Kate Gross, my friend and our founding CEO in AGI, died on Christmas day after a two year battle with cancer. Our last conversation was some weeks before, sitting in the November sun in Cambridge. She knew the chemo was coming to an end and we both knew what came next. But that wasn't what we talked about.
We talked about the Ebola crisis in West Africa and how proud she was that we had stayed and played our part. We talked about what that meant for AGI, the organisation we had built from a set of shared ideas and common values. As ever with Kate it was a conversation that lived long in the memory, and that came back to me as I visited Monrovia last week to learn lessons from the crisis with our Sierra Leone and Liberia teams.
AGI's mission is to make government work for the world's poorest people. We were born of the belief that effective government is an essential part of countries moving "beyond aid" and standing on their own two feet; that governments need the ability to set and deliver their own priorities if democracy is to flourish. We believed passionately that change was possible, but alongside existing support something else was needed: more politically-attuned, more practical, on the governments' side. And that is what we built AGI to be.
By early last summer we were working in six African countries. But for three of those countries, the ground was shifting. Like the rest of the world, we didn't see Ebola coming. The price of being government-led, as we have strived to be from the outset, is that we win when they win and lose when they lose, and like the rest of the world we reacted too late to the escalating crisis. But by August, when President Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency in Liberia, it was clear it was the Government's biggest priority and it needed to become ours too.
But what did this even mean? We're a small governance NGO with a famous Patron, but we're not a humanitarian or medical one - were we needed? We had no experience of a situation like this, could we keep our people safe? Could we find more people quickly enough to support the rapidly growing response as the crisis escalated dramatically?
One of the best things Kate and I and the small group of us who have built AGI over the years ever did was to write down our values, about three years in. It sounds corny, but your values tell you who you are and what you believe. And our values are where we turned as the crisis deepened. We seek to be responsive to demand whilst independent in judgement, to stand alongside government colleagues and to see the world through their eyes, to be willing to take risks and to be prepared always to roll our sleeves up to get things done.
In the crisis this first meant asking if our partner governments wanted our support, for the profound and admirable desire of our staff to help wasn't enough - good intentions were a luxury the Ebola-hit countries couldn't afford. So we asked the question and shaped our response accordingly. There were difficult moments, and we had to learn from our mistakes quickly. But it became clear that we had a role to play alongside other NGOs and international actors and within the nascent government response systems. It was clear that coordination and organisation are even more important in a crisis than they are in "peace time". That the influx of much-needed foreign assistance meant a heightened demand for trusted advisors to work alongside the government leadership. And that not only did our people want to stay, but a number wanted to come back, as a group of committed alumni responded to our recruitment call.
So as I listened to the stories from our Sierra Leone and Liberia teams last weekend of their work over the last few months, setting up systems for ambulance dispatch or "dead body management", working in the Presidential Taskforce and national control centres, helping the governments' to clarify their priorities for the recovery, I knew that Kate would have been even more proud than she was in November. Proud of the work and the impact, and proud too that the values we held to were being lived out so vividly.
And as we discussed the challenge of what next for West Africa, as we shift from response to recovery, I knew it was time to write the next chapter: for the governments, as they re-define their development priorities post-Ebola and strike a new deal with the donors to support them; and for AGI, as we test and apply our values to find our own role in that story and others beside. I left Monrovia filled with hope and optimism, inspired by the busy efficiency of the command centre, the hustle and bustle of the city market as normality returns, and by the enduring passion and commitment of the AGI teams. I thought back to my last conversation with Kate and I took confidence from where we have come from and where we are going - she will no longer travel this journey with us, yet we will carry on her values as we do so.
Nick Thompson is Chief Executive of Africa Governance Initiative.
You can buy Kate Gross's book, Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)here