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Archive for the 'Africa and Middle East' Category

Hola Colombia!

By zchaael, on 17 August 2017

abdul-elmi_testAbdul is a fourth-year UCL medical student and President of the UCLU Somali Society

I’m sitting here writing my first ever blog thinking about where should I start. I suppose the logical place to start is the point at when this opportunity became a reality.

A few weeks ago, I was in Saudi, trying to withstand the blazing heat, feeling tired, fasting and doing all of this without Wi-Fi. I returned to my hotel room from the Great Holy Mosque of Saudi to an email notifying me that I had been selected to represent UCL at the One Young World (OYW) Summit in Bogotá, Colombia in October.

One Young World

Attending the summit has been a burning desire of mine this past year. One Young World brings together young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections to create positive change. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and with this in mind I would like to take this opportunity to thank UCL for making this possible.

February Fundraiser

My desire to effect positive change in the world really took flight earlier this year when I became heavily involved in a range of fundraising initiatives and events to raise money for the Somali Drought Appeal. Through the February Fundraiser, a student-led initiative organised by Somali Youth for Integrity (SYFI) bringing together Somali societies from different institutions, including UCL, we managed to raise £120,000 for the Somali drought. The organisations united under a common goal, to provide aid to those suffering at the hands of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two.

UCLU Somali Society, in particular, organised a series of successful fundraising initiatives for the February Fundraiser. The highlight was Inspire, where we managed to raise £40,000, in collaboration with Elays Network and Bright Education Centre. After this event, I was surprised to see how many UCL students got involved with the cause.

The UCL BME (Black & Minority Ethnic) Students’ Network allowed the Somali Society to fundraise at the end of the Black Lives Matter events. As a result of this opportunity, we managed to raise an extra £2,000. This was an eye-opening experience as it allowed me to see first-hand the potential we possess as students and that if we work together we can achieve anything.

Copyright Human Appeal, which ran the provided emergency food relief to drought affected internally displaced people
The outcome

The money raised during the February Fundraiser, in collaboration with UK charity Human Appeal, provided emergency food relief to drought affected internally displaced people and host communities. It also provided clean and safe water to vulnerable households in Dolow and Luuq districts. The project will rehabilitate community owned water infrastructure to improve suitability and ownership as well as improve hygiene awareness and enhance the food security of vulnerable households.

One thing that is clear from all the amazing work done by students on campus is that more and more young people are discussing important global issues. Not only with regards to humanitarian affairs, but also political matters such as the current debacle regarding university tuition fees and the NHS.

The future

My hope is that I will return from the summit with a clear vision of how I would like to use my newly elected position, as the next President of the UCLU Somali Society as well as the Vice-President of SYFI, to start discussions regarding some of the world’s most pressing issues. I would also work to provide plenty of opportunities for individuals to make a difference.

I feel that it is of utmost importance to involve students in these discussions so they can provide a unique insight into potential solutions. I want to inspire students to do more for those in need. I would like more people to become motivated and involved. We are the generation that should solve a lot of the world’s issues so it is really important for us to work together effectively to make strides to overcome them.

Last but not least, I’ve enrolled myself onto a Spanish language course and have already started to practise my salsa dancing with ‘Despacito’ on loud. Hola Colombia, I’m ready for you!

Images © Human Appeal

Moving from ‘burden sharing’ to inclusive prosperity: A RELIEF workshop

By By Guest Blogger, on 16 August 2017

By Hannah Sender, Projects, Planning and Advocacy Manager, UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public SchoolIn April 2017, UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) in collaboration with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut (AUB) hosted a one-day workshop in Beirut, supported by UCL’s Global Engagement Fund. The workshop explored the demands placed on Lebanon since 2011 with the arrival of over one million refugees from Syria, and potential areas of work for those wishing to enhance inclusive prosperity for hosts and refugees in Lebanon.

This workshop was the first to be organised as part of RELIEF (Refugees, education, learning, information technology and entrepreneurship for the future): an interdisciplinary centre led by Professor Henrietta Moore (IGP Director) and funded by the UK ESRC’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

The RELIEF Centre is a five-year initiative of UCL, the AUB and the Centre for Lebanese Studies at the Lebanese American University (LAU). UCL’s Development Planning Unit, the Department for Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering, the Institute of Education, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies are all partners.

The recent workshop brought together participants from INGOs, local NGOs, universities in Lebanon and the UK and social activists. Drawing on professional and personal experience, these participants gave rich and varied insights into some of the key ideas of RELIEF, and into the changing relationship between refugees and hosts in Lebanon.

Hospitality in Lebanon

The first session of the workshop, opened by Dr Nikolay Mintchev (IGP), invited participants to problematize and discuss the cultures of hospitality in Lebanon, as they related to Syrian refugees. Lebanon’s hospitality is often referenced by INGOs and foreign governments: in the same breath, they celebrate Lebanon’s hospitality, and announce that it is now over-stretched to the point where conflict is likely. The question they then pose is: how can we enable Lebanon to continue to be a good host to refugees?

The term ‘hospitality’, however, proved to not only have multiple meanings for the participants, but also to be a seriously limited and problematic term. As one participant remarked, it may be depoliticising what is a deeply political issue, and neutralising the real burden placed on Lebanese communities and Lebanese resources.

One observation did unite the participants: since 2013, interactions between hosts and refugees have changed for the worse. Some participants suggested that as time has gone on, people’s perceptions of the possibility of Syrian refugees returning to Syria have changed. This has engendered a fear that Syrians will continue to put pressure on scarce resources, and become competitors for work, housing and education.

Inclusive growth

The RELIEF Centre proposes that inclusive growth – in the broadest sense of the term – is a necessary and good ambition for places severely affected by mass displacement. However, as Dr Nasser Yassin (AUB) put it, inclusive growth is a notion which challenges 27 years of development in Lebanon. It makes demands on governments to consider what kind of growth is desirable, and how it impacts people differently. Too often, these considerations are overlooked in favour of one kind of growth – economic growth – without much concern for how it impacts people differently.

A further discussion arose on how transformative change can occur on the level of the community and individual. Many participants spoke from their own experiences of working with local governments, which had created their own strategies for managing limited resources. Researchers need to consider the value of politics and economic strategy at the local scale, and see whether there is room for manoeuvre at this scale, as well as at the national level.

Education as a practical intervention

Moving on to the afternoon session, the participants were invited to turn their minds to another important component of the RELIEF project: education for communities affected by mass displacement and conflict.

Professor Maha Shuayb (Centre for Lebanese Studies) gave a presentation about the state of education for refugees and host communities in Lebanon. She prompted important questions about identity and difference, and how these imposed categories have created unnecessary divides in delivery of education between refugee and host communities. She suggested that the notion of vulnerability is relevant to both Lebanese and non-Lebanese children, and that educational programmes need to confront and properly function in student groups with a diversity of needs and capabilities.

Pathways to practice

Whilst critical analysis of the challenges which host communities and refugees face in Lebanon is vital to understanding the context in which we are working, the RELIEF team wanted to end the workshop with an insight into spaces of potential action: new policies, engaged institutions, and cultural shifts which could serve as a platform for innovation.

In the final session, the workshop participants were joined by Marina Aksakalova and her team from UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, she reported, had given renewed support for a cohesive response to the refugee crisis. It is now possible to develop a strategy and take a more entrepreneurial approach towards it.

The question of inclusivity – who is included and in what – dominated the debate throughout the workshop. The acute needs of people in Lebanon – from host communities to refugees – have created a tense situation in the country, where claims of difference have been deployed to ensure and, conversely, prevent, access to resources. In the final session, there was a hope raised, shared by the partners in the RELIEF Centre: that responses to individual crises can be integrated with the provision of goods and services that are required to live a good life in Lebanon.

Image © Dominic Chavez/World Bank: Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Pubic School in Beirut, Lebanon. Two-thirds of the students at the school are Lebanese and one-third are Syrian.

‘How to Change the World’ programme to equip South African engineers

By uclqjle, on 21 July 2017

Earlier in the year, UCL’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) trained faculty from three South African universities to run a pilot version of UCL’s How to Change the World (HtCtW) programme for undergraduate engineers.

HtCtW prepares engineering and management science students for today’s global challenges by emphasising creative thinking, collaboration and the societal impact of their work.

With funding from the Department of Higher Education and Training in South Africa, STEaPP provided training to faculty from the Central University of Technology (CUT), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

Viv Crone, acting director of the Academic Development Unit of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE) at Wits, was one of the academics who took part.

He said: “As an observer I found the experience extremely enjoyable, especially interacting with the student groups, UCL staff and outside industry and academic experts who showed real interest, innovation and passion in addressing and solving the real-world problems.”

HtCtW forms part of UCL Engineering’s Integrated Engineering Programme, which was developed as a response to the changing education needs of future engineering.

The programme provides a blend of scenarios and classroom learning, which take place alongside specialist training and give students from across the faculty the chance to come together to engage in interdisciplinary research and design projects.

“The working in multi-disciplinary groups is particularly valuable as it mimics the requirements and skills necessary for engineers’ future success,” added Viv.

“The emphasis is not only seeking pure technical solutions, but including facets such as environment, finance, sociology, politics and industry in the potential solution.”

Wits FEBE is currently reviewing its engineering curriculum and initial discussions have been held to introduce a similar course into their engineering programme.

STEaPP will provide further curricular support and materials before a UCL team flies out to Wits, CUT and TUT later in the year to run pilot versions of HtCtW with students over three days.

UCL in the Middle East: a critical discussion

By By Guest Blogger, on 9 June 2017

By Dr Ruth Mandel, Vice-Dean (International) for Social and Historical Sciences

Speakers at UCL in the Middle East
In an event sponsored by UCL’s Global Engagement Office, Professor Andrew Barry (Geography), Dr Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh (Geography) and I brought colleagues together to launch a critical discussion about the fundamental problems inherent in the category of ‘Middle East Studies’ in particular, and area studies more generally.

In her ethnographically rich keynote talk, Dr Yael Nararro (Cambridge) described her recent research on the Syrian/Turkish border with a Muslim minority group. This was followed by a panel made up of four speakers whose topics ranged from historical analysis of provocative material pertaining to refugees in Greece who survived the Turkish War of Independence (Georgos Kritikos), the complexity of successively incoming layers of refugees in camps in Lebanon (Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh), an analysis—spatial, photographic and political—of the devastation of neighborhoods of a Kurdish city in Eastern Turkey (Ulrike Flader), as well as a description of the rehabilitation through an invented ritual, designed to reintegrate Yezidi women and girls who had escaped from the violent captivity of Isis (Tyler Fisher).

Afternoon talks included Bev Butler’s presentation in which she raised questions about the myriad ways heritage is used and understood by different actors, particularly in the context of different refugee camps in Lebanon.

Other talks touched on research methods, ethics, and the political-history of oil.

Andrew Barry’s talk nicely closed the session by interrogating the inherent politics of entailed in decisions about oil pipelines, but also the cultural politics of seismic behaviour and research, and the observation that geological mapping and political mapping can be at radical odds.

A final summing up of the day’s themes tied together a number of issues. The huge ramifications of shifting and contested borders, for example, with political/cultural/economic/geological boundaries rarely mapping easily, raised the notion of a viewing the complex configurations as a palimpsest, with layers revealing the historical reverberations and remnants (Navarro) of multiple iterations of violence.

Moreover, with millions of refugees and exiles in Europe and beyond, the very notion of a geographically-bounded Middle East no longer is relevant in the way it once might have been.

This led to a discussion of digital migration and identities, transnational relations, and digital heritage coming to the fore in diasporic contexts. The metaphor of palimpsest arose, useful to the study of overlapping territories, people, reverberations and remnants.

UCL in Africa: strengthening collaborations

By ucypcbu, on 24 May 2017

Drummers welcome delegates at the first conference of the African Universities Research AllianceIn line with the Global Engagement Strategy (GES), UCL is intensifying its engagement in Africa. In April 2017, UCL colleagues conducted visits to Ghana and South Africa to strengthen existing partnerships and to facilitate the development of further avenues for collaboration with current and potential partners.

Africa Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) launch

The Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa and Middle East), Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, travelled to Ghana to attend the inaugural African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) conference held at the University of Ghana.

ARUA was inaugurated in Dakar in March 2015, bringing together sixteen of the continent’s top institutions with a common vision to leverage their resources for greater impact, similar to the Russell Group in the UK. Under the theme ‘Research in Africa Rising’, the conference was attended by over 100 delegates and marked the official launch of ARUA.

The event also served as a platform to announce ARUA’s strategic objectives which will focus on increasing Africa’s contribution to global cutting edge research output, the number of PhD graduates working on the continent and increasing the number of African universities in the top 200 universities globally over a ten year period.

UCL was one of two non-African institutions invited to speak at the event, and Professor Uchegbu joined a panel to present on: “New Trends and Developments in Global Scientific Research and the Role of Universities.” She gave an overview of UCL’s multidisciplinary approach, particularly in light of the Global Challenges Research Fund as well as the importance of translational research.

In the margins of presentations Professor Uchegbu met with key colleagues at ARUA institutions to discuss strengths within their institutions and identify possible areas for future collaboration with UCL.

The synergies between the key challenges that ARUA seeks to address and the GES strategic drivers allow for potential bilateral collaboration between UCL and ARUA. Current priority areas for ARUA will focus on collaborative research, training and support for PhDs, capacity building for research management and research advocacy.

In terms of next steps, ARUA will pursue a number of large multi-institutional projects in both the natural sciences and social sciences/humanities under the thirteen themes they have identified to take forward collaborative research.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) visit

Led by Dame Nicola Brewer, Vice-Provost (International), a UCL delegation carried out a two-day visit of UKZN. The visit served as an opportunity to strengthen the partnership between the two institutions, and to evaluate potential channels for wider-collaboration and increased impact.

The delegation outlined UCL’s support for collaborating with UKZN beyond existing health-related collaborations, such as the African Health Research Institute (AHRI), and highlighted how AHRI’s aims and vision align to the GES. The inclusion of the Vice-Dean (External Relations and International) Population Health Sciences and the Director of UCL Institute of Advanced Studies enabled colleagues to explore academic collaborations within disciplines that were not previously discussed, such as Arts and Humanities and Laws.

During the visit both institutions agreed to hold a data sharing day, which would be hosted in London at UCL. This would enable UKZN colleagues to meet with UCL colleagues and to build on the initial discussions in South Africa. Held on 18 May, the event enabled UKZN colleagues to meet with UCL colleagues and facilitate discussions on potential collaborations and possible fundable research topics, accessible through funding such as GCRF.

Ask GEO: Clare Burke, Partnership Manager (Africa and Middle East)

By uclqjle, on 24 May 2017

Clare_5901_SquareClare is GEO’s Partnership Manager for Africa and Middle East. She gives us an update on her work and recent visit to Ghana and South Africa.

Tell us more about your role in GEO and activity in your regions.

Since GEO was established in November 2015, I have spent time developing links with UCL colleagues who are working across Africa and the Middle East and have learned (and still continue to learn) about the type of collaborations that colleagues are engaged with. I have been amazed with the breadth of collaboration taking place across both the institution and the number of UCL Faculties and Departments who are working across these regions.

To date, I have information on almost 200 collaborations taking place on the African continent and around 45 collaborations taking place across the Middle East but I have just scratched the surface of this work and I plan to build on this data over the summer.

In terms of intensifying our engagement, UCL is exploring how we can strengthen our existing partnerships with a number of institutions including the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) , the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and the African Health Research Institute (AHRI).

You recently returned from a visit to Africa. Could you tell us what countries you visited and how the trip went?

I recently visited Ghana and South Africa as part of a larger UCL delegation to meet with universities and to learn about their research strengths and to identify potential areas of collaboration.

In Ghana, together with the Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa and Middle East), Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, I attended the inaugural ARUA Conference. The African Research Universities Alliance or ARUA , as it is more commonly known, comprises of 16 of the top research intensive universities from 9 countries across the African continent. Led by Professor Ernest Aryeetey, ARUA’s Secretary General, this ‘Russell-Group type’ alliance will boost higher education across the continent and encourage more Western collaborations with African universities outside South Africa.

In South Africa, the delegation led by the Vice-Provost (International) visited the University of KwaZulu-Natal to strengthen the existing partnership with the university in relation to the wider African Health Research Institute (AHRI) collaboration and to explore collaborations within other disciplines (beyond health) including Arts and Humanities and Laws.

What’re you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I am following up on post-visit actions. For example, the UCL delegation met with over 40 UKZN colleagues in South Africa so I am identifying possible areas of synergy and facilitating introductions between UCL and UKZN colleagues to see if there is scope for future collaboration.

Similarly, we held a data-sharing day with UZKN colleagues here in London to build on some of the initial conversations held in Durban so that UCL and UKZN colleagues could meet each other face to face.

I am also working with SLMS colleagues on the AHRI collaboration, while we explore if this type 2 partnership could become one of future strategic partnerships given its close alignment to a number of the Strategic Drivers of the Global Engagement Strategy (GES).

Finally, over the summer, I will continue to build on the regional data mapping exercise and will capture more information on UCL’s activities and collaborations across the region so that we can share this across the institution. If your work is not included, let me know!

How can people keep up to date with UCL’s activity in Africa and Middle East?

I regularly circulate details of upcoming regionally-focussed events and funding calls as well as our termly newsletter which includes regional highlights and success stories. Together with the Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa and Middle East), I also coordinate termly meetings which all network members are invited to. We hold region specific events each year; our successful Knowledge Africa 2017 – Africa Unheard event took place in February and the next event, UCL in the Middle East 2017: The Middle East re-mapped will take place on 5 June. Network membership has increased significantly in the last 12 months and I would encourage colleagues with an interest in the region to sign up to our mailing list.


Contact Clare on:

+44 (0)20 3108 7776 / internal 57776

Giving Syrian child refugees a voice through film

By By Guest Blogger, on 24 May 2017

The Refugee Film Project was founded by three UCL alumni: Aphra Evans (BA Latin American Studies), Shyam Jones (BSc Psychology) and Michael McGovern (BA European Social & Political Studies), to support Syrian child refugees.

Written by Aphra Evans 

Three UCL alumni have set up the Refugee Film Project to support Syrian refugee childrenThe Refugee Film Project teaches Syrian child refugees the art of filmmaking, and it was founded thanks to a serendipitous series of events involving three UCL alumni.

Michael McGovern works for an NGO called SB OverSeas which operates in Syria and Lebanon. Wanting to help, I volunteered as a teacher in their school in Beirut for children living in Shatila refugee camp. Soon after, I was contacted by Shyam Jones, a filmmaker who suggested we collaborate. Before long, the Refugee Film Project was born.

Shyam and I wanted to give the children a creative outlet that the school could not provide, and teach them technical skills as well as life skills such as teamwork, cooperation and leadership. By being at the helm of the project, the children built their confidence, self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Meanwhile, Shyam and I had a great time harnessing the bold personalities of the kids on film.

The Refugee Film Project helps Syrian child refugees tell their stories through filmThe children dreamt up stories and characters, had them made into scripts, picked costumes and locations, used a camera and tripod with great finesse, and then watched themselves on screen in our makeshift cinema. If nothing else, with professional equipment and a team of three adults at their beck and call they felt pretty important, and the project took them out of the camp where they could not play on the streets for the danger it presented.

Slow but steady progress

At the beginning, the children could not think of any ideas for a film. At school there were just 45 minutes a week devoted to creative endeavours (involving pencils and a piece of A4), so we had to work through a creative blockage. Film by film, the ideas multiplied. By the end, they were coming so thick and fast I had trouble writing them down.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many were analogous to the life-altering experience of being a refugee. One story was of a village that had to be re-won, another about a king being unfair to his subjects. Violence and the divide between rich and poor were recurring themes, in their ideas as much as their lives. We let them tell the tales they wanted, as we firmly believed film was a means to process their trauma.

Shatila’s got talent

One of the children supported by the Refugee Film Project films his friendsWe were lucky to work with some very gifted children. Tahani, 12, was a fantastic actor who needed no direction and had an impressive knack for remembering dialogue. Moustafa, 11, learnt his way around a camera quicker than we thought possible. For one music video, Hanadi, 15, alternated between rapping, singing and playing the oud with ease.

More important than showcasing these talents, however, was how much the kids obviously enjoyed the course. They were constantly suppressing smiles while acting (which make their films all the more enjoyable to watch), and they would turn up at school with enthusiasm at 9am on a Sunday. One of them, Khaled, 14, even said he might work with us again when he was a grown-up actor!

Far from over

Our six-week course in Lebanon was merely the project’s first iteration. We are planning to repeat it in partnership with an NGO called SAWA that works in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley, home to half a million refugees living in tents. But this venture, as our last one, is dependent on the generosity of our crowdfunders.

The odds are stacked so highly against the 2.5 million Syrian child refugees that humanitarian organisations fear they will become a ‘lost generation’. But with the right resources they still have the chance to be children. And I hope we can find the funds to continue giving them an outlet for their energy, happiness and big personalities – on the big screen.

All images courtesy of the Refugee Film Project.

UCL in the Middle East 2017: The Middle East re-mapped

By ucypcbu, on 10 May 2017

5 June 2017 (10am-4pm), Anthropology seminar room, Department of Anthropology

Keynote: Dr Yael Navaro, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Reflecting a wider interest in ‘re-mapping area studies’ at UCL, the aim of this workshop is to explore how the Middle East might be rethought and re-drawn today.

There will be contributions from researchers across the social sciences, arts and humanities that address the question of how to map the Middle East, whether conceptually, creatively, or through empirical research.

The workshop will be organised around two broad themes:

  • Creatively approaching the Middle East, and
  • Outsiders Within and Insiders Without.

Dr Yael Navaro will give a keynote lecture to introduce the event on: ‘Encrypted Arabic: Language as a Materiality at the Contested Turkish/Syrian Frontier’.

Read the full UCL in the Middle East programme and register to attend here.

The event has been organized by Professor Andrew Barry and Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (UCL Department of Geography), and Professor Ruth Mandel (UCL Department of Anthropology).

Are there limits to global engagement?

By Sophie Vinter, on 10 April 2017

The Cardiology, Diabetes & Nephrology At the Limits’ meeting was held at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in April 2017In April 2017 UCL Vice-Provost International Dame Nicola Brewer gave a speech at the “Cardiology, Diabetes & Nephrology At the Limits” conference in South Africa, on “Are there limits to global engagement?”

This post is adapted from the speech Dame Nicola delivered.

At The Limits is organised by UCL’s Hatter Cardiovascular Institute in collaboration with the University of Cape Town, to set new standards in medical education for these closely linked disease areas.

By Dame Nicola Brewer (UCL Vice-Provost International)

I was delighted to attend the 19th annual ‘At The Limits’ conference. In addition to UCL’s longstanding association with the conference through Professor Derek Yellon (UCL Hatter Cardiovascular Institute), I had personal reasons for accepting his kind invitation: five years ago two South African heart specialists saved my husband’s life – he had an emergency quadruple bypass in the Vincent Pallotti clinic. Elwyn Lloyd spotted the problem and Suzanne Vosloo was the surgeon.  I’m not one of those people who think cardiologists are cold and clinical: the hug Suzanne gave me when we met in the Intensive Care Unit was almost as restorative as the bypass.

But clearly there is a prejudice about distant and superior surgeons. I Googled jokes about cardiologists and found one that struck me as relevant to what I was going to speak about – are there limits to global engagement? I refer mostly to diplomatic global engagement, from my time in the British Foreign Office, though I work now on academic global engagement for UCL.

“So, a famous heart surgeon goes in to a car repair workshop. A mechanic is fixing his car. The mechanic straightens up, wipes his hands on a rag and says, “I’ve opened her up, taken her valves out, put in new parts, and now she’ll drive like new. How come you get paid so much more than me for doing the same thing?” The surgeon replies, “Now try doing it with the engine running.”

Like surgeons, diplomats do it with the engine running. And there are limits to what you can do without stalling. If you’re a diplomat, it’s not your engine for a start – you’re not in the driving seat. The car belongs to, it is, another sovereign nation. So you need to be invited even to look under the bonnet. In fact, that’s the second step: you have to ‘receive agreement’ first – the host government has to agree to accept you as ambassador. Refusal is not unknown. Before you get agreement, you have to keep your posting a secret, out of courtesy to your future hosts – and a bit of superstition, like not counting chickens before they hatch.

When I became British High Commissioner in 2009 I learned rapidly just what a beautiful, complicated, self-critical and resilient country South Africa is. My first piece of confidential advice for the Foreign Secretary, I chose to present as Diagnosis and Prescription. I forget whether I included a Prognosis. But I was always being asked to predict what was going to happen next in South Africa.

The diagnosis first. Diplomats have to work out the underlying condition or conditions causing a multiple set of presenting conditions in foreign populations. What makes a country healthy, or sick; robust or vulnerable; wealthy or poor? It helps if the diplomat in question is also self-aware about the state of their own country. A little humility never hurts. As the scientist Isaac Newton said: “Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.”

Prognosis in my world is about what’s likely to happen next economically or politically, when and with what impact. You draw historical or contemporary evidence from which you extrapolate. But every country is different, as is every patient. In my first overseas posting I predicted that the ruling party would lose power. I was right. Eight years later. If a doctor’s diagnosis proved correct after 8 years, I’m not sure that would be a great comfort to the patient. The experience taught me humility and patience.

So diagnosis and prognosis are relevant to the medical and the diplomatic professions. Both involve expertise and experience, and judgement – and there are human limits to all of those things. No-one gets it right all the time, and the important thing is to learn lessons from your failures.

But that’s where the comparison between doctors and diplomats probably breaks down. When I talked about ‘prescription’, I meant what the UK should do with South Africa, not to South Africa. I built my whole strategy for the four years I was there around what the UK and South Africa could do together. I guess progressive doctors these days take a shared approach to treatment decisions with their patients.

Ambassadors are like two-way interpreters: you’re explaining your own country to your host country. You’re explaining your host country to your own. And you’re trying to find shared understanding, common ground, between the two.

So, limits to diplomacy and global engagement? Yes and no. There are no limits, in the sense of the number of potential competing interests you have to understand, and the scope for trying to find common ground. And I’d say there’s no limit to how much engagement or diplomacy is worthwhile. The world will always need diplomats just like it will always need doctors.

But there are external constraints. Circumstances matter. I wouldn’t have chosen to arrive in South Africa at the beginning of a global economic crisis. Events in Libya and Syria didn’t make my job there easy. But other things did help. The 2010 World Cup and the 2012 London Olympics. Sports is ready made common ground: being the daughter of a former Welsh rugby international was more of a conversation opener than being the British High Commissioner.

Crises and tragedies can also have the effect of bringing countries closer rather than driving them apart – Marikana happened while I was in South Africa – in diplomacy as in medicine.

So my final word about limits to diplomacy and global engagement is something I learned in South Africa and have never forgotten. It’s an African proverb: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.”

The message is, get engaged with other people. Be globally engaged. That’s the way to go beyond the limits.


Knowledge Africa 2017 – Africa Unheard

By Sophie Vinter, on 13 January 2017

This year’s Knowledge Africa Day will showcase UCL research that is informed by Africa, representing a cognisant shift in position from sharing knowledge about the continent.

The half-day Africa Unheard event on Wednesday 15 February is the second of its kind, open to staff and students from across UCL including members of the Africa & Middle East Network.

Diverse speakers will explore the ideas of African thinkers, research and research methodologies informed by African perspectives and context, and research that engages with Africa and Africans (including African Diaspora) to create knowledge about places outside of Africa and about non-Africans.

Keynote speaker will be Professor Graham Harrison, Director of Postgraduate Research, Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, who will explore the variegated ways in which discourses and imagery of Africa are transposed through acts of mediation into the milieux of British national identity.

Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, Pro-Vice-Provost (Africa & Middle East) said: “Africa Unheard will explore the idea that ‘Africa’ or ‘Africans’ are often framed as the subject of research and the point of enquiry, potentially silencing the multiple ways in which Africa informs research. It will help to build a platform for staff and students to listen, learn and engage with other ways of knowing Africa.”