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Interview: Kirsty Smith, chief executive of CBM UK

20 May 2016

‘Sometimes the need feels overwhelming’

CBM stands for Christian Blind Mission, though, in fact, we now support people living with all types of disabilities, not just blindness.

We’re committed to improving the quality of life of those living with or at risk of disability
in the poorest communities of the world. We’re working for an inclusive world, where people with disabilities enjoy their human rights and achieve their full potential. We’re also working to prevent the diseases and conditions which lead to impairment, and to lessen the stigma and discrimination which lead to exclusion.

CBM UK is part of a federation of member associations and field offices all over the world. I’m CEO of CBM UK, but also a member of the International Leadership Team of the CBM Federation.

There isn’t really a typical day. My role is both to ensure that CBM UK is the best that it can be, raising as much profile and funding as we can, and spending it where the need is greatest, but also contributing to the development of the global federation. Quite a lot of my time is spent in meetings.

I left university wanting to work in international development,
and have been lucky enough to never do anything else, both in the UK and in Africa and Asia. I’d read French and Spanish, purely because I liked them, but they have come in quite handy.

I suppose it was the time of Live Aid, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for changing things. I worked for the Ministry of Education, and was posted to the middle of nowhere in Zimbabwe — no running water, no electricity — but it was a very positive experience. I worked with some very good teachers, and at the time things were very uplifting and positive in Zimbabwe.

I remember the head teacher coming to pick me up from the township, and driving along the dust track, giving lifts to people and setting them down in the bush, and wondering where they could be going, because there was nothing for miles around. Some of my most magical memories are still of walking through the bush and homesteads, often in the dark, catching the last bus. You could hear it from miles away, and, if you did, it was a race to get to the bus stop in time. I was very, very lucky then — the people I lived with had nothing, but they were overwhelmingly willing to share the nothing they had.

Since then, I’ve worked in international development for over 20 years. I used to believe I was working with the most marginalised communities in some of the most challenging environments. What I didn’t appreciate was that, of the one in seven people of the world’s population who has a disability, 80 per cent live in poor countries and are often excluded from even the most basic services and opportunities. Working for CBM UK enables me to focus on this marginalised group.


One of the things we so take for granted is just having a toilet. Sometimes the nice sanitation systems that we install, if they aren’t adapted for disabled people, just work to exclude the disabled people even more. That’s what makes me angry: these are challenges that we don’t know about, or don’t know how to solve.

Sometimes the need feels overwhelming.
Despite the generosity of many loyal supporters, it’s often the case that we are presented with a multitude of needs we know we can’t respond to.

Field visits are one of the great privileges of the job: witnessing the extent to which people with disabilities and their families are finding creative ways to overcome many of the challenges that confront them daily, and contributing in meaningful ways to the development of their communities.


I will never forget a little boy who lived in a Maasai community in Kenya, who was born with cerebral palsy. Many children with disabilities are left lying in bed at home, because of stigma, or because parents are often forced to spend their entire day earning the money to feed the family. Our local partner is helping to train his parents to provide home-based rehab, so that he can stay with his family but make real progress in his mobility and learning. Sitting in the thatch shadow of his Maasai hut, and watching his determination to practise his standing, and his mother’s relentless patience to support him, was very humbling.


I’m also lucky to work with inspiring colleagues, both at CBM UK and across the CBM Federation, some of whom are technical experts at the top of their game, transforming policy and practice at a global level.


What surprises me most is how little focus is placed on disability in international thinking and funding priorities. The sector’s been very late in recognising how much mainstream relief and development interventions exclude this huge minority group.


My aim is for CBM UK to significantly increase its profile and its income over the next five years, so that we are able to respond to a greater number of community needs. Disability experts like us can add great value, but I’d also like to see CBM beginning to influence the work of larger, mainstream agencies to be more inclusive.

The fund-raising environment has certainly become much more challenging in recent years.
Negative media coverage and increasingly restrictive legislation make it difficult for all charities, and ever-increasing competition from others makes it difficult for us to remain the charity of choice for our existing donors. But the UK public are incredibly generous, and far more inspired to take action than many other countries.

My parents have been amazing role-models.
Both of them left school at 16 and made their way in their careers through sheer determination and hard work, doing qualifications and taking on extra work in the evenings. My father was a “new man” long before it was common, and made beautiful pottery in mid-life. My mother ferried my sister and me to numerous dance festivals without complaint, but also made all of the beautiful costumes we had to wear, and she’s still involved now.

I grew up doing a lot of ballet and modern dance,
and continued as an adult. Now I do lots of choreography for amateur companies around Cambridge. It exercises part of my brain that I don’t use in my day job, though I know my international-development friends find it a rather bizarre, frivolous side of my personality.


My parents continue to encourage us to follow our dreams, and to challenge the family to recycle, sign petitions, give presentations on charities they support, and so on. I’m also inspired by many of the community members and local partner staff that I have had the good fortune to work with over the years.


I grew up as a Methodist, and still identify strongly with the strong social aspect and the emphasis on song as worship. My husband, Stephen Plant, is an Anglican priest — Dean of Trinity Hall. So I now attend chapel there, because Stephen is such a great preacher. I like to support him and be part of his church community.

I’ve found that the more I have experienced in life
— marriage, the responsibility of bringing up a family, losing loved ones, letting go of some of the things that seemed so important when I was younger — the more I'm helped to experience God in new ways. My prayers are less now about asking and more about thanking.


As the youngest of three children, and with multiple cousins, I grew up very close to my extended family and we all still meet up once a year. Having your own family makes you realise, finally, just how much your own parents have done for you.


Favourite sound? My husband singing as he makes the morning tea. My son playing the piano, or my daughter laughing.


If I wasn’t doing this work, I’d love to be a marine biologist. I didn’t know such a career existed when went to university, but I learned to dive in quarries, in a terrible wetsuit full of holes. I’m now keen diver — we all are — and have dived in lots of different places.


I’m happiest with my family, whether it is on sunny walks, scuba diving, playing board games, or just during teatime banter. Wine with friends under the stars next to a roaring fire. Performing in musicals.

I pray most for forgiveness.


If I found myself locked in a church, I’d choose to be with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Or Clive James. Or Maya Angelou. Or Joan of Arc. I’m not sure they’d get on together. Finch is one of my favourite literary characters, and I won’t read the new Harper Lee book because it may tarnish the image I have of him. Clive James is a Cambridge resident, very witty and erudite. I recently directed a show putting music to some of Maya Angelou’s poetry, which is so strong and uplifting. And Joan would probably be a bit objectionable, but what a passion — so fiery, focused, so young! It’s good to meet people like that because we only have one life.


Kirsty Smith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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