In my book, The Politics of Humanity, I describe myself as an accidental humanitarian, since I had not expected to go into that particular world. I could also be described as an accidental author. Although, like many others, I once had a go at writing a novel, it did not get far. And I had some time ago concluded that I did not want to write a kiss and tell book about my life in the Foreign Office, even though I had worked closely with a number of prominent politicians: that would only undermine further the already tricky relationship between politicians and civil servants, and the confidentiality so necessary for international relationships to work.
So why did I decide to write about my time as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator? The best explanation I can give is that the experience was so intense, and the issues I grappled with so difficult to manage, yet so poorly understood by the outside world, that I felt compelled to try to make sense of my time as a humanitarian. I also believed that it would help the vital cause of emergency aid if I could explain, in a way which could be understood by everyone, what it is all for, how it can really make a difference, but also how it can be undermined and wrecked by politicians and others trying to manipulate it for their own purposes.
Humanitarians, like other close-knit groups, too often talk to each other in a language only they really understand – and then wonder why they and the work they do are not better understood. One example of this is frequent talk about the need to preserve ‘humanitarian space’ in conflict zones. Those in the business know this means simply maintaining the ability to access those who need help, and the ability to operate free from political or other pressures to favour a particular group. But for 99% of the population, this expression means virtually nothing if not clearly explained.
I was also keen not just to pontificate about the issues in a theoretical way, or dwell in too much detail on the human suffering just to try to stir consciences (known in the business as ‘shroud-waving’). Instead I wanted to use practical and vivid examples of the conflicts and disasters I had dealt with to bring out the dilemmas involved in trying to deliver help in the difficult circumstances when people need it most, and to illustrate what providing people with the basics of life really means. That is why I spend most of the book describing a number of these crises.
Diplomats like me spend a lot of their careers writing, to try to get across information and analysis clearly and succinctly. Words are our business – sometimes maybe too much so. Putting words on paper was therefore not in itself particularly difficult for me. But I quickly found that writing a book is a very different proposition from writing a paper or even an extended diplomatic despatch. There has to be a shape, and a narrative which will carry even the interested reader through several hundred pages. I spent a lot of time attempting to get this right.
You will have to read the book to judge for yourself how well I succeeded. It is certainly a serious read, not a work packed with light and amusing anecdotes. But I hope it does have something to say, and that it says it in ways which can be appreciated by anyone, without specialist knowledge.
Would I do it again? It was hard work, but I suppose I enjoyed the process in a masochistic sort of way - and there is nothing like having to write something down to make you examine hard what you really think and believe. So I may still be tempted to have a go at a book on how we in the west could have a more effective foreign policy if we understood better how other people see the world. If we understood why other people think the way they do, rather than always judging them by our standards and turning them into good and bad guys accordingly. But for the moment, promoting the book I have written is enough to keep me amused, together with my various day jobs. Discovering the world of the literary festival in all its variations is a particular delight – and meeting people who have read and appreciated the book is consolation for all the late nights and early mornings I devoted to producing it.
John meeting the children in an Internally Displaced Peoples camp, Darfur, November 2008
Read more about The Politics of Humanity by John Holmes, here