Herbert M’cleod: The man behind the scenes, striving for peace


IGC Sierra Leone and Liberia Country Director Herbert M’cleod passed away on 19 May 2022. Professor Rachel Glennerster, Lead Academic in the IGC Sierra Leone programme until 2017, when she was appointed Chief Economist at the UK Department for International Development (now FCDO), pens a tribute to her long-time friend and mentor.

Sierra Leone, the African continent, and the world have lost a great man. I have lost a friend, mentor, sounding board, and inspiration. As I prepare for my upcoming trip to Sierra Leone, I am finding it hard to register that I won’t be seeing Herbert. We won’t sit for hours under a deep green canopy in one of the unpretentious but peaceful spots in Freetown he loved so much. I won’t get to talk to him about the latest economic research or hear his ideas about how to make the Sierra Leonean government work better for its people. I won’t see his face suddenly crinkle into his infectious laugh or watch him guide with infinite patience a young official or researcher away from a crazily unworkable idea and towards something more realistic but still important, without once giving them a sense that he did not value their ideas.

I have met many inspiring public servants in my life but none of them delivered in the environment Herbert faced. He gave up a well-deserved and well-compensated retirement in New York for a life back in post-war Sierra Leone with its power, water, and health disruptions. More importantly, he returned to take on some of the hardest policy questions there are. With nothing other than his deep integrity, reputation, and sharp mind, he took on well-funded mining interests who sought to fool, coerce, or if necessary, bribe their way to favourable deals with the Sierra Leonean government. If lobby groups or agencies within government were making claims, he thought were unsupported by the data, he called them out, backing his point with the best evidence and data he could get. But he never did so publicly. He was trusted by Presidents of the two main rival parties in Sierra Leone because they knew he would talk truth to power but only in the service of the country and never to blast his own horn. He would make his case but if he lost the argument, he would not seek to undermine the government by leaking information, he would simply continue to advocate for what was right. As a Krio (a descendent of freed slaves) he had no independent power base, no political threat, only his integrity, and his evidence. He was the consummate advisor.

One night over dinner, Herbert told a group of us the story of how close Sierra Leone had come to reigniting the decade long civil war. The party in power, the SLPP looked as though they were going to win the second free election post-war and return to power. But the electoral commission had overturned some results they considered fraudulent, which ended up tipping the election in favour of the opposition APC. In Kenya, at the same time, a very similar dispute over an election, and the role of the election commission played out but with devastating consequences. For several days, Sierra Leone held its breath to see if the standoff would be settled peacefully as acts of violence started erupting around the country.  Unbeknown to any at the time, Herbert had spent this time shuttling backwards and forwards between the presidential candidates seeking a peaceful resolution. He had persuaded the SLPP that their place in history was as the peacemakers who had helped bring about the end of the civil war and another five years in power was not worth destroying that legacy. He, and others, prevailed and a return to violence was averted. This was exactly how Herbert worked, behind the scenes, with nothing but his logic, persuasion, and the reputation for integrity, and always in the service of a better, more just, and peaceful world.

This was exactly how Herbert worked, behind the scenes, with nothing but his logic, persuasion, and the reputation for integrity, and always in the service of a better, more just, and peaceful world.

The many, many people who directly benefited from Herbert’s wisdom and mentorship will miss him deeply, but many millions more who never heard his name owe him a debt of gratitude.