I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


Running a small charity can be a tough gig at times. On the surface things seem pretty simple. Something bothers you. Something just doesn't seem right. So you decide you would like to try to make things better.

The vehicle to make this happen is a registered charity. So you jump through a whole bunch of hoops and few months later you're good to go.

There are times when the improvement you are looking to make has a clear end point. You know, like climbing a mountain. You either get to the cairn on the summit, or you don't. Maybe you decide to try and raise enough cash for your local hospital to install a new MRI machine. Or maybe your goal is to chase up the money needed to dig a new well to provide fresh water for an African village.

Basically, this kind of charity provides you with a specific goal. An end point. A chance to take a few pictures, thank all your supporters and finish the sentence with a resounding full stop. Job done.

I feel a tad jealous of people involved in this kind of campaign. The two charities I am involved in are not like this. Not remotely.

This month about 500 people will pitch up for emergency food parcels at the 25 collection points we have in Dumfries and Galloway. This isn't our fault. We haven't caused a single one of these 500 lives to crash and burn to so badly as to need a food parcel. Obviously it isn't. But what if they turn up in all good faith to get a food parcel only to find the cupboards are bare? Sorry, but.......

Would this be our fault? Of course it would. Oh, we could drone on about all kinds of funding pressures. Less Government money. Less Council money. Trusts overwhelmed by funding applications. Less donations from a squeezed community.

But moaning about how hard things are doesn't make a jot of difference to the 20 or so individuals and families who leave kitchens with empty cupboards and hope to return home with something to eat.

Thankfully this has never happened in the 16 years of First Base. Not once. We have been mighty close to the edge at times. Three weeks away. Two weeks away. Desperate enough to dive into frantic online funding campaigns. SOS campaigns.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is this. Of course it isn't our fault that 20 people have nothing to eat today. But it is absolutely our responsibility to make sure they don't go hungry. And if they go to bed tonight with empty stomachs, then we have to to take the blame for that. If 20 people go to bed with empty stomachs tonight, it is because we have failed to keep the balls in the air.

This is a day I dread. Lying awake and running all kinds of things through a racing mind. Could I have filled in more application forms? Were we right to extend our service over such a large area? Were there any costs we should have cut?

Like I said. It has never happened. And I hope it never will happen. But we would be utter fools not to accept the fact it might happen one day.

When we established our African charity, The Kupata Project, we thought it might be rather different. Our work at First Base is all about providing sticking plasters. Our role is merely to stop the bleeding. We tide people over for a week or two as they work their way through a crisis and get back on their feet again. We don't make any false claims. We can't solve all their underlying problems. We can't make the Westminster Government behave like decent human beings. We can't make the pound worth $1.50 again. We can't stop power companies from hammering up the price of gas and electricity. 

Instead, all we can do is react and hope things don't get a whole lot worse.

Kupata's work in Uganda is very different. We saw something which just wasn't right and decided to try and make things better. The problem? School girls miss 25% of their time in school because their families can't even begin to afford to buy them sanitary pads. So. A massive problem which is caused by human biology and an economy which provides very few with an income of more than £1 a day.

The solution? Easy. Provide sanitary pads. It's not like we're making like super clever people from the West who are turning up to teach Africans how to live their lives. They know the solution to their problem. Sanitary pads. They just can't afford to buy them. Which makes our job pretty straight forward. Raise cash and spend it on sanitary pads whilst at the same time making sure not a penny of the cash we raise is wasted on either overheads or corruption.

So. Simple, right? We have found a Ugandan based charity which makes re-usable pads. They cost about 70p each and we give the girls four per annum. £2.80 per girl.

Maths time. Lets say we raise £1000. £1000 divided by £2.80 = 357. So that's great, right? We can help out 357 girls and make a mighty big difference to their lives......


Because there is always an except. We're not building a well here. The 357 girls we help out will still need sanitary pads next year. And the year after. Which means we will need to raise at least another £1000 next year. What if our fundraising efforts flop? Then we have to make a horrible phone call. We know we said we would be there for you, but.....

And they won't be interested in our excuses. An economy smashed up by Brexit. Blogs sent out and not read. Rejection letters.

Instead they will have to go back to using old pieces of cloth or banana leaves. Which won't work. So they will inevitably go back to missing a quarter of their education.

And we will have done what Europeans have done for hundreds of years. Turn up in Africa. Make a bunch of big promises. Act big. And then let them down. Completely.

Which of course is the exact and polar opposite to what we are trying to achieve. So the best plan of attack is not to do that. Instead we are going to try and take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook. They have a different approach to the one we have adopted down the centuries. When they turn up in Africa and make a promise, they do something pretty unique: they keep it. When they say they are going to build a railway from the coast to the interior, they actually build a railway from the coast to the interior. Unsurprisingly, the Africans are kind of impressed by this. No wonder most of Africa now looks to Beijing when they are in the market for a trustworthy partner.

When we hand pads to the girls, we also give them a postcard. This year the picture on the front is Edinburgh in the snow. Here it is.

On the back is a simple message. 

'To you from the people of Scotland'.

A big promise, right? Basically we're telling them we've got this. You can trust us. We're not going to be here today and gone tomorrow. We're in this for the long haul.

OK. We basically need a new plan. Before making a first delivery of pads to a new school, we need to be as near to 100% confident as we can we will be there for the foreseeable future.

Thus far, we have helped out the girls in one school. Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial school. When we first pitched up in November 2017, the school was home to 250 girls. The availability of sanitary pads has proved to be a pretty major pull factor. Now there are 410 girls on the school roll. This means the annual bill for providing sanitary pads is about £1200. If everything goes pear shaped and we fail to raise a single penny, then push coming to shove means Carol and I footing the bill. It won't be easy, but barring unforeseen personal disasters, we can manage it.

So. Box ticked. A promise we can keep.

The next two schools on the list are Rwesasi and Harambe. These are both very small rural schools, each with a hundred girls on the register. The annual bill for each school is about £300. £600 for both. Not a vast fortune but it would be hard for Carol and I to guarantee £1800 for three years should our fundraising efforts fall flat.

The solution? Look close to home. We put the idea of adopting school each to our two sons and thankfully they are up for the idea. Dyonne and his partner Louise are adopting Rwesasi school and Courtney is adopting Harambe. They will have their own funding pages and like us, they will make good on any funding shortfalls. It's great to see the young generation making this kind of commitment. 

This meant there was only on school left on our immediate list. Kigata High School. 239 girls. About £700 a year. Too much for Carol and I to able to confidently guarantee.

So I picked up the phone and made a call to a funder who has helped out First Base for many years. They also donated some money to the Kupata Project when we launched last year. I explained the problem and out fear of letting the girls down. Would they be interested in committing to ongoing funding....?

They would. They did. No written contracts of course. Just an over the phone handshake. More than enough for us.

So in a couple of weeks time we will pitch up at Kigata High School and provide 239 girls with sanitary pads for a year. And when we tell them we will do all we can to carry on providing them with pads for many years to come, we will be making a promise we are confident of keeping.

When I finished the call, the enormity of the whole thing hit me. One phone call and 239 lives in a country thousands of miles from Scotland were about to be transformed. 25% more time in school is a huge deal. Better education means infinitely better life chances. The chance to push away a forced marriage. The chance to get a job and a salary and the chance to transform the prospects of the whole family group. Money for school fees for brothers and sisters. Maybe a solar panel to bring some light into the long tropical nights. Thousands of lives made better over the years to come. And thousands of people in a land far away who will feel a warmth to the people of Scotland.

All because of one phone call.

In the midst of all the hateful sound and fury of Brexit, it is worth remembering we are more than capable of being a whole lot better.

If you would like to help make sure we keep our promises to every Ugandan school girl we help, please follow the link below to the Kupata Project online funding page.