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A technical cooperation pioneer

Working on the river of the White Lily

During the 100 years of the ILO some extraordinary people have worked for the Organization. One of them was Peter Goullart who, during the 1950s helped develop co-operatives in several countries in Asia. He recounted his experiences in a book, ‘River of the White Lily’ published in 1965.

Feature | 24 December 2018
GENEVA (ILO News) - After the Second World War, as more countries joined the ILO, the calls for its expertise extended from norms and standards to embrace a greater amount of technical cooperation. Requests for field assistance increased, in particular from developing economies. Expanding into new theatres of operation raised new challenges for the Organization, which responded by seeking out new staff with a wider, more varied range of skills.

Among those recruited was Peter Goullart. He had grown up in Moscow and Paris, fled two revolutions (in Russia and China), spoke Russian, English, French and a range of Chinese dialects.

After gaining experience with industrial co-operatives in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas, he was recruited by the ILO in 1955 to help develop co-operative societies in Sarawak, among local Chinese farmers and rubber tappers, and indigenous tribes such as Sea Dayaks, Land Dayaks, Malanaus, Kelabits, Kayans and Kedayans.

Recommending his appointment, the Geneva-based Director of the ILO’s Asian Co-operative Field Mission wrote; “he is undoubtedly tough, able to tolerate the roughest conditions, to live on roots and gravel and to drink water which would kill any ordinary person,” adding without apparent irony, “I think on the whole he is worth having.”

In his memoir of the assignment, River of the White Lily1, Goullart recalls that his Terms of Reference, “entail[ed him] travelling to remote areas to discover the possibilities of starting stores where the people could purchase goods at a fair price. Since the people would own these stores … it was essential to get the backing of the community. It was also hoped that later these stores would develop marketing facilities for the members’ produce, mostly rubber and pepper.”

Goullart himself seems to have realised early on that his mission was not quite what the administrative systems were used to dealing with. Before flying to Kuching he had to write to Geneva, explaining his request for an unusually extensive medical kit, “I have to travel a great deal either in small canoes through jungle rivers and creeks or on foot picking my way through miles of jungle swamps on precariously balanced logs (batangs) or planks and sleeping in farmer’s huts in the jungle using sometimes stagnant water and subject to insect bites.”

But not everything was different. Even in the Sarawak jungle there was no escape from paperwork. Preparing his bags for an up-country trip he packs “the tools of our trade – copies of the co-operative rules and by-laws, plenty of pencils and a supply of writing-paper”.

In all Goullart carried out nine ILO missions, working in Burma (now Myanmar), India, Malaya (Malaysia) and Pakistan as well. But the year-long Sarawak contract seems to have been among the most challenging, as well as the most rewarding and colourful. He found almost all the people friendly and the food surprisingly delicious (although he taught them some French dishes, to add variety).

On his first trip to the interior, after sharing his overnight river ferry with “swaying lanterns, legs of pork and smelly fish” he persuaded more than 45 local Chinese farmers to set up the Hill of the Cassia Orchid co-operative store, using the ILO-drafted rules, by-laws and systems. Along with the River of the White Lily co-operative, this society became one of Goullart’s showcases, used to persuade other communities to join, and to train them in co-operative operations.

But his mission reports also record many complications, some of which field operations would still find today, including price wars between co-operative and traditional shops, land and tribal rivalries, low educational levels, and “complete disorder in accounts…dingy cubicle for store”. Other obstacles were more specific to the era and place; “Members of the [co-operative] Society are waylaid by gangsters, assaulted, stabbed and otherwise molested.”

Working conditions were also personally challenging for the plump, spectacled, cigar-smoking expert. It could take up to 14 days travel to reach a village. There were more than 100 different languages to juggle between. Meetings were usually held late at night, sometimes until dawn. Existing shopkeepers and middle-men could be hostile to potential competition from a co-operative, and some meetings degenerated into punch-ups, fuelled by local beer which - from his memoirs – seems to have been widely available at all hours and in all places.

Near Binatang, at a celebratory feast with the co-operative members, he asked for vinegar but was served undiluted hydrochloric acid (used for making rubber) by mistake. That night he stayed in with a local family whose young son, Goullart concluded, had psychic abilities and pyromaniac tendencies - dangerous in a wooden house. Although he survived that night unscathed he was less lucky on the Sangkong River where he ignored Sea Dayak advice that a particular bird’s cry predicted disaster – soon after they were shipwrecked on a sandbank.

His success in expanding co-operatives into the indigenous communities brought particular challenges.

His first Sea Dayak co-operative was agreed in a longhouse up the Julau River. Having dealt with poisonous spiders, dogs, fighting cocks and nosy tortoises, and worked with the new committee until almost 5am, Goullart was alarmed to see a large bamboo crate – apparently full of coconuts - hanging over his bed. Afraid of toxic insects dropping while he slept he complained to his Sea Dayak host. “He smiled and said, with a touch of pride: ‘These are not coconuts. They are enemy skulls from the last World War.’”

Goullart slept there, regardless.

During his ILO career Goullart helped to set up and advised dozens of cooperatives, in Sarawak, Burma (now Myanmar), India and Pakistan. Today, cooperatives are still an important part of the ILO’s work, which are estimated to provide at least 279 million jobs worldwide today.

1Goullart, P. 1965. River of the White Lily: Life in Sarawak (Malaysian heritage series), J. Murray.