Former head of UNICEF in Nepal

Born: November 15, 1947;

Died: July 27, 2017

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STEWART McNab, who has died aged 69, was a former head of the children's charity UNICEF in Nepal who was instrumental in a huge reduction of child mortality in the country. During the first Gulf War in 1992, Mr McNab was also appointed head of the UN Emergency Programme in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, where he had to organise convoys of trucks to transport food and fuel supplies from Turkey into Kurdistan, throughout an often insecure and dangerous 10-month tour of duty.

Mr McNab joined UNICEF as a nutrition project officer in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1975. His job was to improve the nutritional status of Nepali children and women and in many ways, the job was a perfect fit for him. Often, trips to project sites required long walks through mountainous terrain lasting days and weeks – which was ideal for such an avid walker as Mr McNab. The job also called for learning about the realities on the ground from villagers and local leaders who could be reluctant to speak up. But Mr McNab was a master at putting everyone at ease, so he was able to find out what was really going on. As for the solutions to the problems they faced, UNICEF was fond of low-cost, practical solutions – which also matched his pragmatic, no-nonsense approach.

By the end of his tenure, Mr McNab had been promoted to section chief in UNICEF Nepal. From there, he continued to rise quickly through the ranks: Somalia (1983-1988) as the deputy of the office, and then Yemen (1988-1992) as the head of office.

After a decade in difficult duty stations, the McNabs headed back to the Himalayas when Mr McNab was appointed as the Representative to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan in 1993. A deeply spiritual country with a pristine environment, it was a country that Mr McNab had his eyes set on for some time. Given the size of the country and the small number of expatriates, Mr McNab and his wife, Di, quickly became well-known personalities, liked and respected by many.

In 1997, Mr McNab's final posting brought him full circle and back to one of the places in the world he held most dear - Kathmandu. This time he was to run the UNICEF office, but, as usual, he was very hands-on - trekking to inaccessible places and working again with some of his original colleagues. In fact, despite the change in title and donning of the suit and tie, the people-first, field-oriented spirit of his early years continued to burn strong. In fact, UNICEF offered him a job at New York headquarters in charge of nutrition, but Mr McNab refused – politely – saying "he preferred to get mud on his boots in the field, than get fluff on his shoes in headquarters".

Mr McNab's team building skills often extended outside the UNICEF office. In Nepal, he spearheaded a joint UNDP/UNICEF initiative that would become one of the flagship UN programmes involving many other UN agencies for many years to come. His familiarity with the country made him the ideal person to introduce a new strategy for Nepal. His deep knowledge and love of the country helped to rally broad support among central and local government officials, NGOs, donors and many others whose support was needed for the successful implementation of the programme.

In Nepal, he initiated an office staff project, the Human Touch Fund, to help children with cleft lips and club feet. This was a typical Stewart McNab project. He was always on the lookout for a little intervention that could change someone’s life for the better.

He was respected and loved by his staff and colleagues. He was a mentor to many and brought out the best in everyone, helping them to grow professionally and personally. His legacy lives on in the programme interventions that improved people’s lives in many countries around the world and in the memories of his friends and colleagues whom he touched with his kindness and humour. But most of all, his legacy lives on in those whom he inspired with his life – to extend a helping hand to a fellow human or to leave the world a little better … more joyous, more beautiful, more caring than they found it.

Stewart McNab was born to Duncan and Dorothy McNab in Strawberry Bank, Dundee, in November 1947, a brother to Ian who survives him; and the family moved to Glasgow when Stewart was 11. He graduated from the University of Strathclyde in 1970 and married Di in 1975. Fiona was born to them in Yeovil, Somerset in April 1977 and Kate in the Shanta Bhawan Mission Hospital, Kathmandu, in November 1978. Then, in 1987 the adoption of their son, Mehan, from Nepal, completed the immediate family, extended in due course to include five adoring grandchildren with one other in waiting.

With summer approaching this year, a relapse of his myeloma signalled the end of his golf career, and much of his walking. This was followed by a stroke which presented him with a mountain that was too hard to climb, and he was laid to rest by his beloved family and many friends in Buddhist style on a Scottish hillside, outside Comrie, Perthshire. At about the same time, Buddhist butter lamps were lit and prayers offered in Bhutan, at Dzogchen Beara, Ireland, and, inevitably, in his beloved Nepal.