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Amanda - diplomat
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Name: Amanda
PhD discipline: German Literature
Area(s) of work: Diplomacy (foreign and commonwealth office)
Year of graduation: 2001
Date of Interview: 03/06/2008

Now Playing: Amanda - diplomat
Amanda discusses her day to day working life as a diplomat in depth, looking back to recent roles and forward to the future.

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Transcript:
So can you tell me now what your current role is?

Currently I work in the Foreign Office. I work in the (......) Department and I'm responsible for UK policy towards Spain and Portugal and Gibraltar and I also look after our department's corporate responsibilities which includes business planning and all those sorts of things that we have to do now to justify public sector expenditure to the Treasury.

And how long have you been working in that role but also in the organisation?

I've been here for a month. I've been in the organisation since 2001. I started off working on issues in the EU, my first job. I worked on a migration job thereafter which is looking at how the Foreign Office can work with the Home Office in terms of returning migrants abroad and migration flows across the world and how that affects other issues – in particular where there's conflict. And then I went abroad and worked in Sarajevo in Bosnia and I then worked in Iraq for six months and now I've come back

And what does your job now involve?

Well the policy side means that I work very closely with the British Embassy in Madrid and our embassy equivalent in Gibraltar and our embassy equivalent in Portugal on all the different issues that the UK's involved in. So some of that is supporting other departments in Whitehall to do what they need to do. It might be agriculture. It might be environment. To make sure that they can work through those embassies to achieve their aims where they need the Spanish, for example, to support them on a particular issue. We spend a lot of time on Gibraltar making sure that they comply with all the EU legislation and also that their rights are upheld in a situation that's very, very sensitive because we have this ongoing dispute with Spain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar. And then on the sort of internal Foreign Office side, my work in the department on the corporate side is looking at how we're organising what we're doing, how the money is, the expenditure is tracked, how the costs of all our embassies abroad, their finance, their resource situation, dealing with any problems that arise. We're also trying to streamline the costs of our network so we have a whole range of embassies across Europe and that's in the EU but also this covers Western Balkan countries so the former Yugoslavia and other countries outside the EU but still in Europe, for example Ukraine. We're trying to cut down our costs by seeing if we can share jobs across embassies within regions and looking at other ways in which we can always try and do things more effectively and cheaper because the tax payer's money always has to be super-justified in this day and age.

And on a day to day basis, what are you actually doing?

I'm talking to other people in the Foreign Office. I'm talking to the people, our ambassador in Madrid, our governor in Gibraltar, our ambassador in Portugal. I might be talking to other government department representatives to make sure that we're working together on particular issues. I mean at the moment we're setting up meetings between officials in different departments that are going to travel to Spain. Then I might be preparing to brief the foreign secretary if he's about to meet perhaps the foreign minister from Spain and what issues he needs to be aware of and the issues he needs to raise. Those sorts of things.

Is it a 9-5 job?

No, it's not. We work quite long hours. It varies because it depends what's happening and a desk that's, an office that's very, very quiet might become very, very busy if there's a disaster in that area for example. So you can never predict and the work does ebb and flow and obviously if you're in a conflict zone there's things going on and things happen overnight that you may not need to be here for, but would certainly mean you have lots of extra work and the nature of the work means it's never finished. You never complete or often you feel there is more you could do in order to inform people or to liaise or to build relationships or to influence people or to prepare for negotiations. So the nature of it means that you often are quite motivated but also feel you could do more. Particularly working overseas we tend to work quite long hours because again you're always in a representative mode if you like and you have lots of receptions and events in the evenings when you're abroad. But you don't have that in London and to that extent at least we're freer and we don't have to go too late into the evenings.

Do you have a certain length of time that you spend in a post before you move to a different one? How does it work?

It varies again. There's a sort of basic pattern of three years or four years in a post and there's a basic pattern that you can do three or four years abroad and come back for three or four years but within that there's a lot of fluctuation. If you're in a very dangerous place you'll only be six months for example. I was only six months in Iraq and you can't be there more than a year, just according to our internal rules because of the pressure of the environment and also people stay abroad for 12 years or come back for longer so there's huge flexibility for you to travel more or less, according to what you want to do

Can you talk to me about the postings you have had?

I worked in the British Embassy in Sarajevo first of all which was really interesting work because we were dealing with a post conflict situation. The war ended just over 10 years before I, or about 10 years before I started working there so we were doing a lot of different work to help reconstruct the country, essentially. There's political work where their government is trying to make reforms and eventually be a in a position to join the EU but politicians from each side also don't get on and don't compromise. Because obviously with a bitter war only 10 years ago there are a lot of hindrances to working together. We also did work in reforming their police, reforming their armies, all these sorts of different sectors of society that essentially have got to be rebuilt or massively reformed after the war that were either destroyed or were part of the previous, sort of socialist Yugoslavia and therefore no longer fitted a kind of modern democracy. So we had projects that we put money in. We sometimes have UK expertise so we have UK police out there advising. All sorts of different ways in which we support, help and influence the way the country develops towards the goal of joining the EU and to ensure that we are able to influence them on the things that matter to us. So from our point of view we want to make sure that crime is cut down, organised crime is cut down in the Balkans, that drug trafficking, people trafficking is harder so that means we work with them on improving their borders, on yes, their law enforcement, their policing, those sorts of things so lots of different aspects to the work.

And what's your role in that?

I worked in our political section so I would manage projects that we were doing in all those different areas and working with the implementers of those, non-governmental organisations. I would work on political work so that's meeting the local politicians and preparing the ambassador to meet with the prime minister and the ministers of the government, making sure that we were influencing when there were key decisions to be made. If reforms were needed and the local politicians or the Bosnian government was in a blocked situation we would try and go and talk to them individually and look for ways to help them to get through that blockage and reach an agreement so they could pass a law so they could implement something that would mean they could move forward in a particular area so just, again, a whole range of things. Talking to people, talking to local Bosnian politicians but also Bosnian international, non-governmental organisations. We work with colleagues in other embassies. We work within the EU fora, within international organisations who are there doing work so you're always kind of part of networks and you're trying to leverage those to the things that you decide are the kind of top priorities for the UK to achieve in that country.

What was the name of the post you were working in there?

It's Sarajevo; it's the British Embassy, Sarajevo

And your particular?

I was the political secretary

And are there many political secretaries?

We had four. We also had somebody from the Department of International Development working there. We had a defence attaché working there so the political section encompasses eight or nine people doing different strands of work.

And what is the working environment like?
Working abroad is very different from working in London. Working in London is probably fairly classic Civil Servant country if you like, although I think the Foreign Office is known previously to be very stuffy and quite old fashioned, I'd say that's not the case anymore and there's been a huge effort over the last five to ten years to really be open, to have much more open recruitment processes, to have as great a diversity as possible, to be very flexible. And the very need for us to cut down our resources means we have to be much more creative about what we do and very open to working with other people so I think here we have quite an open style of working. It's also very high standard. You're with people who are very capable and so I often sit in meetings and the rigour, the academic rigour with which issues are discussed is of a very high standard. It has to be because the issues are often very, very complicated and very technical and very sensitive so you cannot afford to not understand the detail and that's something that comes back to sort of PhD skills. Working abroad it's a very different feel because you're in a different country. Every embassy is different. They're different sizes. You also have local staff working for you so half of your, or maybe more, two thirds, three quarters of your workforce aren't UK based, aren't UK staff so again the culture will feel very different then and obviously you have to adapt your style to working with the locals. For me, obviously we had Bosnians and you can learn a huge amount and you need to learn a huge amount through them because they will understand all the local sensitivities and have a continuity of having seen people come and go and all the different events over the years so they're a huge resource to us and in fact key to everything that we achieve in all our embassies worldwide.

And will you talk to me a bit about your next posting?

I don't know. I don't know where it will be. Who knows? We apply for postings so it works in a sort of open competition sort of sense so every month or every two months there will be a list that will go up on our internal intranet of what postings are coming up for each grade as it were and then you basically find out about the job, contact people who are doing it now. There will be a basic sort of job specification and then you would bid and you will kind of put in an application for as many jobs as you fancy on that board and then you'll be interviewed, usually. Sometimes they have paper boards but usually there's an interview by phone because people are often around the world or in person so you never quite know what you might be doing and it depends a bit what comes up.

And what kinds of things would influence the interests that you've got in terms of where you might go?

I mean it's hard to know the future. When I chose to go to Sarajevo, I wanted to go to a post that was, where the work would be interesting and different from what I'd done. So I had done some EU work and standard work and I thought I want to do something outside of that. Post-conflict work is always I find very rewarding because you're very much dealing with; you see visible progress in a lot of the issues you're dealing with so there's an obvious need for us to be there helping put a country back together after a terrible conflict. You're also dealing with big issues, it's not, perhaps if you're dealing with EU negotiations you're negotiating with the finer points of a directive on, you know, not usually bananas but something small and that's important but you know I was kind of motivated to work on big issues where you're putting a police force together or you're having to construct a justice system that hasn't been developed and isn't culturally part of the country at that point –  so really big issues that in the UK we take for granted. We've had centuries of our justice system being what it is. We've had centuries of parliaments and all those sorts of things and when I was in Bosnia we brought in VAT and the whole concept of being somewhere where people were saying 'What's VAT?' you know just made me laugh because we all are born knowing and grow up knowing what VAT is and take it for granted whereas this huge debate about 'why did we need VAT?' When they first asked me 'why do you have VAT?' You know I couldn't answer it initially because it's almost like the earth, sky and then we have VAT and we have a police force that you can depend upon and all those sorts of things. So I found that very stimulating. I wanted to be in a country that wasn't too far away so that I'd be able to come back. There were sort of practical considerations. Somewhere that I thought would be good to explore at weekends and in a nice environment and Bosnia's very beautiful and the former Yugoslavia is very beautiful so I was able to go skiing in Sarajevo which was the Winter Olympics host in 1984 and then in the summer we could travel at weekends down to the Croatian coast to Dubrovnik and places like that. So it fulfilled personal and professional aims that I had if you like, but I mean you could equally go somewhere else and to be honest you would have just as interesting a time. People often say 'is there a dream posting?' or 'is there a dream job?' whereas I don't think there is because there's so much variety and there's pros and cons. If you go somewhere that has a big embassy in a more important country, your work feels more significant and London are more interested in it but you sometimes have less flexibility to do what you think is right on the ground. You're always having to check with London. Sometimes you go over to a far flung part of the world where we don't have such a great interest in the UK and you have a lot more freedom to do things. But at the same time it has less impact back at home so there's always a pro and a con to each situation. I think people often say the kind of conflict places there's a real team dynamic and a real feeling of – just the sort of urgency of what you're doing. But often somewhere in Europe you're living in a fantastic capital city with all that offers which is very appealing as well.

You said you were doing things like building police forces from scratch and that kind of thing. What are the kind of mechanics involved in making a fresh start in a country like that?

I mean again multi-pronged. You'll have a basic legislative framework that you'll be advising or helping the country to pass through its parliament so you may be bringing in UK advisors and other advisors from Western European and American, and wider, to advise on how you can help that government to set it up. You'll also be looking at cultural issues, how you can have on the ground training and mentoring and whether there are programmes that we can bring police back to the UK to some of our police academies, or to see how we do things on the street and learn from that. And then perhaps also have a way of training people to go back and sort of spread that so there are many different ways. You're always looking at 'how can I get an extra bit of leverage or influence onto something', so that it ends up functioning and functioning in a way that is compatible with the UK. So as many different levels as you can and it can be very basic that you might need lawyers to draw up, to help draft laws. Essentially you're working through the government cos you also are trying to get them to make the right decisions on these things, so it's not us doing it for them. It's very much us trying to get them to do the right thing for themselves and giving them reasons why they should do it in one way rather than another, but it's their decision in the end.

I want to ask you also about how you ended up going to Iraq. So what happened when you came back from Sarajevo?

Well I went to Iraq from Sarajevo so whilst I was in Sarajevo I had to decide a few months before I left what I wanted to do next. And so I knew I would come back to London at some point relatively soon but I wanted to do something else abroad before I came back and I was attracted to spend time in either Iraq or Afghanistan to have a better understanding of what are the two priorities and most difficult issues for the Foreign Office to deal with now and for the next few decades. They're two issues that we put a huge amount of resource into and that are incredibly important because we have obviously our UK soldiers fighting there but also they are very, very important from a global point of view in terms of counter terrorism and all that goes with that. So I wanted a better understanding of what that looked like on the ground. I was curious. I was driven by curiosity. I couldn't really imagine what it would be like to be in either of those places. I knew that we had people who would go for six months or a maximum of a year and I thought 'I think I can deal with that'. I found out about all the security protection, the environment we operated in, all the measures that were taken to try and ensure that nothing horrible happens and I was sort of comfortable with that and so I went to Iraq. Mostly I was in Basra for the six months which is where all the UK troops are based and it was a very bizarre and fascinating and intense experience

Can you tell me a bit about it?

It's very difficult to describe because it's just like being on another planet and it's very complicated. It's quite a mess as you know from reading in the newspapers. I was based on the military base where all our troops are based outside of the town and essentially the focus of our work out there was on the political side, on the diplomatic side – to talk to local parties and political leaders and to get them to engage in the political process i.e. for them, for their parties to take part in elections. For them to work together in the provincial council that ran that region and to work with the central government in Baghdad so that they could get money, so that they could start rebuilding things and for them to feel that they could get what they wanted through talking to each other rather than through violent means. So our message is 'you should use dialogue, you should engage, you shouldn't bomb each other because everybody loses'. There's a sort of zero some gain culture in their minds whereby they automatically think that if I gain, you lose. If you gain something I lose, so all the time you're trying to say that: 'look, if things improve economically and you gain, somebody else gains as well'. You don't have to all lose at the same time and they were starting to feel that. They could see the level of destruction meant that they had no economy and no prospect of economy and that that wasn't good for them so although they had their own interests and they wanted to fight their opposite numbers and their rivals to gain power, at the same time they were gaining power over less and less and less. So again you're trying to get them to understand that economic development was in their interests, in their personal self interests and in order to do that they needed to stop fighting each other. I mean that's a very simplistic level. It's obviously much more complicated and it's obviously not as clear cut as that but you want them to see the benefit of engaging in peaceful means and political structures to get what they want.

Now where are you living there? What's the environment like? Who are you seeing on a day to day basis? What's life like?

I lived on the military base by the airport outside of town that was essentially the international, but largely UK, military base. I lived in a heavily fortified container that was eight metres by two metres with detonation layers over the top in case of any incoming rockets, and within my fortified container I had TV and bunk beds although I didn't have to share mine, thank goodness, and a toilet and a shower and internet connection. So it was like a very, very small student room if you like but with a bit of extra concrete all around it, a few extra layers of concrete but a few, enough things that you can kind of cope and we would have, and we had another sort of building where we worked with offices. A military base is like imagining being on an airport or an industrial estate or something like that, that kind of size so you drive around it to get from one place to the next but essentially you're just going to your working place or to your eating place and then back again and we wouldn't move. We'd move as little as possible and in armoured cars. And we would work six weeks and then we'd have two weeks off because of the intensity of it. We'd work seven days a week. I mean there isn't a lot else to do other than work because obviously the military are on call or prepared seven days a week so we would be part of that. So it was very, very intense whilst we were there certainly. We would be talking a lot on the phone because we couldn't move freely outside the base and then politicians would come in to see us and also other figures, key sheiks and tribal leaders and some non-governmental organisation leaders would come into see us so that would be our interface on a daily basis.

And when you think about those two postings what would you say are the biggest challenges personally and professionally to be working in those kinds of environments?

I think the biggest challenge is probably being up to speed quickly on just the complexity of the issues and the huge history, centuries of history that you have to be super aware of. And of course you can't have read everything about it but you have to try and have a feel for that as quickly as possible and just to be as sensitive as possible to all the local cultural aspects that affect these things. Because often it's completely illogical, most of the disputes across the world if you came and you had no, and you don't have any party to one side or the other, they're slightly irrational. But once you understand what's behind the history of these events and what people have gone through on the different sides you have to have that in your mind all the time because it's immensely frustrating trying to make progress in these areas because the disputes are century old and essentially you have parties who have diametrically opposed aims or a diametrically opposed view of history. And so the frustrations are huge and patience is required and attention to detail is required but certainly as the foreigner working there you cannot afford to be insensitive to any of those issues and that's always, on a daily basis you have to be very alert to those issues. Otherwise I really enjoyed just being in different environments and really different challenges and different issues that you don't even think about when you're living in the UK.

Is it difficult being in a very male environment and working in a very male environment or would you be used to that anyway being based in London?

London is less and less of a male environment. I don't know what the statistics are but I certainly wouldn't say London is a male dominated environment. At board level, at directors level it is, but it is improving and there are efforts to ensure it continues to improve. I mean Basra was because it was so heavily military and I mean it was such an unusual environment. It was unusual anyway on so many factors but you know I wasn't the only girl out there by any means and you know all my colleagues were very friendly so that wasn't a problem and yeah, I haven't found that a problem.

What is your possible career trajectory from this point?

I'm not someone who looks massively far ahead. I plan to be in London for a few years now and sort of learn; you know I've sort of got a promotion and I've got stuff to learn at this level. The great thing about the Foreign Office is there's such a variety of jobs. You can work on different issues in different parts of the world so there's always a completely new different area that's always interesting to learn more about. So I'm still learning and getting to know more about different parts of the Foreign Office and how they work and then I'll see if I want to go abroad again, I guess. I mean if you stay you could end up as an ambassador the next time or the time after I go abroad depending on where I go so that is a possible end point.
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