by Vik Mohan, Medical Director, Exeter, UK
Against the elegant backdrop of the University of St Andrews, I spent an inspiring, exhausting, and at times terrifying three days, competing against two other finalists for the 2014 St Andrews Prize for the Environment. My task was to convince the eminent group of trustees of the prize that our integrated Population, Health and Environment programme represented a valuable, innovative and practical solution to an important environmental problem, one that had the potential for widespread replication.
To have reached the final out of an original 488 entrants felt like victory enough, and once I’d had the chance to meet the other two finalists I rapidly began to feel that getting this far was as much as I could realistically expect to achieve. Dr Gregor Hodgson was representing Reef Check, a global project that trains coastal community members to survey coral reefs; it has helped train thousands of volunteers to survey over 4000 reefs in 90 countries and helped set up many marine protected areas (I was a Reef Check volunteer myself before joining Blue Ventures). The Inga Foundation’s Land for Life programme, presented by Mike Hands, was no less impressive. Through helping farmers to establish alley-cropping on their land, this programme provides them with food security and sustainable alternative livelihoods, whist returning nutrients to the soil and thus reducing the need for slash and burn.
As well as meeting the other two finalists, I had the huge privilege of meeting the previous eight years’ St Andrews Prize winners. Put together, this group of people represented perhaps the most inspiring and impressive group of environmental entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. For each of the previous winners, winning the prize had clearly provided a valuable boost to their work, as evidenced by the progress each of them has made since receiving the award. I was beginning to feel the pressure.
After a relaxed and enjoyable first evening with this wonderful group of people, I was plunged into two days of presentations, question and answer sessions and informal discussions with the trustees, covering every conceivable aspect of our work and organisation. It became clear that the trustees, who were taking their role of choosing a winner very seriously, were not only looking for a winning project, but looking to support an individual who would ensure that the project, and the St Andrews prize money, would have the greatest possible impact. (Judging by the previous eight years’ winners, they had chosen pretty well!) Whilst it felt quite daunting to be cross examined so rigorously, I felt very touched and honoured that everyone was taking such immense interest in our work.
These sessions were interspersed with inspiring talks by the previous winners, and a thought provoking keynote address by Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE entitled “Beyond £s: Valuing the things that really matter.” What the previous winners appeared to have managed to do is to scale up their innovations, and manage all of the associated transitions, very effectively. Quite apart from enjoying their company, this is a group of people I could learn a lot from. I very much hope to stay in contact with them all.
Come the morning of the announcement of the winner, I was pretty exhausted. My comfortable hotel bed had proved no match for my nervous insomnia, and much as I never tire of talking about PHE I felt like I’d been engaged in the networking equivalent of an IRONMAN. The impression I was getting was that all three projects were (rightly) very much in the running, and I wasn’t sure I’d done enough to convince the trustees that ours deserved to win. The three of us sat on stage as Sir Crispin Tickell, chairman of the trustees, spoke generously about all three projects, and I was shaking, hoping my experience in amateur dramatics would help me to maintain the vague appearance of composure. When I heard the words “Blue Ventures” follow the phrase “And the winner is…”, I was overcome. I was fighting back tears of joy, gratitude and relief as warm smiles and generous applause filled the room, and people came up to congratulate me on our achievement. We had done it.
To have received such high level endorsement from the environmental community is amazing news for us, and PHE. Having won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for our whole system approach in 2011 and an EXCELL award from the international family planning community in 2013, this award completes the picture. We have now received clear messages from the development, health and environment communities that this integrated approach represents a valuable and powerful way of achieving conservation and development goals. Winning this award will help us to make the case to the broader conservation community for more widespread implementation of PHE programmes. The prize money will provide vital funds to support the adoption of integrated programming in Madagascar, and implement PHE within our nascent Barren Isles Locally Managed Marine Area.
Perhaps more than any other aspect of what Blue Ventures does, working in an integrated way is a team effort above all team efforts, and this award is for all of us. I felt incredibly proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to represent my amazing colleagues and friends. At a personal level, for our programme to have undergone such a rigorous process of assessment from such an eminent group of people and to have won, tells me that we are doing the right thing. This was a sweet victory indeed.