When I asked Harriet Lamb, the new CEO of London-based peace-building organization International Alert why she decided to leave her post as CEO of Fairtrade International for something as starkly different as peace building, she scoffed.
“The two are so, so intricately linked!” she said.
She walked me through it.
At the heart of conflict, there are obviously economic and environmental factors driving disparity, injustice, extremism, and so on, she explained. Sometimes these issues — an impending food shortage, or the discovery of new extractives — are bubbling just below the surface. Sometimes, in the case of a refugee influx or sectarian tensions, they’re visible in plain sight.
“If people have no stake in society they have nothing to lose, so they’re much easier prey for conflict,” she said. “And the more they have an economic stake, the more they have a foundation to build peace.”
Nascent drivers of conflict mean peace builders serve a role not just in reconciliation, she said, but on the sidelines of social and economic change — as is the case for Alert staff working with the extractives industry in Uganda, or in the Philippines helping indigenous groups plan and govern their own economic development in a conflict-sensitive way.
“Some of my favorite moments at Fairtrade was working with people in conflict and post-conflict contexts,” she said. “And one of my biggest priorities coming to Alert is to scale up our work with industry and companies — to underline the link between peace and economic prosperity.”
At the fulcrum of shifting donor trends
Alert’s work spans 17 countries, and this range of contexts — from post-conflict and post-disaster to middle-income countries — reflects Lamb’s call for peace building at all income levels. But in a donor landscape increasingly shifting its focus to fragile states to tackle the root causes of conflict and migration to the West, Lamb expressed concern about how subject donor priorities will be to political interests.
While applauding countries like the United Kingdom for dedicating 0.7 percent of gross national income to official development assistance, and its more recent pledge to devote half of aid to fragile and failing states, Lamb pointed out that the peace-building sector will feel strong knock-on effects from shifts like these.
Good outcomes, she said, rely on peace building to span sectors and income brackets.
“It’s hard to be energized by the problems that have brought donors to this, but where I would agree is that it’s best to either focus aid on the poorest or [least-developed countries], and on fragile states,” she said. “What you don’t want is to have a sudden shift to one side of the boat and then something else happens and you go rushing to the other side.”
On the recent news that other European countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland will redirect as much as 30 percent of ODA to settling refugees in-country, Lamb pointed out that migration to Europe because of the Syrian crisis “is only the latest manifestation of a complex, long-term problem.” Indeed, most of the conflict’s 4 million refugees are now hosted in countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. These states have been accepting waves of refugees — making up as much as 30 percent of the population, in Lebanon’s case — decades before refugees began heading to Europe.
The big opportunity for investment in peace building, Lamb said, rests in those countries, where donors can alleviate the pressure on local education and health systems, and get wind of any tensions brewing early on.
Lamb said she plans to make this case in upcoming introductory meetings with partners and donors, and hopes the U.K. Department for International Development, Alert’s main donor, shares the same view.
In addition to scaling up Alert’s work with industry and businesses, Lamb’s other big priority in her first weeks and months is to listen. She plans to speak with every one of International Alert’s 200 staff in 17 country offices. With these conversations well underway, Lamb said a few things have really stuck with her so far. The first, she said, is “how willing everyone is to push Alert’s status quo.”
Often well-shod organizations, Lamb observed, can get a little stuck in their ways, “telling new people, ‘this is how we do things around here.’” One of the first things that attracted Lamb to Alert, in fact, was how “hungry the leadership was for new ideas about raising Alert’s profile.”
Lamb also found that being new offers certain in-roads when learning the strengths and weaknesses of an organization.
“[Staff] can say things to you when you’re new that they’ve wanted to say for a long time, but were perhaps shy because they thought it might sound critical,” she said. “It’s a great time to learn what’s needed in an organization, because staff are well aware of the things that we should be doing.”
A united front
Finally, Lamb noted with delight — and surprise — that staff were especially excited to welcome her as International Alert’s first female CEO.
One staff member told her in an email, “It’s so lovely to have a woman as CEO! I’ve never written to the CEO before, but wanted to write and welcome you personally.”
Lamb said that, while Alert’s staff is gender-balanced and follows a “great” gender policy, “leadership in the charity sector, I think, tends to be more male-dominated.”
A study conducted in 2013 by Dame Mary Marsh found that 80 percent of executive staff in the U.K. nonprofit sector are male. In an interview with the Independent, Marsh added, “In our leadership, diversity is very, very weak. The gender diversity might seem on the face of it to be a little bit better than some other sectors, but it’s not hugely better. Look at the chairs of charities, the chief executives, the finance directors — they’re mainly men.”
Lamb added she plans to make good use of staff candor, as well as “that fresh burst you get when you’re new,” to bring Alert staff together, regardless of their physical location.
Not least of all, it’s a good time of year for getting to know staff. “And the Christmas party, I’m really looking forward to.”
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