In Conversation with Baroness Valerie Amos
By Chineme Valerie Ene
“I’m the kind of person who assumes they can do something until proven otherwise” — Amos, 2018
A role model, academic and politician of many firsts; I jumped at the chance to see Baroness Valerie Amos in conversation. Considered the “the coolest of cool” by the Guardian and still able to marry diplomacy whilst being an activist at the School of African and Oriental Studies — a university she now heads up.
She was recommended by David Cameron for a top post as the eighth United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. Other established titles in her career repertoire include a spell as Africa minister, British high commissioner to Australia, leader of the House of Lords and secretary of state for international development. She was made a Labour life peer in 1997 and became the first British cabinet minister from an African-Caribbean background.
She has long been revered for “her powers of persuasion and tireless capacity to absorb a complicated brief”.
This blog will provide a summary of her thoughts on an array of international development topics that she spoke to. These include an overview on global politics, Syria, lessons for the future and finally her advice to those seeking a career in politics.
Geopolitics and the Elite Thinking
The world has been going through a seismic shift over the last 20 years. The global financial crisis, the decline of globalization, the rise of nationalism and populist governments. Humanitarian disasters have also been prevalent across the world such as the Rohingya Muslims being persecuted in Myanmar. Ongoing conflicts also plague Yemen, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and a number of other countries across the globe.
As the person formerly in charge of humanitarian disasters at the United Nations, Amos reflects on the global organisation and the role of nation states as a panacea for peace and conflict resolution.
She says that “we talked too much about the good things of globalisation but not about the challenges and the people who were left behind”. Political movements like Brexit speak to this feeling of the left behind. Amos also addresses the positioning of the United Nations and other large organisations in relation to those they were trying to help.
“We got into an elite way of thinking and behaving, where we are today is in part a result of this”.
It’s a commonly held belief amongst recipients of international aid and in post-colonial academic literature that the West can presume a superior role when these countries are indeed already practicing self-help.
The United Nations and the Syrian Conflict
The atrocities of a once highly revered and wealthy Middle Eastern country — the Syrian crisis was unfolding during Amos’s 5 year term at the United Nations. There was an element of reticence as Amos touched on this topic. A deep sense of pain or inner turmoil was also evident the further she spoke about the quagmire Syria had resulted in. Things could have been different if the United Kingdom or the United States had started a dialogue with Russia or President Bashar al-Assad earlier. The Arab Spring happened and the international community had worked quickly with Libya, which meant the revolutionary unrest in Syria did not seem like a cause for concern. Of course that is until claims that Assad was using military force and biological weapons on his own people came to light. The subsequent involvement of a number of nations including Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia, all supporting opposing sides meant the Syrian conflict had morphed into a proxy war.
Visiting Baba Amr gave Amos a visual shock of the extent of this conflict. The town was emptied of all it’s civilians who had fled whilst all buildings had been damaged by artillery. During this time, Russia exercised its veto rights which subsequently blocked humanitarian aid being transported through the border to reach civilians in conflict zones. For Amos, more could have been done early on to prevent the escalation of the Syrian war. It is something she has previously spoken about before, saying: “I do feel insufficient attention was paid to really try to come up with a path that the Syrian people could have signed up to, and that would enable a move to a democratic government”. At the event, she further went on to say that committing crimes against your own people draws in a responsibility for the world to act as a protector. This should have been a red flag much sooner. She regards Assad’s choice of military solution as one that shows no signs of let up any time soon.
Future Lessons for Multilateralism
The Syrian war was not the only area Amos looked into the future for. The Baroness offered her perspective on where the United Nations and other global organisations could do better. Firstly, is to observe the importance of history, finding that this is something that was not done enough at the United Nations. Examining the history of modern conflicts and international relations is useful in contextualising the poor relations some nations continue to have to this day. To Amos’s point, multilateral organisations could benefit from reflecting on history and assessing the patterns when making judgements.
The second lesson for Amos is that more should be done to reassert the legitimacy of global rules based organisations. Working on this principle of an international community of allies was an effective mechanism used by the British government following the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018.
In addition, the Baroness made it clear that one should not “assume everyone thinks like you”. The echo chamber is damaging our perception and creativity to think up effective solutions to humanitarian crises. The final lesson is aimed at the United Kingdom and that is to start thinking about issues through the context of class and race much more frequently.
Amos’s Career Advice
Race was one key frame for which the audience wanted to hear more about and so was gender. When thrown a question highlighting the propensity for Amos to be the first black female *insert her entire career* she asserts that this is not something she thinks about. She enters a job with the aim of doing it to the best of her ability and ensuring that she can pinpoint what she wants to achieve.
Another one asked, “how much of your career is down to luck?”. For Amos, some of it is to do with luck, but you need to have done the hard work first. Without putting in the effort it’s harder to end up in a situation where you’re in the right place at the right time with the right people.
In 2005, she had publicly failed to get the job as head of the United Nations development programme. If Amos is not the definition of perseverance and not giving up, then I don’t know what is. At the talk, she recalls her appointment as cabinet minister as something that came out of the blue. A role she least expected given her preceding level as parliamentary under secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This was a major jump in levels and by no means a linear pathway. Her career has not been without bumps in the road. For those looking to build a career in international development, politics or diplomacy it comes down to the old notion that the moments you value the most in life usually come when you least expect it.
By Chineme Valerie Ene (Chineme Valerie Ene is a Londoner and has previously written about migration, integration and geopolitical risk for the think tank, British Future and the NGO, Migrant Voice.)
This blog was originally posted by Chineme on her blog on international affairs and development — Post-Colonial Complex