Gorman.
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