Martha Teas, who worked for many years in Cambodia and in the border camps in the 1980s, died in the explosion at the UN headquarters in Baghdad on Tuesday. She was 47.
The first thing you noticed about Martha was her enthusiasm for development work, her professionalism and her innate goodness. She passionately believed that the world could be made better. Martha was also incredibly funny, smart, unwaveringly loyal, determinedly realistic and not the least bit pretentious.
Martha was one of the most intellectually honest people you could hope to know. She worked with data and mapping in development organizations, and wasn’t afraid to tell the UN when the data said its programs might not be helping the people who really needed it.
She never pretended a situation was different to please a superior.
Martha, a US citizen, was the friend with whom you could confide anything, the friend who readily shared her own fears. I’ll always have that clear picture of the last night I saw her in Bangkok, wolfing down sushi with a bunch of “dataheads,” laughing hard, and being incredibly passionate and enthusiastic about convincing development organizations and UN agencies to better use technology and data to bring real changes.
Even if a little nervous, Martha was enthusiastic about having the chance to implement her philosophy in Baghdad. She believed her work there—setting up a humanitarian data system so that organizations could share their data and then map that data so anyone could understand a situation—was the start of something new and good and very important.
Martha especially believed in the potential of Cambodia. From both her years on the border and in Cambodia, Martha spoke Khmer well. She helped train and worked with numerous Cambodian friends who have gone on to important work in the government, NGOs and international organizations.
Much of Martha’s work inside Cambodia was with the World Food Program, where she started some of the first work anywhere in the world to map vulnerable populations. She relished escaping from her third floor office and her computers at the WFP and going into the countryside on food distribution or survey trips.
Martha would talk to anyone she could, learning what was really happening and carefully recording it instead of relying on secondhand reports. Martha loved working with data, but only because it could do so much to help people.
That was the key to Martha: She truly wanted to help people, but she wasn’t soppy about it. Like many, Martha was disheartened by the slow pace of improvement in the lives of most Cambodians, the shortcomings of the development sector and the corruption in the country. But she never gave up hope that things would improve. She was always realistic, but never cynical.
Martha and her husband, Jamie Meiklejohn, lived in a little house near Olympic Stadium until last December, when they moved back to the US state of Colorado, to their house in the mountains and their dog.
They were starting a new phase after spending most of their adult lives working in, or on, Cambodia. In her time in the border camps and in Cambodia, Martha had worked for organizations as diverse as the Mekong River Commission, the World Bank, the International Red Cross, WFP and the UN Border Relief Operation.
Martha said Baghdad was tough, and she was slightly burned out, but she was doing work she believed was necessary, getting the right information to the right people so the right decisions could be made, and the lives of ordinary people could be made better.
Martha was the best sort of friend a person could have, the friend you giggled with so hard that both of you would end up gasping with laughter as tears ran down your cheeks, the one you always thought you’d grow old with. I will miss her terribly.
Condolences, thoughts and memories can be sent to [email protected] and [email protected]. Contributions to the Martha Teas Meiklejohn Memorial Fund can be sent c/o Skye Ridley, PO Box 1508, Salida, CO, 81201, USA. Ridley can be contacted at [email protected].