A move to Nepal


Seven years is usually the maximum time that any international staff member can spend in one UNICEF field office. In 1982 I moved to take up a job as Communication Officer in Nepal. Only 12 % of Nepali women could read and write. My new supervisor, Malcolm Kennedy stressed the need to produce as much visual information as possible to help reduce the unacceptable IMR rate of 182 deaths per thousand live births. No problem I thought (sarcastically), just give me a pencil... then he stressed the next obstacle. 'It will take you two weeks of walking to visit some of our projects,’ he said, ‘then after some time there it’s a two weeks walk back here to Kathmandu!”

For the next seven years I spent on average three months a year walking, working, filming and drawing in the hills of Nepal. In that time I visited some 68 districts (leaving only four unexplored) and discovered a unique diverse country that has left an indelible mark on my family and I.

UNICEF Nepal already had an artist working in the office. Narendra Basnett was a very talented illustrator and along with Datta Roy and later Sharad Ranjit, I had a helpful and valuable team of colleagues. Over the course of time we enlisted the help of many other artists in Nepal to assist our work. My favourite times were shared with two comedians Madan Krishna and Hari Bunshar who helped us on numerous occasions to promote UNICEF health messages across the country. They voiced puppet shows and made extended field trips with me into the hills to entertain and educate communities on the main health priorities for the country.

While in Nepal I wrote an article for the British Association of Illustrators that I’d been a member of for years. They published my article in their magazine (Number 47 in 1865) under the title ‘The British Illustrator and the Third World.’ I wanted to stress the values of good illustration in developing countries. (But also to challenge those who made a good living from advertising things we don’t need or are harmful to children’s health… that the same skills could be applied to promoting more vital information.) This article of course was designed to be controversial and it was. To keep this paragraph short you may already see the conflict this caused. “Who did I think I was, telling illustrators what to draw? (What I did not realize also at the time was that in London there were some young talented West Indian illustrators who were trying hard to change the stereotypical images of Africans which had existed in the UK since Victorian times… with insulting cartooned black faced images on Jam jars etc.)

For the next four issues of the magazine I was asked to explain my work more and invited to talk to the London group when next in the UK. I was taken to task by many but in the end some 60 British illustrators signed up to help me produce a book of clip art illustrations that could be used in emergency situations to explain health messages, or be used with local artists to adapt and set acceptable standards. The book was published by ITDG as The Copybook and it made available copyright free illustration to anyone working on development communications projects. Note that since then I have put together more than 3000 of these illustrations gifted by other artists I have worked with around the world and these are now available copyright free on-line at www.thenrgroup.net/I4D/index.htm

Also during my time in Nepal FACTS for LIFE was in development. This was an initiative inspired by Peter Adamson and backed by James Grant which highlighted the top 10 messages that every parent needed to understand about protecting the health of their children. The genius in this project was its simplicity and its wide application. With these ten messages it was now up to UNICEF field offices to unleash the power of communication onto the developing world's poorest communities. Facts for Life first came out as a publication (and to-date more than 15 million copies have been printed in four edition, some 215 different languages and in over 200 countries.) This list of the ten most important things that every parent should know was endorsed by every major UN Humanitarian organization and over one hundred other notable NGO’s. For an artist this publication was a godsend...it made our work infinitely easier. Why?

One of the most frustrating parts of my job at the time was trying to find agreement from the 'experts' on what were the correct messages to be communicated to young non-literate mothers in places like rural East Africa or Nepal. Before Facts for Life was published my life as an illustrator was eternally plagued by changes and arguments over what exactly the scientifically correct health message was to be. How much salt was to be put with sugar to mix a rehydration drink? How long was breastfeeding really recommended for? More time was wasted trying to find approval for the correct messages from the health/scientific research community than I spent drawing and distributing these messages. If I spent a day doing an illustration that was regarded a long time… yet people would take weeks and months to approve a few words. Then along came Facts for Life and it instantly became the most credible source of prevention health information (possibly in the history of ill-health prevention). Finally I had a document approved by over a hundred development organisations and if any petty bureaucrat took issue with one of my visual creations... I could say, "look here... this is what over 100 experts believe is best... I’m just illustrating it… don't shoot the messenger!"

With the release of Facts for Life... a sister publication was produced called ‘All for Health’ which spot -lighted many of the innovative ways we had used artists in Nepal to help us communication health messages.

Documentary films which I made during this period of time in Nepal can be found at the links below

A cry for protection

Goitre and Cretinism in Nepal. (Due to Iodine Deficiency.)

Sport Aid

George McBean 2012