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Getting to know Mansoor Ali

You can watch Mansoor's interview here or listen to it here.

The importance of learning, how we learn, and evolving the ways people learn, is undeniably important to Mansoor. His love of learning could not have resonated more from our conversation this week. He is passionate about educating people and enabling them to learn in supportive and nurturing ways, and wants to encourage a culture of learning from mistakes, a culture which can sometimes be overwhelmed by a desire for perfection, which can not only prevent real thinking and change, but can limit innovation. Throughout his life, Mansoor has discovered these ways of learning and how he can use them in his teaching and training; teaching the values of learning from your mistakes, being able to “see things critically, how these things can be improved…that’s where the learning comes from…you need to come out of the context and think…how can we improve, what is best, what mistakes are we doing and so those are the things which I found very exciting about learning and I still adopt and use those values”. Mansoor has drawn inspiration from different parts of his life and interests, and his drive to continue learning and teaching is something we are grateful to benefit from at IMA.  

Mansoor Ali in his allotment

So...who is Mansoor Ali? 

After exchanging introductions and asking Mansoor, the age-old question we all dread being asked at job interviews ‘So…tell me about yourself…’, Mansoor replies simply “I would describe myself as a learner”. This is far better than the usual scripted answers I have been known to use and gets to the heart of who Mansoor is instantly. He is, as he describes, a learner, someone who has dedicated his life to learning about people, places, ideas, and how we can all make the world a better place, by, you guessed it…learning from each other. Having worked in the international development field for more than 35 years and finding his feet in what he loves to do, he has a wealth of experience and professes that despite all this knowledge, “[he’s] always learning- I am always enjoying my work”, with his focus on global development. 

What is Mansoor doing now? 

I was interested to know where Mansoor sees himself in his life now. He is full of passion for learning and teaching, so my interest in what he is doing now, and hopes to continue doing grew throughout our conversation. Mansoor’s answer though, will surprise you.  

Mansoor describes himself as a “half allotment person”. Intriguing, I know, I wanted to know more too. His love of gardening and allotments started during his first work in Karachi: “one of the components was kitchen gardening” and “[his] father was a very keen gardener”. Now, he is beginning the next stage of his life as “semi-retired but still very active in the professional world”, and currently his passions are in “starting [his] allotment”. He also feels he is at the point in his life where he would like to do more mentoring, training and teaching so he can “share with young professionals what [he] learned in 35 years” and “what mistakes [he has] made”, he feels young people have “strengths and abilities they can bring to the table…like digital connectivity, use of multimedia” and “their ability to think and analyse is excellent” so part of his goal is “to work more and more with young professionals and enable them to deliver good international development in coming years”.  

Currently, Mansoor is working on projects in 6 countries and in the past years, has travelled to 20 countries, including in 4 emergency contexts. His work is also based on “more or less developing international programs for a number of international donors, bilateral donors”, amongst other work in which Mansoor will “train and teach in various places”. He speaks fondly of his work as a facilitator in Monitoring and Evaluation with IMA, a working relationship we are equally fond of. Mansoor is a wonderful consultant within our network of enthusiastic and experienced consultants, and we are grateful to have him on board!  

On the “tactical side” of his work, Mansoor focuses “more on waste and sanitation” with one of the things he expresses he wants to “see this world adopting and changing is to generate less and less waste and we recycle more”, as “that can create massive benefits to the poor…because in many countries poor people are the main recyclers…it’s not the government”. Waste management and sanitation, Mansoor says are “all [his] passion and that’s what [he] enjoys at the moment”. 

I could not agree more with the direction Mansoor hopes the world will go in reducing waste and improving waste management so that people’s lives, and the environment around the world are made easier. It is a big topic, that needs extensive research and implementation and I hope to see the future Mansoor paints for us. I continue expressing my agreement with Mansoor, interested to know more about his experience working with people across the world and in particular, with people and communities within the waste management sector.  

Mansoor’s experiences in this area are extensive and not without stories. He finished his PhD on the subject of waste management in 1996 in the UK, completing his research in between work on “building the systems in low-income countries on [their] existing strengths”, involving using “the local strengths to develop training courses and capacities”. He goes on to explain…”in waste management”, it is the “application” that is key to ensuring the sustainability of a system, he continues…"in many countries, we have excellent recycling systems at the grassroots level. In many countries, women like my mother, my mother-in-law, my grandmother, they all used to separate waste…there was no environmental awareness, but they separated it because they see [waste] as a resource…so resource concession consciousness is there in many cultures”. Originally from Karachi, Mansoor “saw that happening” growing up and in observing the realities of waste management at a small scale, started him on the journey to learning about waste management at a PhD level. He noticed that those sorting waste were starting to sell waste, eventually creating “small-scale…private sector recycling [of] all types of waste and making an income from that”. He says “I started observing those realities 37/38 years ago and that was the topic of my PhD”. He feels strongly that these are the sort of strengths that need to be recognised in development. There are systems already in place in many communities, and using those systems is such a valuable way integrating local people in development initiatives brought about by agencies or governments. Seeing this kind of reality in development, “gave [Mansoor] an energy but also a possibility to work on that so [he] wrote more than 50 articles, textbooks, lectured at hundreds of places” and he still strongly believes that “you can improve your systems in your countries, in your cities, if you base on the existing stance, it will go beyond the projects…it will sustain, it will deliver the benefits”, there is not such a need for “spending some amount of money on machines and infrastructure and all that, because it’s all there, you just need to create a space for them, you need to accept those systems, you need to improve those systems…”.  

Wise and experienced words from Mansoor, which makes me think of the phrase ‘if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. Often there are existing systems and ways of working within communities, in this case within the waste management sector, and using these systems and developing them, but not changing the essence of them, could be significant for collaboration and relationship building with communities, sustainable development, and easier integration of new ideas.  

As well as his work in waste management, Mansoor has focused a lot on “hardcore emergencies”, working on “water sanitation projects”, and due to his experience, he is “used by a number of international organisations to develop programs for them”. Integral to his work remains the “philosophy” of “community involvement”, values he feels he shares with IMA.  

I was interested to know more about the specific projects Mansoor has worked on in the past, in particular, his work involved in the WASH programme. He has such a passion for what he does in his work that I just felt there had to be a drive behind it. When he was studying in his third year of engineering, he realised that “although he enjoyed teaching”, he “wanted to go out of the classroom and see what was happening in the real world”. It was when a guest lecturer needed volunteers to help on the project, and Mansoor wanted some extra pocket money, that he became “exposed [to] and worked with some of the top developing professionals in the world in that project” and guided by some of the big names in development. It was this point that was “the start of [his] work in sanitation projects and that project was very much again about building on the capabilities and strengths of people.”  

It was during his work as a head of monitoring and evaluation, that he learnt the value of ‘learning from failures’. Learning about this concept through his work was an “inspiring” and “deep experience”. He feels that “many organisations are…very careful about failures and there is a misconception that if we declare our weaknesses and failure, people will not pay us grants…which I found totally incorrect”. In Mansoor’s experience, “most of the professionals like to see what’s working and what’s not working”. He discovered that “the key was learning…organisational learning, learning systems, developing failures…how learning happened, from head office, to the field office, to the grassroots in the partners, [then] how we learn from communities…[and] capture learning.”  

All of these concepts and ideas are so important to accepting imperfections and improving, and ideas Mansoor used in his career as a lecturer for 8/9 years in the UK. Using these concepts, he developed "techniques of teaching which were very much based on participation of students…discussions and online communications…debates on key topics” that enabled learning to happen in an “active manner”. 

He likened this open and participatory style of learning to our training at IMA, saying he “found very similar DNA in the IMA training”, a “structure” to the learning, “but then [we] act more as a facilitator and create a safer, respectful space for trainees where they can come…build on their strengths”. Mansoor also expresses how he likes the variety of experience levels we have on our courses, with some people having “10 years experiences but some people [are] just starting monitoring and evaluation”, so he feels strongly, that in training, “if you don’t create a safer space and respectful space for everybody [and] encourage them to ask questions” they will not learn in the most nurturing environment, an approach to teaching and training that Mansoor feels he “found in IMA which overlapped with [his] approach to teaching and training”.  

We love having Mansoor as one of our course facilitators at IMA, bringing his experiences and joyful personality to his teaching and role as a facilitator. It seems our matching values were important to Mansoor, his “passion [and] interest overlapped” and that his values are “more or less values for [our] training and research”. The knowledge of methods and techniques involved with training and developing projects that Mansoor brings to his role is wonderful to see and has and will benefit many of our participants, so we are very grateful to have him on board. He spoke about how he came into contact with IMA and found common values that made him a perfect fit. He also felt IMA met his same values for learning and teaching, saying “there’s something special about IMA”, with “focus on key outputs but also creating a learning experience” and a “learning journey, create a setting in which everybody can learn…and everybody feels respectful”. 

So, I'm sure you've been wondering, why did Mansoor become a consultant? 

After his career and work in international development and as a lecturer, Mansoor wanted to have “a bit more freedom, [he] wanted to start [his] half allotment [and] wanted a bit more flexibility”. He also felt that in some organisations the shift in focus to “more financially driven” did not relate to his values , so he decided to “move [and] start [his] own work 3 years ago” where he started to find “interesting” and “relevant projects which [he] enjoyed”. He now can work at his own pace as suits him and “take the work which [he] can do with good quality”. He now focuses on his “happiness, wellbeing of [his] own, relationships with [his] friends and families”, which I think is something we would all love to work towards in our lives.  

What does Mansoor think the future holds for international development? 

Mansoor already paints such an optimistic view of teaching and training and how we can improve methods for younger generations, speaking of his work as a lecturer with students. In answering this question, Mansoor reflects on his experiences, “things have changed [since] I started 35 years ago…and one major change in my opinion is the local capacity – the national experts are very good. I’m working at the moment in...countries and most of the national experts they know much more than the international experts like myself, and they’re very, very good. So, that capacity has evolved, the citizens, the beneficiaries, they ask for more details, they understand more, they ask for more accountability, so in my opinion, those days are over when you’re going and building a set of infrastructure for a community, training them, and then walking back”. He feels in the sustainable development sector, less so for crisis intervention, this change is happening. When Mansoor started on a project in India, he found “there was a very common tradition that people will visit a very high income country, they will visit some infrastructure services…they see something and they say…oh we want to copy that in our own countries, without much thinking about the history of that development, without much thinking about the context of that development and the systems which are in place for that”…"so we need to work with the reality, we need to work with the opportunity, and I feel that is the future for international development, we all have our role, there are many problems, there are many possibilities, but…I always feel we can work together and working together in partnership with the local expert is something which I feel was missing, still not fully accepted, but that is the future of international development”.  

I agreed with Mansoor, collaboration and working together to support this global effort to create positive change around the world is vital for development and change to happen around the world. We can work together and follow in one another’s footsteps, and the more we can all learn and share knowledge, the more we will come to understand what different people need.  

While discussing hopes for the future of international development, I wondered what Mansoor’s hopes within his own life were. Turns out it has a lot more to do with gardening! It seems the state of Mansoor’s allotment speaks of where he is in his own life, he says “I am very hopeful, that when I will have full allotments...that means I will be fully retired, and growing my own food or trying to grow my own, or slowly stop working”. Whilst we hope we still can keep working with Mansoor, and he doesn’t get his full allotment quite yet, he explains one of the reasons he will be glad of that time, not just for the home-grown vegetables, is that he “will be replaced by more promising, more skilful and more clever people, that is a big hope and I really, I’m working on it and I see IMA training partly gives me that opportunity to work with young professionals”. What a wonderful and optimistic outlook on how Mansoor hopes the future will be for international development, and in his own life.  

We concluded our wonderful conversation with Mansoor describing the vegetables he grows in his allotment, assuring me that “coriander is very easy to grow, mint is very easy to grow, spinach is quite okay” (not sure he’d agree if he saw my gardening abilities), and astounding me by the volume of tomatoes and potatoes he has grown.  

Well, if I haven’t been inspired to improve my gardening abilities (a lot of work needed for me there), then I have been truly inspired by Mansoor to learn new things in life in any way I can. Mansoor is an advocate for nurturing teaching methods and providing a safe and motivating environment to learn from one another, share ideas and encourage innovation and forward thinking.  

So, I would like to say a big thank you to Mansoor Ali for agreeing to talk to me about his life, achievements, ambitions, and thoughts on international development. I certainly have learnt a lot, and I hope you all have too!  

We are grateful to have Mansoor as one our consultants and course facilitators at IMA, and we look forward to continuing our work with him in the future.  

If you are a consultant passionate about working with people and would like to build new relationships, maybe you would also be a good match for IMA!  

If you would be interested in working with us, get in touch by emailing post@imainternational.com.  

I hope you enjoyed reading and look out for more conversations with our consultants!  

Watch Mansoor's interview here or listen to it here.

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