Profitable Development: Meet Oliver Mathieson

Oliver Mathieson is Country Manager of GRM Indonesia, a leading international development management company specialising in the provision of project design, management expertise and technical assistance to development projects. The company has worked in over 120 countries for private, government, bilateral and multilateral clients.

Oliver, tell us a little about your background.

I’m from Aberdeenshire in the North East of Scotland. After University in Scotland, I worked with NGOs in the not-for-profit sector, gaining valuable field experience in Africa and the Middle East, mostly in rural development. Midway through my career (around 12 years ago), I took an MBA to gain better understanding of the corporate side of society. Afterwards, I started in the commercial consulting sector, in international development. Since then I’ve consulted for clients like the British Department for International Development, the Asian Bank and the World Bank.

Did you always know you wanted to work for the good of others in some way? 

Early on, I developed a passion for poverty reduction and improving the livelihoods of the poor.

At 18, before University, I was lucky to work as a volunteer in a school for disabled children in the apartheid homelands of South Africa. Sister Mary Paul, my boss, was an exceptional woman. For the first six months we battled with each other as great enemies. I felt she singled me out with unfair tasks – when a pupil sadly died, I had to take his body back to his family’s village whilst everyone else went surfing. Eventually I realised she was mentoring me; challenging me with experiences a weekend’s surfing couldn’t provide. I found my calling: on arrival at University, I promptly changed my management course to anthropology.

You joined GRM in 2008. What areas have you focused on since?  

After setting up the company’s technical practice, I have focused on how businesses can be supported in such a way as to create opportunities for the poor. This area (‘M4P’: Making Markets Work for the Poor) is about harnessing private sector power and creating sustainable results that have scale. GRM can find ways for development assistance to leverage bigger returns. For example, we work with a large agribusiness supplier, who produce farming inputs like seeds and pesticides. We’re helping them apply basic, safe products to mango trees to lengthen their flower period, so that farmers can sell outside the peak season and therefore achieve better prices.

How do you go about getting business? 

Firstly, through formal procurement processes where we compete against other consultancies for bilateral or multilateral agency work. Elsewhere, like any normal professional services marketing approach: via direct contact with senior executives in business, and word-of-mouth. GRM’s technical services are recognised as of value, and clients come to us for specific projects.

Professionally what are your passions – what gets you going in the morning? 

Apart from M4P, the passion comes from the people I work with. GRM is an incredibly can-do business, never backing away from challenges. It is filled with people who don’t believe there are any problems too big if you work hard, honestly, and keep learning and improving. We also focus on tangible results in the real world – we’re not a think tank; we really produce.

You’ve worked in a lot of different countries. What was a particularly memorable experience? 

I was fortunate to work with Médecins Sans Frontières in Afghanistan during the Taliban period. I had to go to Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, where there was little international presence at the time, to meet a commander and get his permission to send a team in to provide medical support. My small team and I were taken to a hilltop (a former Soviet military post), into the basement of a bunker. We sat on cushions surrounded by nearly 100 heavily-armed frontline Taliban soldiers. I realised the meeting had better go well! It did; my interpreter probably didn’t say a word of the script I’d prepared – he was the brains; I was just the frontman. At the end of the meeting, the commander gave him a hug around the waist, signifying he was the senior in the relationship’s hierarchy.

What are some of GRM Indonesia’s key projects? 

We work with the central Government, helping to improve policy and service delivery for poverty reduction. Around 250 GRM staff work on this, and in one area so far we’ve helped secure $150 return benefit for each dollar of taxpayer support for poor households. Elsewhere, we work with the national AIDS commission on policy; in Education supporting some clients to monitor and evaluate primary and secondary education in Indonesia; and in agribusiness.

From your perspective, what are the major challenges facing Indonesians at the moment, and what needs to be done? 

The Government has achieved a huge reduction in the poverty rate since the ‘90s, but the challenge now is to help the extreme or chronically poor, who are much harder to lift out of poverty. One-size-fits-all doesn’t work in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia. Related to that is the widening of the gap between rich and poor – the Government recognises this as an area of focus. Finally, maternal and child health; Indonesia lags here behind other countries at similar levels of development.

In future, how might you reflect on your time living and working here? 

I’ve been impressed with the level of hard work, good grace and fun of my teams here, having worked in often hostile environments elsewhere before. Personally I’ve also learned how to handle things differently – I’m starting to understand how to be a bit more Javanese myself!

Outside work, what do you like to do to enjoy your time in this part of the world? 

We love our life in Jakarta but recognise it’s a microcosm of a very diverse and interesting country. Stomaching the traffic to the airport, we love to get out and experience other parts of country; it’s easy really to get on a flight, or a train to Bandung or a bus to Bogor. We’ve just been to Solo and visited a village where they’ve made gamelan for generations. We saw them being made, starting from melting the copper and tin down. Indonesia is full of these opportunities and I’ll always remember that experience.

Thank you, Oliver. To find out more please visit www.grminternational.com

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Annali Hayward is an English freelance writer and editor based in Asia. More at https://mycornersoftheworld.wordpress.com/ - or leave a comment to get in touch.