An oral history of public service in the hardest times.
In each episode we talk with a practitioner doing impactful work in the midst of serious violence and political turmoil.
#040 We need new stories (wrap-up episode) | Ian D. Quick
For this wrap-up episode we've switched sides of the microphone to interview our host for the last 39 episodes, Ian Quick. (With thanks to Sam Meikle for taking over interviewing duties.)
He talks about his formative experiences in the development & conflict management sectors, and why oral history felt like a meaningful contribution at this point in time.
We go on to reflect more generally on *why* these stories matter. What do they tell us about who “we” are in public service, and how does this differ from the picture we usually get?
And beyond this, what does this all have to do with big-picture challenges in international cooperation? What does lived experience contribute to change on issues like anti-racism, and structural gaps and blind spots?
[03:40] Dealing with some rather strange ideas about what he does for a living.
[07:05] Early days in western Sydney, Australia. A conviction that mass atrocities and injustices were somehow "un-ignorable".
[14:00] Finding entry points into public service when there were few obvious channels. Highs & lows of an early experience at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
[20:20] Working amidst a downward spiral of mistrust and violence in Sri Lanka. Some harsh early lessons on the limits of international engagement.
[23:05] Getting “off the dance floor” to think hard about your share of the work, and not getting stuck in the same mistakes and dysfunctional patterns.
[27:40] The paradox of public service. Struggles in the sector around self-identity and self-worth, and whether people can thrive in a structurally dysfunctional setting.
[35:30] Moving beyond individual “impact” (and the savior complex). Other ways of thinking about contribution & worth in international public service.
[43:10] The dark side of tight-knit professional communities. The perils of an insider-outsider culture.
[48:30] Why an oral history series, and why now. Stories that are inherently worth capturing. Finding collective answers to structural problems.
[1:00:00] Finding the right stories. Developing a platform gives people space to speak for themselves, and otherwise stays out of the way.
[1:07:50] The mechanics of making the thing. Avoiding the usual suspects. A brief diatribe on the professional “talking heads” of the development / human rights sectors.
[1:16:50] Searching for a “third space” for conversations about public service. Finding stories that are a truer picture of who “we” are, rather than the usual suspects.
[1:21:15] A closing thought, and an invitation to listeners.
#039 Doing conflict research the right way | Judith Verweijen
"The only ethical way of doing this research is to stay involved in a profound manner, & to maintain these friendships and relationships."
Judith Verweijen is a researcher who has spent a decade-plus interviewing soldiers and militias in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We talk through what her process looks like, what men under arms actually do all day, and the complex social ecosystem that arises in protracted conflicts.
We also talk a lot about the ethics of this work. Not just because many of these groups are implicated in serious human rights violations, but also because there's a long history of "extractive" research originating in the global North.
As always there are no easy answers here -- but this a fascinating conversation with someone who's produced a lot of fascinating, granular research.
[03:45] Pursuing an early interest in Central Africa. Early fascination with what armed groups do, and what lies behind human rights violations.
[11:10] How to dig beneath superficial narratives. Working in remote parts of eastern Congo.
[13:00] The complex ethical questions raised by research with belligerents in an active conflict. Understanding what people actually do, and why they do it, in long-running conflicts.
[17:15] The interactions between armed groups and everyday social fabric. How militants think about their role, and the ethics of what they do.
[26:00] Interactions with policy people, and occasionally intelligence services. Publishing about sensitive topics, and sensitive people.
[31:50] Thinking about success and failure as a professional academic. Highlights and lowlights.
[34:25] Integrating her research into the regular academic world. Staying constantly connected with eastern DRC.
[39:00] Forging human relationships, versus “field work” with “research subjects”.
[44:30] Advice to her younger self. Finding the narrative in complex and contested places. Inspiration from the current generation of (largely female) researchers.
#038 Portrait of a humanitarian country director | Salma Ben Aissa Braham
Salma Ben Aissa Braham is a Tunisian humanitarian professional, and currently Country Director for the IRC in the Central African Republic.
She spent half of her career (so far!) in her home country, and was entering her prime working years around the time of the 2011 revolution.
We talk about that, naturally. We go on to discuss how she's approached her work in large-scale, seemingly intractable crises in C.A.R. and Yemen.
Another major theme is the complicated relationship between the global South and the global North within the humanitarian profession. We talk at length about peoples' expectations and biases, and what Salma expects of herself as an Arab, woman professional.
[02:20] Explaining the humanitarian profession to friends and family (despite the stereotypes). Early experiences with international organisations in Tunis.
[07:45] Her experience of the 2011 revolution. A change in perspective in the first few months after the flight of Ben Ali.
[13:45] Working on democracy promotion in the region. A close-up encounter with extremism that pointed her in a new direction.
[17:50] Experiences Yemen in 2013, versus those in 2019. Working as an Arab woman in the region.
[22:35] Challenges, successes and lessons from working in the Central African Republic. Believing in local partners and local people.
[29:35] Diversity in management roles in international humanitarian organisations. Encountering some pretty ridiculous stereotypes.
[34:10] How to take “localisation” of humanitarian responses seriously.
[40:10] Plans after international humanitarian work. Her ambitions for Tunisia.
#037 Thinking fast & slow in humanitarian responses | Josep Zapater
Josep is a career humanitarian who's spent 20+ years with UNHCR working with refugees, and on forced displacement.
But alongside there's something a bit unusual. That twigged for me personally when we met a few years back in Central Asia -- and he started speaking in Tajik to a local community, despite never having worked in the region.
It turned out that alongside a half-dozen European languages he's also invested in Persian and Arabic, and that's kind of the key to this one.
What does it take to listen respectfully, and understand, in contexts where you're necessarily an outsider? What does good judgment and decision-making look like in contexts that are often cartoonishly fast-paced?
At bottom this is a conversation about professional honesty, and doing the best job you can manage, in complex environments.
[02:20] Explaining the humanitarian profession to friends and family. Maintaining ties to home over 20+ years.
[06:30] Pivoting from a degree in philosophy to international refugee work. Fast thinking, slow thinking, and the appeal of a job requiring high levels of judgment.
[12:50] Experiences with rushed and ill-conceived approaches in the humanitarian sector. The temptation to think places are simpler, or simply different, than how they really are.
[21:45] Going where the work is, and avoiding capital cities. Learning to be an extravert for practical reasons, and then learning to enjoy it.
[25:55] Making the time for professional honesty, and thinking about success and failure. Reconciling careful decision-making with the everyday pressures of the humanitarian sector.
[32:30] What keeps the work fresh after 20+ years. A formative experience with indigenous groups in Colombia.
[38:10] The trade-offs of working in a large bureaucracy. Fitting a careful and individualistic style into a process-heavy and often trend-driven environment.
[44:20] Overall learning from a long career. Sticking to basic principles as trends come and go.
[54:05] The trade-offs of working in a large bureaucracy. Fitting a careful and individualistic style into a process-heavy and often trend-driven environment.
#036 Changing the development sector from the inside & the outside | Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou
Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou is Director of the Politics and Governance Programme at the Overseas Development Institute. Past work has included academic posts, several development NGOs, and the OECD's Development Assistance Committee.
With this in mind, it's interesting that the recurring theme of this conversation is a rather ambivalent relationship with the aid sector.
She's worked with some of the marquee names in the sector, but specifically in roles that are critical or reformist in nature.
Equally in talking about her work she is conscious of the seriousness and the stakes of the overall development agenda -- but also of the very real limitations on "development" as a business.
In sum this is a conversation about striking that balance -- about finding a niche that is professionally honest, and moves things forward.
[02:40] Early days in the development sector in east and west Africa. Keeping one eye open as someone who development could be “done”.
[11:00] Lessons from working around the Rwandan genocide. Recognising the asymmetrical and sometimes gung-ho nature of the aid sector.
[16:55] Developing a baseline picture of reality as a reality check on the aid discourse. Advantages and disadvantages of academic work for the critical-minded.
[20:40] A difficult transition to the world of development policy. Perversities in recruitment. The promise of the New Deal for Fragile States, versus the realities of aid politics.
[31:40] The appeal of a management role in development policy, despite the challenges. Stepping up for what is missing in the sector.
[39:25] The UK’s drastic aid cuts. The proper place of aid in the broader development agenda -- and what is most exciting right now.
#035 Public policy amidst ever-increasing polarisation | Polly Mackenzie
Polly Mackenzie is CEO at Demos, a cross-party think tank in the United Kingdom. She's also worked at the centre of government within the 2010-15 coalition, and run a charity focusing on money and mental health.
In the current fractious political environment Demos looks at big challenges like wealth inequality, "building back" after covid-19, and social protection for the most marginalised.
We talk a lot about how to "do" public policy in a complex democracy -- in particular how to bring more human experience, more everyday behaviour, into the process.
But we also go deep on what that means for the people who work in public service. What mindset should we start with? How do we set our ambitions, and sense of self-worth, when we can't possibly control the outcomes?
[02:25] Talking about public policy at the school gate, or with family. What opens the door to a good conversation, and what closes it.
[11:00] Early motivations to work in government, possibly due to too many West Wing episodes. A key role in the UK’s coalition government from 2010-15.
[15:20] Dealing with a “crushing” electoral defeat, and finding a new path outside of government. How and why she got started in the third sector.
[24:00] The tough reality of working in politics vs the “seductive” idea of being a change-maker. The severe emotional toll of electoral defeat.
[28:55] Adjusting her criteria for self-worth. Letting go of the “narcissism” of imagining huge changes in the world, and finding ways to make a dent.
[35:00] The role of think tanks in a modern democracy. The imperative of understanding the lived experience of citizens. The tendency of policy wonks to mis-categorise questions as technical rather than emotive and political.
[42:10] What success looks like, seen from a think tank. How we can better grapple with the biggest challenges, like social welfare reform, by legitimising experience and humanity in public policy.
[47:00] Advice to her younger self as a policy analyst. Finding a “third way” between populism and policy elitism.
This is our world
If we are to live in a fair world we cannot bury our heads in the sand and enjoy the comforts of our liberal enclaves. All lives are tied together. This collection needs to be heard be all of us.