Portraits de l’UNICEF

Jean Gough - Bihar's star: More famous than Van Gogh

Image de l'UNICEF
© UNICEF India/2004
Jean Gough (left) embraces Lalita Kumari, the 'karate girl of Bihar', who was on the cover of "The State of the World's Children 2004" report.

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By Anupam Srivastava

BIHAR, India/GENEVA, 4 October 2004 - Jean Gough (pronounced Goff) is far more famous in Bihar than the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Her popularity among ordinary people in this challenging east Indian state is almost legendary. In her four years and seven months as UNICEF Representative, Jean travelled the length and breadth of Bihar. She came to know most of its towns, roads, roundabouts, primary schools, health centres, roadside teashops and restaurants. And she met individuals from all walks of life – and castes. She established personal rapports regardless of rank, from senior officials to tea wallahs.

“Life motivates me,” says Jean, who comes from Honduras. “Working for people, talking to them, understanding and assessing their problems. And taking their issues up with Government.”

Her direct, hands-on approach often led her to dispense with formalities. On several occasions, she walked unannounced into the chief minister’s residence in the state capital, Patna, to talk about children’s issues. The policemen guarding the compound would smile and open the gate as she asked, “Kaise hain? Bahut ache?” (“How are you? Are you well?”).

So devoted was she to Bihar that she spent as much time as she could in the state. “I am not on a sight-seeing trip. I am here to work,” she used to tell her bemused staff. Before she left the country recently to take up her new post as Caribbean Area Representative for UNICEF in Barbados, she was finally persuaded to visit Mumbai and Goa. However, she ended up dropping beautiful, lush Goa from her itinerary, the sooner to get back to the Patna and her office.

“I think it is because I enjoy what I do that I am seldom tired or drained. I guess that’s the way I am and have always been,” she says.

Jean studied civil engineering in Honduras and went onto obtain a Masters degree in water resources management in the United States. Water and sanitation are her specialities. She even co-authored a book on ecological sanitation, which has become an important reference guide on the subject. She joined UNICEF in 1993 as project officer in the water, environment and sanitation sector, in El Salvador.

Image de l'UNICEF
© UNICEF India/2004
Jean Gough (second from left) holds a baby while the Chief Minister of Bihar, Mrs. Rabri Devi, gives polio drops during a vaccination drive.

From water to women and children, whatever Jean is focused on she’s a mass of energy in action.  She has a knack for doing several things at the same time – and never losing her cool. And there is courage in her bones too. Once, in Bihar, she took a trip with some government officials and a UNICEF colleague in a four-seater plane. It was a scary flight as the weather was rough and the plane jolted incessantly. Her colleague was scared, but not Jean, who held her hand and was a pillar of strength.

Jean arrived in Bihar in June 1999, accompanied by her teenage son David (who left Bihar during his mother’s term to attend a college in Panama).  She was warned about Bihar’s high crime rate and advised to stay indoors after 9 p.m. and take as many safety precautions as possible. But the city, described as difficult for outsiders, found in Jean a rare admirer. She felt at ease in Patna and, being the sociable person she is, made it a point to mingle with the locals, regardless of their ethnicity or caste.

No job was too menial for her personal attention. One morning when she came across a dirty toilet, she seized a broom and showed how it could be cleaned better. Throughout her tenure, she would occasionally go for the broom – which clearly motivated the cleaning staff!

In just a few months, she built up a team that would translate her vision into action. “Spending money is not difficult. Spending it well is,” she would say.  And that’s what Jean succeeded in doing. From her forays into the field, Jean saw activities that had a life outside of files and which produced real benefits for children – from education to immunization. She funnelled funding into projects that yielded results, with the result that Bihar now has the biggest budget for programmes of all the UNICEF offices in India. Though she would repeat, “We can’t solve all the problems of the world,” it became clear that this was just a method to bring the focus back to UNICEF’s agenda.

Her growing familiarity with the state – its low literacy, high child malnutrition and low routine immunization rates – spurred her to come up with solutions to improve the lot of women and children.

Under her leadership, a government nutrition scheme to provide extra food for the poorest people in Bihar was greatly improved, and more adults and children were enrolled in the programme.  During the same time, 42,000 teachers were recruited in Bihar, more than three quarters of who were trained with UNICEF support. And routine vaccination for children as well as vitamin A supplementation was strengthened.

More personally, a local girl, Lalita, made it to the cover of UNICEF’s flagship annual publication, The State of the World’s Children 2004 – an unprecedented achievement not just for Bihar, but India as a whole.

Jean is her own harshest critic. “Every time I felt that not enough was happening and that we were not moving fast enough, a breakthrough came and I was happy again,” says Jean. “When I saw the impact of our programme on people’s lives, I was so delighted.”

At the end of her term, Jean had become such an inseparable part of Bihar that her colleagues have still not come to terms with her departure. Nor have others that she met and worked with. During the launch of a polio eradication drive at the state chief minister’s residence recently, the state health minister remarked, “Jean, you belong to Bihar. You are a Bihari.” The words touched her, and she said, “Thank you for accepting me.”

A day before her departure from Bihar, the chairperson of the state legislative council, Professor Zabir Husain, told a gathering of 300 people, “If we had one-hundredth of her commitment, this state would be transformed.”

Big words they are, but accurate in describing Jean Gough. After attending several farewell parties, she spent the last two days and nights in the office, working without a break. Many of her colleagues kept her company in shifts. That was perhaps the most fitting farewell for a representative who never let up, not even on the last stretch.


 

 

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