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This article is taken from the July 2000 Phatlalatsa newsletter

 

Colin Relf: an Englishman abroad

All the S&T partners had the privilege of working with Colin Relf, an internationally renowned evaluator and programme manager. When we were awarded the RAP-85 evaluation by the Department of Public Works earlier this year, our first thought was: ‘How do we get Colin involved?’ Sadly, this won’t be possible. Nonetheless, I hear Colin’s voice - usually reminding me not to commit some elementary error - every day as we focus on public works and eradicating poverty, two issues close to Colin’s heart.

Colin, a partner in the UK company IT Transport, was our counterpart from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in two successive evaluations, firstly of the Community Employment Programme (in 1996) and then the full Community Based Public Works Programme (CBPWP) (in 1997). Colin had spent most of his adult life working in virtually every developing country, first as a road and transport specialist, then moving into labour intensive methods and a broad range of related disciplines. He had worked for most of the multilateral institutions, and also spent a year and half seconded to the Department of Public Works. Sadly, that proved to be one of Colin’s last postings: he returned to England where his health, always weak, failed.

An engineer by training, Colin was a powerful evaluator, amassing enormous amounts of data and sifting carefully through them for insights. Working together - at any hour, since Colin would happily phone me late at night as a new idea struck him - we were able to help the Department of Public Works refine the CBPWP delivery strategy from stand-alone assets to the cluster approach, now the norm and widely replicated. Colin also suggested the combination of a normative and application-based approach, allowing the Department to target communities unable to apply to the programme for assets. When Colin made statements - such as his judgement that the CBPWP was probably the best public works programme in the world - they carried the weight of years of experience and they were listened to.

Unfailingly polite, unfailingly English, Colin made hard work into good fun. His contribution to the development of public works in South Africa was singular and enormously influential. His contribution to my personal and intellectual development - learning new techniques, unpacking complex issues, developing recommendations that made developmental (not just political) sense, never letting go of tricky issues or difficult interviewees - was similar.

Colin was smart, witty and erudite. He is the only person I know who managed to use the word ‘happenstance’ in a report that sought to be accessible, and got away with it. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but would share his ideas, papers, books and time with anyone who asked. I still have a book on my desk, and scribbled on its cover it says: ‘Please return to Colin Relf’. How I wish I could. Colin was a great friend, of myself and of South Africa. He is sorely missed.

Colin Relf died at home in Bradford-on-Avon in June 2000 after a long battle with diabetes.

 

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