Through the lens of children: an interview with Pia MacRae

I first met Pia MacRae, the country director of Save the Children China, at an event at the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing where Pia was one of the main speakers.

“Sorry I don’t have my name card with me,” she said apologetically when I requested for an interview. “I’ll write you an email to arrange a time, I promise.”

I received an email from her right next day, as promised. A week later, we met for a second time for our interview.

She had another meeting to go to in a different part of the city after our interview early in the morning. I wondered whether she’d be riding her bicycle or not. And there she was, arriving on her bike, in her helmet. Spotting me, she flashed a big smile. I honestly didn’t expect her to remember my face after just a brief conversation 10 days ago. But she did.

Pia, the country director of Save the Children China, is pictured here with a child during one of her visits to Save the Children projects in China. Photo: Courtesy of Pia

13 years in China

Just as her causal and sporty look suggested, Pia was easy to talk to. Unlike many people in a leader’s position who either automatically put themselves on a higher ground or acquire an air of authority, Pia remained very unpretentious and very personable. Her self-deprecating British humor also added to her charms.

Like many foreigners who are carving out a career in China, Pia crossed path with China when she was still a student. She first came to China in 1986 as an exchange student. “It was an amazing experience. (There were) a lot of people on bicycles!” she laughed.

The trip inspired her to learn Chinese and eventually led her to come back to China. After getting her BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, she went on to study Politics of Asia and Africa at University of London. As part of her master’s degree dissertation she spent a year at Sichuan University in Chengdu.

Her first job after graduation was with the BBC World Service as a radio production assistant. “My Chinese was still not very good then, to be honest. But I had to pretend it was good because I was meant to follow all the scripts in Chinese. Sometimes I got it wrong. It was…interesting,” she laughed.

The job lasted one year before Pia packed her things and headed back to China as a program manager for an organization called Voluntary Service Overseas in 1994. She worked for three years in Beijing, frequently traveling to southern provinces like Anhui, Hunan and Jiangxi, where she placed British teachers in rural teacher training colleges where they could help training future middle school teachers in English.

These three years must have been very special for Pia not only because she first learnt about Save the Children China of which she is now the country director, but also because it was during this time that she met her husband, a Chinese musician, with whom she has two children, a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.

Pia smiled when we briefly touched upon the topic of her family. “It is the very definition of a happy family, isn’t it, with both a girl and a boy?” I asked. She nodded in agreement, keen to return to the subject of Save the Children.

“When I was in Anhui, someone from the local government said to me, there is a great British organization called Save the Children doing fantastic work with orphans here,” Pia recalled. “It was the first time I heard about them.”

Her next job was with BP where she worked for 10 years, five of which were spent in China as the corporate social responsibility manager. She had her first contact with Save the Children during this time. “I consulted Save the Children, asking about the impact some of our projects may have on the children. They gave me really good advice.”

So when she saw the job opening of country director for Save the Children China in 2011, she was very excited. By then, she had already returned to the NGO sector, working as chief executive for the Tropical Health and Education Trust in London.

Pia recalled how she was advised against it when she decided to go back to work for an NGO. “Everybody said you shouldn’t do it. You got children, you got a good pension scheme, you have a company car ...” she narrated it in a comical tone, though it must have been a struggle to make the final decision.

Then she turned serious, “I think you only got one life, you’d better do things you really want to do in this one life. So I ignored all the good advice and went back to the NGO world.”

By the end of 2014, Pia has lived and worked on and off for 13 years in China, most of which was dedicated to working for the non-profit sector.

Save the Children: a very special experience

Money certainly wasn’t a factor that inspired Pia. She admitted she was never very interested in making loads of money. I guess it must be the joy of helping people that allured her as she is so into the “philanthropic side of things”, as she put it.

Surprisingly, Pia said it wasn’t really her motivation. “This may sound wrong,” she chuckled, “I don’t feel I am better than other people and they need my help. Rather I’m interested in working together with people on social good.”

She continued, “I’m interested in what motivates people to be their best, to do the best things for other people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s talking to people between different sectors or different cultures, I am very interested in how you get a dialogue around making the world a better place.”

Talking about her work with Save the Children China, Pia couldn’t stop raving about her colleagues. “I really like the people that I work with every day. I am very interested in their motivation and I really enjoy spending time with them.”

I wondered if she needs to find ways to motivate her team as the leader of the organization. “I hope I’ve helped to motivate them,” she laughed. “But I am amazed at how self-motivated they are. That’s why I find it such a nice place to work.”

“People are really smart. If they want to solve a problem together it’s amazing what they can do,” she went on, donning her country director’s hat. “What needs to be done is getting people to identify the problem they want to work on together.”

As the country director, her time is divided between Beijing and the field. While her days in Beijing are generally a mix of time spent with staff and meeting with a range of people externally, her field days gets her more interactions with the group of people her work is directly affecting, the children.

Pia recounted one of her meetings with some small children at a coal-mining city called Yining where Save the Children is running some home-based pre-school care centers for the local children.

“I watched them with their care-givers, learning how to wash their hands, and play games. None of these children had seen a smartphone before and they really liked the photos on the phone. So I was there, with these three little children having bouts of giggles. It was very very nice.”

Having giggles with the children. Photo: Courtesy of Pia

Then she told another story of meeting some youngsters who, with the help of Save the Children, established a youth club in their community trying to help young people, especially the unemployed out-of-school youth to get training.

“They even managed to get a local businessman to run an ad on TV for them. They wanted to establish a media company of their own,” she said proudly. “It is very inspiring, whether it’s little kids giggling or big kids trying to make a change in their community. It is very special.”

One thing about Pia that is so endearing is that she is genuinely upbeat and always has nice things to say. It became clear even more when we talked about working with the Chinese government, a topic that usually generates a certain amount of dissatisfaction.

“The government has no obligation to work with us. Typically the people who work with us choose to do so. It has been amazing, really fantastic.”

She then gave a vivid account of how a local government official changed her attitude after working with Save the Children. “She told us that at first, when her phone rang, she would think ‘oh it’s Save the Children, no... I don’t want to answer’.” 

“However, the story ended with her saying ‘now when the phone rings, I’d be like ‘oh it’s Save the Children, I’m gonna pick it up straight away.’” And she’s been working with Save the Children for five years.

“I am the glass-half-full type of person,” she continued. “China has a very functioning state system, when people want to make change, it is possible.”

“One of the things that is a real pleasure for me in my job is there are many people in the government who want to do the right thing and they are looking for you to help figure out what to do and try to implement it. That’s all we want. We want more people to be able to bring about more change for children.”

And it was not just children that Save the Children’s work is affecting. In one of her early project visits, a Chinese official told Pia how he had changed because of the work he was involved in. He shared that it totally changed his relationship with his children. He didn’t hit them anymore, he listened to their point of view and tried to respect them.

“It was amazing, even when it was just one person saying that to you. It was very moving,” Pia concluded.

Looking at the world through the lens of children

I asked Pia what she thinks was her biggest achievement in the past three years as the country director. She paused and pondered about it before answering, “I’ve absolutely rooted the importance of China in the future strategy of our global organization. I would like Save the Children China, in whatever form, to be this very active voice in Save the Children globally.”

To dispute certain people’s misconception that a “rich” country like China probably doesn’t need organizations like Save the Children, Pia went on for a full minute to explain that in China, children are disproportionately poor, particularly with the left-behind phenomenon and one-child policy.

“China is going to shape the world many children grow up in.” That, according to Pia, is another reason why Save the Children needs to work in this country. “I love watching my Chinese staff interacting with staff from other countries and have discussions about what is the world that we want our children to grow up in and therefore what we need to do."

Through the lens of the children. Photo: Courtesy of Pia

At the end of our conversation, Pia shared with me a quote from the founder of Save the Children. “It goes something like ‘people are not ungenerous, they are just unimaginative’. I think it is beautiful. Part of our job is to make people be more imaginative, to help them learn to look at the world through the lens of children.”

“If you do that, you would ask yourself questions like why are we doing this? Why are we polluting the sky? It allows you to have conversations about our shared humanity.”

We wrapped up our interview on this philosophical note. Save the Children gives Pia a new structure to think about questions that has puzzled her since she was a child and an opportunity to make a difference. Hopefully, through her and her colleagues’ good work, more people could benefit from this imaginative way of thinking: to look at the world through the lens of children and make the world a better place for all.


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