by Isabel Carter, Editor of Footsteps 1989–2007
The growth of Footsteps over the past 20 years is rather like the parable of the mustard seed. From tiny, insignificant beginnings – as a health newsletter for a few of Tearfund’s partners – it has produced literally millions of copies all around the world. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to add up all the paper copies distributed, the CD copies, those sent electronically and those down-loaded from the internet – in a number of different languages? An interesting and probably impossible exercise.
A previous staff member at Tearfund likened its distribution to the well-known advert for a famous lager beer: ‘Footsteps reaches the parts others cannot reach!’ Indeed, Footsteps copies reach across closed borders, into war zones and are widely shared by colleagues. While carrying out research with farmers’ groups in eastern Uganda, I was amazed and humbled to find they carried old, brown and well-thumbed copies of Footsteps to every meeting. I remember someone from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) describing the destruction of their precious medical library by invading forces. The one resource he had been able to save before they fled was their Footsteps CD Rom.
So Footsteps certainly has a wide and varied distribution. Another thing I love about Footsteps is the sense of ownership that people feel about it. A huge range of people want to use it to share information and want that information to be as good as possible. So in the same morning I might open a battered letter from a health worker in Orissa, India, about caring for TB patients, written in simple English, and have discussions with top world scientists about the correct dosage to recommend in Footsteps for TB treatment. The views of both readers and experts are important and find a place in Footsteps. The best issues on any topic are usually those that combine articles from field workers on the ground, from voluntary or governmental organisations and from world experts – and of course with a good balance of male, female, old and young writers.
The most rewarding aspect of the work was to hear of readers who had taken information and made it theirs by adapting it. So it was wonderful to hear that plans for a simple bike trailer had been adapted and used to build a fleet of bicycle ambulances in a district of Uganda.
Another story that moved me to tears was a letter from a farmers’ group in DRC containing two well-worn US dollar notes. ‘We used the information from Footsteps to set up a cockerel exchange system’, they explained. ‘This has gone really well and we want to share half the profits from our first sale with you, to say thank you!’ This sense of ownership of information is what makes the difference between hearing about something that might be of interest, and turning the page, to thinking: ‘This idea is really worth trying out here, but it might work better if we do this in a slightly different way. Let’s use it next week and see what happens.’
So, my greetings to all Footsteps readers. I still treasure the 18 years I spent editing Footsteps. The work was always varied and full of surprises. Please continue to feel that it belongs to ‘you’ – and continue to contribute and make it better and better.
Isabel Carter was the Footsteps Editor from 1989 to 2007. She now focuses on climate change.