Salesman for relief

MARCI McDONALD November 17 1986

Salesman for relief

MARCI McDONALD November 17 1986

Salesman for relief


His suit has the sort of cut that justifies the adjective nondescript. His socks occasionally wilt in grey woolly bunches, exposing an expanse of pale ankle. A stranger could be forgiven for failing to suspect that behind the deceptively mild-mannered insurance salesman’s facade lurks a multimillionaire intimate of world leaders. As Christopher Brown, first secretary for the Canadian delegation to the United Nations, has observed: “Maurice Strong is the kind of man you would pass on the street and not notice. He doesn’t look the part.” But for the past 22 months, as executive co-ordinator for the United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa, Strong, a former head of Petro-Canada, has played a part that has been both unsung and is of heroic proportions. Indeed, the man with the rumpled socks has acted as choreographer and fixer in the $4.5-billion global relief effort that is credited with saving millions of lives on the droughtravaged continent.

From a small, stark office on the

fifth floor of New York City’s UN Plaza, Strong directed the dizzying traffic of aid and volunteer teams pouring into Africa from 35 countries, 47 nongovernmental organizations and half a dozen other arms of the UN. His only support was a staff of 25, borrowed

Strong hurled himself between African and other world capitals, coaxing y cajoling and moving the roadblocks

from other UN agencies. Although the African crisis is far from over—as the vacant eyes of emaciated Sudanese infants in newscasts still testify—the massive global effort has been hailed as one of the UN’s rare success stories, credited with saving 35 million lives. Said Canadian ambassador to the UN Stephen Lewis: “It is the one thing in my history at the UN that all nations

have agreed has been a success, and that is saying something.”

In fact, one of the best testimonials to his triumph was the closing on Oct. 31 of the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa—just as Strong had planned. The office’s functions will now be integrated into other existing UN agencies. “Our success could only be measured by whether we could put ourselves out of business,” Strong said. With an energy undiminished by his 20-year battle with diabetes, and a personal address book containing contacts at the top levels of government around the globe, Strong accomplished that goal by hurling himself between African and other world capitals, coaxing and cajoling, moving political and physical roadblocks. “Whenever there was a critical moment,” said Lewis, “Maurice would appear in the country and magically the bottleneck would disappear. The guy has a network of international connections which is quite astonishing.”

On Strong’s first trip to the Sudan in 1985, he was shocked to find 100,000 drought victims jammed in desperation around an oasis at Wad Kowli, where the water supply was due to run out within days. He personally flew to Khartoum and pleaded with then-president Gaaar Nimeiry—who had been resisting such a move—to open other camps for the refugees. And in 1985, when millions of tons of food aid sat stranded on Ethiopian docks because the army had commandeered all the country’s trucks for its war against the rebels in the northern province of Eritrea, Strong flew into Addis Ababa for an audience with Ethiopian leader Col. Haile Mengistu. The next morning, according to UN officials, a convoy of trucks appeared at the docks, ready for loading.

According to those who worked with him, Strong also used his considerable persuasive powers when Ethiopia’s forced relocation of thousands of peasants last summer provoked an international outcry over alleged human rights violations. He personally convinced Mengistu to suspend the operation in a compromise that appeased the U.S. state department and saved the Ethiopian relief effort from collapse. It is a negotiation he declines to discuss publicly except to say: “Whatever you may think of Mengistu, he is an able guy.

And he has kept his word.”

To many observers, Strong’s entire 57-year life seemed designed to equip him specifically for his latest UN job. The eldest

of four children born to an unemployed station agent in a Canadian Pacific whistle-stop named Oak Lake, Man., he grew up moving from shanty to shanty as the Depression gripped the Prairies. Said a longtime friend: “Maurice has an affinity for the Third World because he basically comes out of it himself.” Those years also gave him a distaste for extravagance—he

insists on travelling economy class— and a personal credo of public service. Indeed, Strong’s entire career has been spent shuttling between government posts and the world of corporate dealmaking. That straddling of the public and private sectors gave him the credentials that proved invaluable for the African famine crisis.

As a 23-year-old who had already made his first fortune dealing in prospecting and mining stocks, Strong turned his back on the world of finance to spend two years travelling in East Africa. That experience gave him an affection for the continent and a knowledge of Swahili. At 34, he was already a millionaire and president of Montreal’s Power Corp. of Canada Ltd.—a stint that, as a director of Power Corp.’s subsidiary Canada Steamship Lines, gave him firsthand knowledge of the transportation industry, which later proved invaluable to getting food supplies through to Africa’s starving. As the man who in 1966 was ^ asked by then-prime minister ï Lester Pearson to reorganize Ottawa’s external aid programs into the present-day Canadian International Development Agency, Strong also knew the intricate and sometimes internecine politics of the foreign-aid world. And having landed a job at the fledgling United Nations as an enterprising teenager in 1947—it was a glorified guard’s post— he brought a lifelong fascination with the UN to his future work. That dedication has brought him the title of under-secretary general four times in his career.

In fact, his most celebrated tenure at the UN was in 1972, when he was credited with putting ecological concerns on the map by organizing the UN

Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The New Yorker magazine then hailed his efforts with a laudatory profile that said, “The survival of civilization in something like its present form might depend significantly on the efforts of a single man.” Indeed, Strong has noted that he is known as an environmentalist everywhere in the world but Canada, where, he complains, newspapers identify him as “former Liberal candidate”—a reference to his abortive attempt to win a Toronto seat in the 1979 federal election. At the time, he says, he realized

he was not cut out to be a politician when he found himself brushing off voters’ concerns over potholes, while urging them to take a stand on foreign aid and the environment. Said Strong: “I found myself telling them, ‘Look, you don’t have any problems.’ ”

Still, it was his deftness and experience as a deal-maker that may have given Strong the real edge in the African relief effort—as well as the fact that he was not an insecure career bureaucrat. “People who have their careers at stake are not willing to take chances,” he said, “and this was an operation where you have to take a lot of chances.” But it was also Strong’s business success that brought him the most controversy in Canada. For one thing, some critics accused him of profiting from his 1976-1978 tenure as the first chairman of the Crown energy corporation, Petro-Canada, using it to amass a personal fortune in oil and gas. He refuted that charge as a “bum rap,” pointing out that his oil and gas interests were all in the United States, where Petro-Canada did no business. Indeed, he said that his varied experience, which had won him worldwide accolades, had given him “the worst of both worlds” in Canada. Said Strong: “The private sector thinks you are an oddball or a socialist, and in the rest of the community you are suspect because you are a businessman.”

Although he will continue as UN under-secretary general until the end of the year, Strong is now returning to his private business interests, including his 160,000-acre ranch in Colorado. Many UN officials expressed shock that he did not attempt to stay on. Said Strong: “I have no intention of simply trying to find a comfortable chair at the UN. All my life I have come in when there was something challenging and useful to do, done it and got out.” But Strong insists that he will continue his involvement in the effort to rebuild Africa.

At the same time, he makes no secret of his disappointment with the UN’s special session on Africa last May. At the session—called to put into place the five-year plan that African nations had helped draft for their own long-term economic recovery—Western governments failed to commit themselves to the funding required. Strong expresses concern that that failure could ultimately sabotage what he calls “one of the great humanitarian success stories of all time.” Added Strong: “There was a fundamental breakdown in Africa. If they do not find those resources, it will demonstrate that our response was just a short-term emotional binge.”

— MARCI McDONALD in Washington