SSE alumnus Richard Brown discusses his work in post war recovery
Why did you apply for the ESU Secondary School Exchange?
It was a little poster up in my school, I used to walk by it and think that’s not for me it’s for somebody else. Then what happens - we used to have a prefect’s meeting in the evening, and my headmaster hadn’t had too many applicants so popped his head round the door one night and said ‘Anybody want to go to America?” I had these ideas of travelling the world so this opportunity was incredible. America was like a dream as no one really travelled there in those days.
I had a huge opportunity to develop an interest in travel, I started at my new school in January and graduated in June then set off travelling around the U.S., Canada and Mexico. I did this mainly by Greyhound bus. I was quite conservative before I went to the U.S. but then I developed more of an outgoing character whilst I was there which I needed to do because I had a great sense of adventure in me - but in order for it to come out I needed to come out of my shell.
One of the most amazing things was the extraordinary range of courses available. I chose U.S. History, the teacher was so pleased I chose it as I offered a different perspective and made the American students liven up and take the subject seriously! I also studied Native American History (then known as ‘History of the American Indian’) so I particularly looked out for Native American reservations and historical sites on my travels, and also African-American Literature (then known as ‘Black Literature’) which was fascinating.
What did it give you?
The experience gave me resilience which I really value, the ability to not be frightened to going into something unknown and to be positive in the face of a difficult situation.
What have you done since?
After graduating University of Bristol with a Civil Engineering degree I went to work for British Rail for some 20 years. It was interesting to work in a big corporation and it was supportive and had a strong training programme but I wasn’t sure of my ultimate goal. Then in 1997 I moved in a different direction. I’d always been an army reservist (or TA as it was called in those days) as I had joined the Royal Engineers section at university. I had showed an interest in working in the Balkans and I was asked to go on operations to Bosnia to work in postconflict reconstruction.
What was it like working in Bosnia so soon after the war?
In late 1997 I was flown out to Sarajevo and was put in charge of the engineer team within a U.S. civil affairs unit. So I go to this extraordinary country trying to heal after war with so much ethnic tension. I was supposed to go for 6 months but I extended to 8 months as I thrived on the opportunities.
Describe your role in Bosnia
We were trying to help local people and organisations initiate reconstruction projects. This can be thought of reconstruction in the narrow way of engineering but it was also reconstruction in the political and economic way of rebuilding society after conflict.
What are the biggest challenges with post-war reconstruction?
People have forgotten the art of reconstruction. Reconstruction after the Second World War with the Marshall Plan was managed fairly successfully. Churchill had reconstruction in his mind in 1942; he didn’t know when the war would end, but he told his officers “the biggest challenge in Europe will be its reconstruction” so told his staff to start planning it at once.
It was many years since the British Army had been involved in full-scale reconstruction. Leaders who were generally involved in military leadership suddenly had to work in a field that was much broader.
How did you personally try to adjust to this?
I quickly realised that I was lacking any academic or theory base for what I was doing. So I undertook a mid-life Master’s degree in Post-War Recovery at University of York when I was aged 46. This was a very powerful combination of theory and practice - how useless one is without the other! The West does not have a very good record in this area of bringing peace to the world, especially when compared to the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan.
We should recognise the art of post-conflict reconstruction is one of the most difficult challenges there can be, involving a huge array of skills; it is more of an art than a science. I would contend that many of our western leaders (both civilian and military) lack the benefit of academic rigour in this area. The development principles of local participation & ownership at every level and thinking long-term are quite straightforward and pretty universal in application - yet they are rarely applied properly and sometimes not at all.
Why are the development principles of local engagement and sustainable planning are often ignored?
The problem with a military or a large civilian organisation is that it is a top-down structure so by nature it can go against the development principles of bottom-up. In Iraq, about 10 large multinational companies were recruited to ‘rebuild Iraq’ and I was at middle level trying to influence engagement with the local population in our plans. I worked with very competent Iraqi engineers and would have liked to have worked with them more and to get the local community on side and so encourage longer-term projects.
You received a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service for your work in Bosnia and again in Afghanistan and a Bronze Star Medal for working in Iraq. What are you most proud of during your long career?
I was proud of leading my team managing the emergency infrastructure plan in Iraq in 2003-04 which was a Military and DFID (Department for International Development) project so it was a joint civil-military initiative.
But the one project I am most proud of is in Kosovo where I was asked by the UN to rebuild and restart the railway system. This was not just simply physical reconstruction because before the war the Serbs had run the railways and were the managers and the Albanians were the workers, and there was little mixing between the two. The staff were completely divided. We wanted to see multi-ethnic trains rather than trains only managed by one group and only took passengers from a particular ethnic group. We wanted freedom of movement in a divided country and connecting railways to isolated areas with isolated ethnic groups was essential.
What was the biggest challenge working with two ethnic groups in Kosovo?
Inheriting the huge staff list, we didn’t know who was still alive and who wasn’t. We also wanted Serbs and Albanians to have jobs on an equitable basis – but how does one define that?
Here is an example of a typical everyday challenge: All public signs that were written in the Serbian language were torn down after the war. However I insisted on having the two main languages in Kosovo on every railway station sign. But what I didn’t foresee is that when the workers presented their proposal they had created a big sign written in Albanian and a tiny sign next to it written in Serbian! (Similarly when later I was working on cultural heritage the staff created a sign for a museum and this time I asked for two languages written in the same size. When I saw the resulting brass plaque it was written in Albanian…and English!)
So after 20 years working as an engineer in Britain you switched career to become a post-conflict specialist and have since worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, North Maluku, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few and have also completed two Master’s degrees. Any advice for people thinking of undertaking a career change?
Never be afraid of changing course if the right challenge comes up. We can only make progress if we take some risks in life.
The Secondary School exchange scholarship not only offers a year of adventure, it makes participants stand out to university admissions tutors and future employers. Find out more here.