Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Hamish Falconer

By Victory Lee


A conversation on the importance and challenges of diplomatic service.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Hamish Falconer is on leave from the British diplomatic service. He has been involved in humanitarian work at the UK Department for International Development and National Crime Agency, specifically in human trafficking investigations. In the Foreign Office, he led work on terrorism resposne, supporting a peace process in Afghanistan. He has also served in Pakistan and South Sudan. Before working in the government, he was an activist and campaigner from a young age, leading protests to voice his convictions.


What led you to apply to the World Fellows Program? How has your experience been at Yale? 

The World Fellows really gives you a chance to step back from what you were doing,  to be a bit more academic, to talk to a whole bunch of interesting people, whether they’re students or faculty. It’s great to be able to take a look at the world with fresh eyes and with fresh input.

I applied to the program because I knew a lot of very impressive people attached to it and I could see what an impact it had on them. This year, Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and former World Fellow has been poisoned and its a reminder of some of the amazing people that have been on this unique program. It’s an opportunity for me, even though I’ve traveled all over the world, to be with a handpicked group of incredible people. There are fourteen of us this year, each from a different country, almost everyone from a different sector. So it’s a really fertile and rich program to bounce ideas, not only from the faculty and students, but also from an incredible group of leaders across the world. 

While there are obviously frustrations related to the pandemic, there has been a lot of great contact made possible. I’m delighted to have been here and been exposed to so many different cross currents from across the world. I’ve been focusing on a few of my old areas of interest, specifically about Afghanistan. I’ve worked with the Afghan World Fellow, a great guy called Musa Mahmodi. We have written about the current Afghan peace process, which is at a very sensitive moment.

I’m also working on newer areas of interest. I’m very interested in what Britain does after Brexit and what future geopolitics looks like for Western middle powers and Britain in particular. So I’ve been working here with very talented graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and others looking at what the possibilities for the UK might be post-Brexit, post-November elections.*

*Interview was conducted before the elections.


How did you get involved in the work in the foreign office and diplomatic service? What were your goals?

When I was graduating from Cambridge University, I knew I wanted to do public service and make a contribution. Like lots of students who go to Yale, I was conscious of how lucky I was to have such a brilliant education. And I wanted to find a way to put it to good use, so I applied to the UK military and the UK civil service at the same time. I ended up being offered the civil service first, and began working in government working on security and our transport network. I was working for the civil service in London, really enjoying myself but feeling like there was a big wide world out there. So I asked for a transfer to international service and started working for a brief period in Yemen. Next, I went to Pakistan where I was part of the UK’s response to what at that time was the largest humanitarian disaster. I had an extraordinary experience there. Navigating through the task of helping people in such desperate distress, while the international community was mobilizing quite slowly, made me really feel like what I was doing mattered. I knew that it was work that I wanted to continue. Then, I went to South Sudan after it became independent in 2011 and worked on various countries after that including Afghanistan. 


How would you say all these different experiences in various countries impacted you in your work after that? How did they influence your perspective while you were working for the international office?

I started doing humanitarian work and learned just how important politics was. I learned that a lot of what we were trying to do were thwarted by Pakistani politics. Who gets the money, whose flood protections get repaired, whether or not people make it easier to change policy to restore their lives, all these relied on politics. The same was true in South Sudan. Both Pakistan and South Sudan had a great impact on me in this respect. 

In Pakistan, I saw terrible, grinding poverty, part of which was very political. It was shaped particularly by terrible feudal politics causing deprivation. And slavery, there were children being sold into bondage so that parents could get the necessary money they needed to prevent their family from terrible poverty. 

I learned the limits to which we can be generous from the west. We can give aid, but dysfunctional politics is so much more powerful than even the best designed aid program. So after my two years in South Sudan where I had started in a moment of optimism with the recent independence of the country -in part because of the efforts of the US and UK and others-I left as it was collapsing in a civil war. There were atrocities happening across South Sudan for probably, in all honesty, the whole period I was there but certainly the last year of my service there. The experience of how significant politics is in determining people’s lives led me to decide to leave our Department for International Development and begin work at the Diplomatic Service. In between, I did a brief stay in our national crime agency, similar to the FBI in the United States. This was because I was so frustrated by the impunities I had seen in South Sudan, so I worked primarily on human trafficking and felt a little more satisfied by attempting a harder law enforcement on some of these problems.

But in the end, the call of overseas work and my other area of expertise called me back. I joined the Diplomatic Service and began working on the peace process in Afghanistan. That was the biggest area of focus for me for some years after that. 


 You touched on the limitations of foreign aid as opposed to fundamental, structural change in the political system. How do you and the UK balance intervention and sovereignty of the countries you support? How can you make sure the work of the UK can actually help the countries reform?

I think South Sudan, in a way, is the best example. There was a big UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. There was a big diplomatic presence and a lot of aid. In fact, my experience in South Sudan had been shaped by a sense that previously the international community had not done enough to prevent atrocity crimes. I think that led to a view that if we could only get the technical input right, if we can get the right kind of peacekeeping mission and aid, people won’t do terrible things. But I think that’s just not right. 

The international community needs to think hard about how it can contribute to preventing atrocities politically, and respond to predatory and authoritarian governing. This is really difficult because you are on a tightrope of what is there and the uncertainty of the limit to intervention. Some of the things that I think we have done well, for example in Pakistan, is the program contributing to girls’ education. I think that’s a very good technical thing to do, but also addresses political problems. It helps shape the future of Pakistan that’s more likely less misogynist, more pluralist. It’s quite a radical thing to have women in the public sphere. Not all of Pakistan but many parts of Pakistan have a very traditional and misogynistic attitude towards women. So I think it’s a million dollar question, I’m sure also a question on the future Biden or Trump administration’s mind concerning what American foreign policy should look like. The question of where the balance is between simply talking to governments and trying to positively change the countries is going to be at the center of American and British foreign policy debates for years to come.  


I think your points resonate in some ways with the border conflict in the U.S. as well. For example, keeping migrants and refugees away and providing aid may not be the best way to address the root causes that  drive migration. What do you think about the parallels between U.K. foreign policy and U.S. border policy?

It’s very interesting that both the US and the UK can’t escape the fact that if we are more dynamic economies, then we are likely to draw migration. That’s an inevitable consequence no matter how high you build the wall or patrol the channel. It’s not going to be possible to keep the people out if they really want to come. That’s one of the lessons of a globalized world; it’s impossible to build real barriers between countries.

We can distinguish between the situation of refugees, where you can say pretty clearly that the international community failed in Syria and the terrible situation driving people to desperately seek safe haven elsewhere. If we collectively had had a more responsive foreign policy response to Syria, it is likely that many many of those people would still be living in Syria and there would be far less migration pressure on Europe, most immediately. 

But then the same is not necessarily true of Latin America where there are some economic drives for people that are very difficult to remove for why people want to travel north. The more dynamic the Latin American economy is, the less likely people are going to want to migrate to America. But America wants to remain the most dynamic economy in the world, and it’s most likely going to pull people into its orbit.


You touched upon how different areas, for example, the Latin American and Syrian situations are different, and require different strategies. And you’ve worked in so many different countries. Did you ever experience any difficulties in adapting your strategies depending on where you were?

I think that I’ve become more skeptical of general strategies, because I’ve felt in every country where I spent a significant amount of time, the most significant determinant of the situation there was always related to the particular local or national features. So I think politics is local, and you need to start from the country that you are in, not in the grand theory of how you think the world should work. While there are similarities that you can draw between the different countries, there are as many different countries. For Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are countries next door to each other but they have as many differences as they do similarities. The first challenge you always have when you are working in a country you didn’t grow up in, is can you get under its skin, can you learn it, can you get a sense of how the politics work and how the people feel. And that’s very difficult, you always start with where you began. I went to all of these countries as a white British man and many of the countries had a particular history with Britain, either colonial or even more recent experiences that would impact how I was perceived. And I think doing your absolute best to be able to understand and engage with the country is the first major challenge. I think there are other challenges too so it is quite difficult to be the fish out of the water. The difficulty is that most people have quite deep roots in their lives to the places they live, the friends and families around. There is a danger as an international diplomat or aid worker or soldier, that you can feel a bit rootless. And if you feel rootless, you can miss what’s going on. Roots tell you a lot about what’s going on in the soil. So that’s another challenge you have to navigate.

I’ve worked in largely troubled countries. So there are other difficulties that are hard to get around. You can get sick, for example. But horrible though it is, it’s quite a good way to understand how the people of the country are interacting with the country and what it’s like to have relatively limited access to health care.


Adding the current events of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic to the picture, I’m sure the problems get even more complicated. What are some ways that your work has been influenced or changed due to current events like Covid-19 and Brexit?

I think for people like me, Covid is a big moment that makes us think diplomacy is a business built around a very traditional model. And this whole model is looking tired in the Covid world, obviously. I could be in Helsinki and we could still be conducting this interview over zoom. 

So there will be a bit of a reflection on what it is we want from our diplomats. I think there is still a huge value in physically being in a place, like the value of me being in New Haven despite restrictions. But there will definitely be more thought put into what the future of the work for diplomats looks like.

On the influence of other events, I think we are adjusting to a more multipolar world. For example, China is responsible for a quarter of the world’s GDP and that’s a very significant change from even when I started in the Diplomatic Service. We’re all going to have to adjust to the new reality that the US is no longer the single greatest power by such a long way. China is joining the US in the top table. For the rest of the world, that will have quite significant geopolitical implications, as we see in the increasing focus on questions of technological developments whether it’s artificial intelligence, big data, or where semiconductors are made. I think economic questions of power will be more salient and relevant than they were. It’s interesting in Afghanistan, where there is a real risk of even further chaos and violence than currently exists. There are real risks that the peace process will collapse or the Taliban will seek to simply dominate the country by force. The US are involved, but we are in a more multipolar world: will their be a more multipolar response to this dangerous situation? 


I can really see how adapting strategies to the current situations is important. Even with smaller changes, we need to adapt our understanding and perspectives to make the best out of the circumstances. I also wanted to trace back to when you began your work as a campaigner and activist before your involvement in the government. I think it might be helpful to undergraduate students who are interested in the type of work that you do. How has your work as an activist influenced your current work?

As a student I was an activist, I was quite involved politically, and I was involved in human rights issues, starting  with Amnesty International, which is a British human rights organization. And then, I founded and got involved in the campaign to get institutional investors, to get pension funds to divest from companies that were providing the Sudanese government oil revenues during the atrocities in Darfur. I grew up watching terrible results from the genocide of Rwanda and the failures of Srebrenica. I felt at the time that the marker of the world becoming a better place to live is whether or not we prevent atrocity crimes. So I began organizing protests, becoming a pain to a bunch of institutional investors. I was doing letter writing campaigns. I took students and marched outside of arms investment fares. I wasn’t at all a government man, I was the very opposite. 

But I think one of the most important things that I did as a student, which I really encourage Yalies to do, is to just get engaged and to try and think through how you can make some kind of difference. My activism, particularly financial activism, was part of a process of me working through what it takes to make a difference. And that experience of activism did make me think that government is hugely important and that Britain could play an important role. It allowed me to see that protesting outside the building is important but there are also important things to do within the building. I’ve been really delighted to be involved with some work that has felt really important to me at least over the course of my career. I get teased by some friends that I’ve sold out by going from activist to government, though some of them joined me later in government. But I don’t think of it in this way. I think we all have to ask ourselves the question of how we’re going to make a contribution. Particularly with a privileged education like myself and students at Yale. We’ve been given every tool we could possibly hope for to make a difference in the world. And I think it’s incumbent on us to think about how to use those tools to the best of our abilities. 

I was young and full of fire and made lots of mistakes. There are moments when things don’t work out the way you thought or planned. A big proportion of what I didn’t make any difference on anything one way or the other. But it’s only by this repeated failure that you occasionally get to break out of the tunnel and make a difference. That’s what encourages me to keep going.


How do you think your experience in the World Fellows Program will influence your work moving forward?

I think what Yale will have given me is an opportunity to stop and think. It allows me to take a look at how the world looks, not from a seat in the British embassy or an office in London, but to be amongst people who are really thinking hard about the changes and trends of the world. In some ways I feel a bit like I did as an activist all those years ago when I was 19 or 20. I feel like Yale has gifted me the ability to think like a student, a bit more from the beginning, from first principles about where I can make the most difference next. I’m about halfway through the program and hopefully by the end, I will have a clearer answer to what precisely I’m going to do next. I found it a really healthy and helpful experience. And I think the obligation is on me to think about how I can make a difference after having been here. 

Victory Lee is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact her at victory.lee@yale.edu.