My guest is Stephanie Speck, who has lived and worked in more than 20 countries, accumulating almost 25 years of experience as a strategy and communications adviser, supporting democratic reform in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Stephanie’s expertise includes the design and programming of cross-government reform strategies, strategic communication and advocacy initiatives, public policy development, counter-terrorism communication strategies, government public affairs, and crisis communications. Stephanie has launched TV channels (including the Middle East’s most popular, MBC Action); was Deputy Director of the first Palestine Investment Forum; led a US$ 1 billion governance reform portfolio in Afghanistan; developed maternal health campaigns in the Vietnamese/Chinese border regions; worked to eliminate family voting in Albania; reported on disasters—earning her the Australian Humanitarian Award for her work post the Indian Ocean tsunami; and held several high-level public diplomacy and spokesperson roles, including as Senior Adviser to the Senior Minister of Afghanistan, the President of Somalia and the Prime Minister of Iraq.
Stephanie has just finished almost three years leading communication and advocacy initiatives for the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.
Some of the topics we covered include:
- Stephanie’s introduction to mass violence at the age of 9
- Strategic communication as a tool for change
- ‘Those who tell the stories rule society
- Revolution in communication methods
- Transparency and visibility in communication essential for trust
- When expectations and reality don’t align
- Manipulation vs. Strategic Communication
- Values vs. Interests in international development
- Role of social media in strategic communication
- Holy trinity of government regulation, individual responsibility, and social media companies to tackle echo chambers
- Understanding the local context
- Stephanie’s view on the current situation in Afghanistan
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Stephanie Speck – Strategic Communication: A Tool For Change
My guest in this episode is Steph Speck. When she was nine, her parents, both teachers, decided to move the family to live in Tari in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Early on after their arrival, a tribal fight was held on the school oval. Someone had killed three pigs that had been set aside to pay a bright price, and blood revenge was the only way out. Steph’s father made the whole school stand at the windows for five minutes and watched as people attacked each other with bows and arrows and machetes.
The lesson was clear and seated on Steph’s mind for life. Violence is never the solution. War doesn’t fix things. Since then, Steph has lived and worked in more than 20 countries, accumulating almost 25 years of experience as a strategy and communications adviser, supporting democratic reform in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Steph’s expertise includes the design and programming of cross-government reform strategies, strategic communication, advocacy initiatives, public policy development, counter-terrorism, communication strategies, government, public affairs, and crisis communications.
Steph has launched TV channels, including the Middle East, the most popular MBC Action. She was Deputy Director of the first Palestine Investment Forum and led the US $1 billion government reform portfolio in Afghanistan. She developed maternal health campaigns in the Vietnamese Chinese border regions and worked to eliminate family voting in Albania. She reported on disasters, earning her the Australian Humanitarian Award for her work post to the Indian Ocean tsunami. She held several high-level public diplomacy and spokesperson roles, including a Senior Adviser to the Senior Minister of Afghanistan, the President of Somalia, and the Prime Minister of Iraq.
She has just finished almost three years leading communication and advocacy initiatives for the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva. Her biggest communication challenge has been explaining to her nine-year-old daughter how a world where President Trump can be elected, and Yemen ignored can exist. Steph, thank you for joining me. It’s a real pleasure to host you on the show.
I’m very happy to be here.
Only for context for my audience, I met Steph first in 2018. We worked together on a project in Iraq, and this is where I got to know the fury that Steph possesses and how she does work. Steph, you have one of those absolutely amazing biographies that invite more questions than it answers. Maybe we can start with that first introduction to war in Papua New Guinea. You were nine years old when you first observed mass violence. Could you describe that scene for us in a little more detail?
My parents were missionaries, and they, from one day to the next, decided to take us to live in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in the middle of the very mountainous region in a tribal group called the Huli people. The Huli people were fighters. That’s what they were renowned for. They were short, stocky, and strong people. When I went back to Papua New Guinea about twenty years later, when I was working with AusAID, all I had to do was introduce myself as a Highland Mary, and people backed off.
It was the most formative experience of my life. We were there for three years, and we finished school every afternoon at 3:00, and it got dark at 7:00. We were allowed to run wild from 3:00 until 7:00. We didn’t wear shoes for three years. We learned to hunt. We made banana palm rafts. We rafted down rivers. It was a childhood paradise, but there were also really tough things.
Living in a group that had not been open to outside access for very long and who were by nature into conflict. As I described in my bio, that is the first time that I’d ever witnessed men fighting men in a horrific way with bows and arrows and machetes. There is nothing clean or sober about it. I admire my father, although I had no idea why he was doing it at the time. It was truly terrifying because we didn’t know whether they would move from the oval into the school.
There was that hanging over that but I remember my father, in his very grave, and serious manner saying, “I want everyone to watch this,” and so we did. The memory that I have of that is irrevocably seated in my heart, my mind, and my soul. I remember there was only one takeaway that was possible from that, and this is never ever going to solve anything because it starts a cycle of the next fight and of the next series or story of revenge.
At that stage, I thought this had spoken to me in all my nine-year-old wisdom that maybe there’s something here for later on. I think that’s what set me up on a path of being interested in conflict, interested in places that weren’t working so well, and seeing what I could, through my own skillset and passion and energy, do about that.
I love the fact that you can reflect on the thoughts and emotions of a nine-year-old. I frequently speak about this on the show. I was ten when the war in Bosnia broke out. I still carry and remember that feeling of, in one way, excitement because I was ten, and I didn’t know what was happening. To me, it was exciting with the soldiers and army, and I loved it all.
However, in another way, I have felt a real loss of control and a sense of understanding the world around me, which I think planted the seed also for my own path and my own journey. I wonder, what was your dad’s intention in forcing the whole school to watch? Did he contextualise this as a lesson that he wanted you and presumably with his local children or presumably all Papua New Guinean children?
Some Papua New Guinean children, but mostly an international school cohort. My father is very deliberate about everything that he does. He is a very thoughtful man, and he doesn’t do anything lightly. It was certainly not in any way meant to be a traumatising experience for us, probably or, “Quick look at this. This is interesting.” I’m sure my father thought quite quickly but strongly about that moment.
My father is a great lover of peace. He was in his early twenties when the Vietnam War and people were being conscripted in Australia. He and two of his brothers were conscripted. All of them, fortunately, did not have to go to war because they all had terrible knee injuries from playing too much footy, but I know that platform’s part of my father’s psyche. I think it was a very deliberate move on his part to show us what happened when people sought to try and fix things through fighting.
I have no doubt that he deliberately chose that, hoping that we would never, ever forget that lesson. I’m grateful. I think that many parents now would be horrified to hear that someone did that because there’s associated trauma with looking at things like that, but I can only be grateful. I think I would be so bold to say that if I had that opportunity with my own nine-year-old daughter now, I would do the same thing so that she would hopefully learn the same lessons.
The idea of trauma. If things are left to fester, that’s when it develops into a traumatic experience, but if it’s contextualised and explained.
Also, discussed. I remember we discussed it as a classroom of 9 and 10-year-olds. What did we see? How did we feel? What did we think would happen next? Even at that very young age, that very formative stage, we knew what would happen next. Someone would come back to get the guy who killed that guy. We knew that there’s a cycle of violence that’s very difficult to break out. I have seen that cycle of violence now in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Syria, and in many places where I have lived and worked since.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s the tit for tat. We also know that in places like Afghanistan, it is part of the honour code. We know that an indiscretion is paid in blood, and that’s not perhaps something that we “Westerners” don’t necessarily understand. However, that’s infused in the roots of about every society that revenge in one way or another, whether through sanctions or through dropping bombs or family violence. If we think of our own political leaders, or funnily enough, we are speaking on the eve of September 11, 2001, that war started as revenge.
It was purely revenge and revenge in a very funny place. It was revenge by proxy.
Also we went somewhere else as well while we were at it. That experience, I can appreciate how they would have set the path for you, but you were only nine at that point. How did you then stumble into was has been many years of working in some of the craziest parts of the world? How did you get into that?
I didn’t set out to do it. I wanted to be the world’s best opera singer. I love music. Music is my passion, and I trained to sing. That’s what I did early on in my career. I sang semi-professionally, but I always had a notion that there was more to being applauded, as satisfying as that is. Very early on, I started working in communications. I had no background there. I studied Literature and Philosophy. I knew how to think and write. That was it.
I didn’t know anything about comms, marketing, or how you change people’s minds, but I knew that it was an area that I was interested in. All of my learning, the entirety, has been through doing, trying, experimenting, and learning from people on the job, from making mistakes, and then trying to do it better the next time.
It’s the school of life.
I think as Aussies, that’s often how we go. I once saw an advertisement for someone to run a program talking about international aid in Australia, and it turned out it was AusAID. They didn’t put their name on the ad. I went into a job interview, and as I have done many times since then, I listened to the people describing the job, and I thought, “That won’t work.” I said, “I don’t think that will work. This is how I would do it.”
The poor, shocked person on the other end of the coffee table said, “Maybe we could give that a shot.” That started my career with AusAID. The seminal moment of that was to talk with the Australian public about the fact that their dollars were doing something else outside the domestic borders. They were making improvements in people’s lives in the region, which led back to improved security outcomes for Australia. Some of those long-winded logical arguments, and I loved it.
In 2004 on Boxing Day, I was with family in Sydney, and I think we were all glued to the television as everyone in Australia was watching the terrible tragedy of the tsunami overtaking so many countries in the Indian Ocean. I rang Cambronne and said, “I think you are going to need someone on the ground to tell the story and to show Australians that their aid dollar is making a big difference. It’s not being wasted. It’s being used well. Can I go?”
I literally got on a plane two days later. Qantas baggage handler very conveniently lost my tent, which had been taken so that I had somewhere to sleep. I went from Sri Lanka to the Maldives to Banda Aceh, and did the circuit a few times over the next 3 or 4 months, basically telling the story of what happened when Australian dollars go into places like Sri Lanka, Maldives after a natural hazard has hit and destroyed everything that people know and realise. I loved it. I knew I could live on anything, anywhere, and tell a story. That started my journey of being the person who got sent when things went wrong. That’s what opened the doors.
That would have been an incredible experience. Talk about a courageous move as well to phone up and say, “Should I go?” It’s because I suspect you were not part of the logistical move. You created your job basically to, “Let me tell the Australians to look at all the good we are doing over there.” I think it’s a powerful tool that we don’t necessarily give much credit to, especially when people don’t see what happens with development money, aid money, or aid funds.
I’d hate to say this. I don’t think that’s something we necessarily do well, but also because there are perhaps even so many questions about how that money is spent. We don’t necessarily rationalise that well, and we can’t account for it all that well. Perhaps that’s a separate topic, but communication is your gig, but communication is one of those things that we talk about as though we understand what it is because it is so intuitive.
It is almost a bit like culture. It’s this big grand topic that’s a little bit slippery. We assume we know what it is, but it is an umbrella term. How do you define communication? I particularly like the fact that you are a practitioner of communication. You are not about to give me an academic definition of communication but a practitioner’s view of what communication is.
I will start by breaking the cardinal rule of comms and I won’t answer the question immediately. It’s because the first thing that comes to mind to me is always bad comms. We all know what bad comms look like. It looks like that in an unintelligible set of instructions that you get when you have got to build something or when you are sitting on a plane, and you don’t know why it hasn’t taken off, and the captain is silent.
It’s also that family conflict which results in entrenched positions. We all know what bad comms looks like, and more importantly, what it makes us feel, and, therefore, how it makes us act or not act. Simply at its heart, communication is about building a connection. Strategic communication, which is what I like to think I do, is building a connection that results in a change.Strategic communication helps build a connection that results in change. Click To Tweet
It’s moving beyond that very basic part of comms, which is about giving information to thinking about what has to happen in a chain of events to get something to change, either in people’s minds or their hearts. It’s also in the way they live their lives or in some of the jobs that I have worked in, at a macro level or at a government level. How do you get a government to change its mind so that citizens understand what a government’s trying to do, and therefore they embrace reform rather than fight against reform?
Strategic comms is comms builds a connection because it has changed as the end goal, and it’s crap communications, which I see most of the time because it never gets to that. It’s okay, “There’s a brochure, website, and tweet.” It’s like this one-way megaphone approach to comms rather than this two-way discussion that is at the heart of all good comms.
I guess that leads me to the next point, particularly when you are talking about macro-level strategic communication and government-level communication, which is designed to represent the people, presumably, but also connect to the people. This is something that I have wrestled with over many years to try and understand because there is marketing and salesmanship in it.
There is making people believe things to instil a vision and inspire, but how do you link their voices to the people on the ground, particularly in these conflict-affected areas where there are thousands of narratives? There are different tribal dynamics and different geopolitical dynamics. It seems to me like an exceptionally complex idea to try and move a country forward by giving them some. Do you see what I mean? How do you link the underground voice to that strategic picture?
Communication has always been a tool of reform and revolution. You don’t get either without comms and I believe it was Plato who said that those who tell the stories rule society. I think that comms used to be the preserve of the rich and powerful. If you think about it, even hundreds of years ago, you and I probably would not have known what our king or our prime minister looked like. We wouldn’t have been privileged enough to have seen the little oil paintings or to have been able to read or understand what we were seeing.Communication has always been a tool of reform and revolution. As Plato said, 'Those who tell the stories rule society.' Click To Tweet
In the last many years, what this extraordinary revolution in terms of social media has brought us is that now with a phone, I can have a media empire. Communication has fundamentally changed from being something that you own and control through influence and power to something that can be used by anybody, anytime, anywhere. Therefore, governments can only seek to influence or leverage. We have moved from controlling to persuading, and that’s a different level of skillset.
I see that very much in some of the countries I have worked in. Firstly, there’s a great deal of risk associated with good comms initially. Many of my first conversations with presidents or prime ministers or ministers are like, “Steph, we don’t want to talk about that. What if it goes wrong, or what if people don’t believe us? What if we can’t live up to that promise?”
I’m conscious of private conversations, but are there any examples that you can give to carry through to make your point? It’s because I think you have seen some amazing things that would be good to hear.
The very first gig I had in Afghanistan was working on a project that was about giving power back to the private sector. Rather than you having any other former communist regime where the state was the employer, it’s about saying the private sector is part of the share too. You can imagine the government was hesitant about seating power, and the private sector was hesitant about what it meant when it took power.
I remember I had a huge fight both with the people in the fund that we’d set up and the people in the ministries that should benefit the fund about putting up a website to say what it was that we wanted to do. I remember very clearly sitting in a meeting with the head of the fund saying, “We don’t want to put our head over the parapet.” That’s what he used. “We might get shot at.” I remember very clearly saying, “Yeah, sure. Probably we will, but at least we will see it coming.”
For me, the very first thing was about transparency and visibility because trust is what’s critical. When I go into these environments, what I see often, and normally when I go into these environments, literally, I get a phone call from an unlisted number, “Steph, we have heard you do this type of stuff. Could you come and give us six months? Set up a comms structure for us as a new prime minister, president, or minister.”
Normally, I say yes, and I have a very tough discussion to say, “You have got to this position because you sold a dream, and probably the dream is not realisable.” You have set people’s expectations on an upward trajectory, but the reality is going to be worse sloping down. Also, in between those two angles, if you can’t bring expectations and reality together, you have a deficit of trust. That’s what breaks empires because there will always be someone who can come in and fill that void.
Often, the first conversation I have is about personal trust between me and who’s in charge. I have to be able to say what I think is the right way. Maybe I don’t get to do it, but I need to be able to say it. Second, we have to have a commitment above anybody, anything else being realistic with what we can deliver. You can tell people to go and drink from a well and say that water is healthy, but unless the well is there, people can’t drink.
Comms have to go hand in hand with the actual practical reforms. When they are separated, which I see in many places, the comms sell the dream, and the practical reform never happens. Again, you get back into that cycle of mistrust, distrust, and nothing is possible. When I worked in Iraq for the second time, and this is where you and I met, it was a complex situation where the Da’ish controlled 60% of the country.
Da’ish had a massive comms budget. No one knows exactly how much it was, but we know it was tens of millions and effective. It’s because they sold a vision, and they made it come true. As horrific, terrible, and anti-human rights as it was, they made it come true. People thought, “There’s someone in charge who says what he means, and then goes and makes it happen.” If you look at the way that post-conflict or conflict, or fragile states work, it’s often been a series of promises that haven’t been able to get kept. When someone comes in who says something as far out as it is and keeps that promise, it builds trust.
It’s better than the devil I know, right? It’s really what it is.
That’s exactly right. If my neighbour steals something from me, he gets his hand chopped off. When we came into that situation, Da’ish had a clear vision. They had the power and the means, and the money to fund achieving that vision and telling people about it. We were given the task of coming into Iraq and helping the government tell its vision in a way that could be believed.
When we got in there, the government wanted to set up its own social media and complete digital service. We had to say, “We can’t do that right now firstly because you have got no one to talk to. Secondly, you have got no stories to tell them.” If you start peddling false truths in that environment, you will only undermine yourselves even more. We had to say to press pause for a moment.
We then had to go through a very rigorous period of research and understanding what is it that people wanted to respond to. What did they want to hear from the government? What would fix their needs? From that, driving down into five key things like energy. The energy was above anything else. People wanted to know that their lights would come on and the AC would work during 55-degree days.
Also, we had to build out an audience. We knew that the only stories we could tell going back to those who tell stories in the rural society, the only stories we could tell were not of government successes but were of personal successes that everyday Iraqis had brought to fruition in their own lives. We told stories of the baker on the corner who had looked after the poor people in his neighbourhood by baking bread for free. The next year, he had been able to install a new oven and had increased efficiency.
The woman who, under the rule of Da’ish, had not been able to leave her home or chose not to leave her home actually because she refused to be completely covered, who had learned five languages over Skype. Those stories of everyday triumphs that said, “Iraq, we are in this together, and we have got this together.” For me, that was an extraordinary period in Iraq’s history to live through, to witness, and to serve, seeing that you could tell stories of people doing ordinary things that made a difference for them, their families, and their communities.
Also, broaden that out to say, “The government wants to do more of that.” Then work very hard with sometimes very reluctant ministers who wanted to tell the big stories and said, “No. We can’t tell this story of the new power fuel. It doesn’t exist. We can tell a story of subsidising diesel fuel for generators so that people can afford it. Scale, truth, and transparency became the way that we did that comms.
What delights me now is to see very dear colleagues whom we worked with not only have had success in that environment but have gone on to build their own businesses because of what we learned together and be successful in a commercial marketplace. That’s a great story of development done right because we took the time to pause, listen, learn, and guide to development leading to increased skills and capabilities that allow people to go up and set up their own fantastic businesses doing incredible comms and advertising.
It’s all about telling stories of the people on the ground. Those who are ultimately paying the price for all of it and making them realise that they are being heard and that their stories matter. It also builds a natural connection to the everyday person. When you hear every day and see an everyday person, you connect with that rather than seeing the pompous train of glory that is usually political leadership, particularly in countries like Iraq.
The places closer to home.
It’s certainly not an isolated incident, but to see the people, and I think it was the campaign was for a new Iraq, if I recall, or at least one of them. I do remember how impactful those stories were and how well made it was. It wasn’t a half-ass effort. The production piece was a strong production. That’s an important aspect. If you are going to do this, you’ve got to do it right.
You must never ever compromise, and I have never bought into that. “We can only do it this way because it’s 55 degrees, because the power went out, or because people haven’t had the benefit of being taught.” They are excuses. Yes, the power can go out. Yes, it can be 55. Yes, there can be an earthquake, but who cares? There should be no excuses made for lack of quality. I’m a big believer that whatever you can do in places where you think it’s easy to do, you can also do in places where there are some other interesting things that get in the way. A commitment to quality is also a trademark.Whatever you can do in places where you think it's easy to do, you can also do in places where other interesting things get in the way. A commitment to quality is also a trademark. Click To Tweet
I guess my question would be and this is the cynic in me. What is the difference between arguably manipulations on behalf of a government or what we would call in military intelligence speaks psychological operations where you are trying to shape and influence a population towards a military end state? In this case, it would be to a government’s end state.
We also know in many parts of the world, autocratic regimes are led by the credo of manipulating the population and exploiting ultimately through that manipulation. How would you answer a sceptic about Iraq in particular where we are still seeing? I have interviewed our good old friend, Ghassan, whom we know well. He made the point quite clearly. Iraq is now more divided than it ever was. He is, in a way, also predicting the redrawing of maps around Iraq, which again goes to that point the sceptic could very easily say, “How can I know that that’s not government manipulation? If the government was so fantastic in doing all these great things, then why is the country falling apart?”
It’s an excellent question. There are a couple of ways of answering that. One is around attribution. Attribution is the key difference between the spook comms, the under-the-table comms, and the full-on in-your-face government in-the-sun communications, as I would call it. I think attribution is critical. You, as a person, as a citizen, need to know who said it, when they said it, and where they said it. That line needs to be very clear.
In many cases, which have been ruled by dictators, dreadful people who have used state-owned media as their own personal PR machine, you have got to make it a cut. That is why in places like Iraq, it’s much better to be slower to talk about what is possible than to oversell at the beginning. That’s a very difficult thing to tell to a government if the president’s just been elected or a prime minister has just got in to say, “Pause,” while we get things right and build the wells that we are going to go and help people to drink from later on.
Firstly, it’s the attribution. Secondly, the ability to say, pause, slow down, what’s measurable, visible, and apparent. In Iraq, we had to wait essentially 10 or 11 months until we could get to that stage. Again, it was the small stories, as I said, about subsidised fuel rather than a power plant. In Somalia, it was around things we couldn’t talk about, like federalism or a constitution, or one person, one vote. At the beginning of my work in Somalia, we had to talk about community-level healing, justice, and service provision as the building block.
We couldn’t sell a national dream. There was no nation. The pressure that you often get that distorts that and gets in the way is the pressure in my lived experience in many places is the international aid architecture that comes in all guns blazing, all funds blazing, and wants very quick, rapid change to demonstrate their own effectiveness and the power of their brand, but also, they are well motivated, if not well executed.
The power of their own brand is such an amazing point. I will come back to that.
Many times, in my experience, I have sat in meetings with heads of state and ambassadors or heads of multilateral organisations who have come in and promised the world. I remember a classic example in Afghanistan with the World Bank. We were going through a law and justice reform program. For the first time, the Afghan government had put together a team of ministries, advisors, and people like me who are not sitting in a donor compound somewhere but who are living and walking the streets embedded in ministries who said to donors, “You have to give us eighteen months to develop our own strategies. We know what you want to do, but we are going to tell you what we want to do.”
That issue of sovereignty is always at stake. I’d stake my career in defending the sovereignty of different nations. In Afghanistan, the World Bank had a fantastic proposal for the law and justice sector. One of the big issues was getting people to turn up for their court appearances. I think 70% of court cases were never heard because people didn’t come. The World Bank wanted to build, and I may have this amount incorrect, but I want to make the point, tens of millions, if not at least more than $100 million to put in a digital court reminder system.
They had the money and the program, and I remember speaking with the Minister of Justice. He said, “We want paper.” “What do you mean paper?” He said, “Do you know the paper that has the black ink thing underneath it, so when you write on the first bit, it goes through to the second bit? We reckon that will cost us about 20,000. We need 10,000 of those booklets given to the courtrooms. It’s because firstly, the courtrooms don’t have power. If they do have power, then they are a target for the Taliban to come and cut off the power. We don’t want to increase the risk of trying to set up a verifiable justice system. Can you give us paper?”
This is the discussion I have had many times of sitting in the government office, understanding the government perspective, and having to go and then fight that fight with donors who have something brilliant, probably better, but not suitable. That happens not only with practical things like law and justice reform but on the comms side as well.
Often, there’s a comms budget around doing beautiful films, booklets, publications, or having an event but again, if they don’t serve to shore up the country or to give increased confidence to citizens in their own government, they are a waste of time. In my experience, many of these initiatives have proven to be a waste of time because they have not sat, pressed pause, learned, and listened.
Also, understand what way they are operating, and that speaks to so many different points. I want to pick up on that power of their own brand because I think that’s a fundamental weakness in the way we interact on the global stage. We profess values, but we work for interests. That to me is a continuous clash in my mind. It strikes me as philosophically and ethically one that we don’t unpack sufficiently.
When you say the power of their own brand, that to me says, “I have got my own interest at heart here. This is what my brand needs to stand up for. This is what I’m trying to s sell, not necessarily as a product, but I’m selling my brand, my soft power, my heart power, or whatever it is, that’s my brand. Therefore, it is backed by my own interests. Whilst I’m espousing domestic and international values to uphold, we are going to go to Afghanistan and give women the vote. We are going to liberate. We are going to give equality. We are going to democratise.”
However, those are continuously in clash because if you already know what story you are going to “sell,” then you are not going to ask the Afghan women, “What does equality look like to you?” I’m going to come in with my brand of equality. I know the answer and solution. Here it is. I like that point. If the World Bank can’t allocate people to analyse sufficiently the “ecosystem” that it’s operating in Afghanistan, to not realise that computer systems might be a bridge too far.
At this stage, 30, 40, or 50 down a track shore, but let’s start that process, and also, there are so many questions that go with that. Do you have enough trained people in it? Do you have enough life support for all the equipment and all the tons of questions that come with it? Perhaps most importantly, have we asked the people what they think?
Have we sat on the ground long enough? Don’t get me wrong. There are many people who do and have, including in the World Bank and many branches of the UN, people who have given their lives to countries in many ways and the lives of their families too. There’s a classic story that I’d like to tell to illustrate this.
When I first arrived in Somalia to work with the president there as his strategic advisor for communications, the president had never been a president. He had never been in politics. He was a well-renowned and well-loved educator who came to power to his own surprise and had his own very clear domestic agenda for the country, which was very quickly overshadowed by what the donors wanted to do.
It may have been my second day in Mogadishu. I was staying in Villa Somalia, the presidential compound. It’s not walled up behind the UN and Africans with thousands of soldiers on the UN compound, but out in the city. I was asked to go and have lunch with the president. As I walked through the compound, I got into progressive layers of tightening security.
In the little room that I was staying in, there had been an old woman in front of me, and she had a chicken under each arm. She was walking ahead of me. As we got further and deeper and deeper into the compound, she kept on walking. As we got to the fence around the president’s house, where all of his real internal security guys were, she went through that gate too. I thought, “Have I just been rude to the president’s mom?” “This little old lady with two chickens has walked through all the layers of security. She must be someone.”
I trailed her rather than catching up to say hello and greet her properly. I had to sit outside and wait because the woman was ushered into the president’s house. I thought, “I have been rude.” His guard said to me, “You need to wait. Sit outside for a while.” I waited for a while, and then I went into the president’s house. We had lunch.
As I came back out again, I said to the guards at the door, “Who was the old woman with the chickens? I’m very sorry if I wasn’t polite to greet her.” They said, “We don’t know. That’s some woman from the city.” I said, “What was she doing here?” He said, “She used to have 5 chickens, and her neighbour stole 3 of them. She’s only got two left, and she came here to ask the president if he would get the other three back for her.” That was my welcome to Somalia moment.
I looked at the guard and the guard said, “Yes. He will do this.” I thought, “What on earth do we have to offer?” This is democracy at work. Here is an old woman who accessed the president directly and voiced her wish, and he made it happen for her. What on Earth did we have to offer in that very one-on-one level of democracy? “I know who’s in charge. I know I can talk to him, and I know he’s going to help me.”
How many other layers did we then succeed in the next years of overlaying that very basic principle of access to justice from the person who’s in charge? With all of our programs, our multimillion dollars, and the compounds and the walls that we erected to distance the women who should be able to talk to the person who’s in charge. That, for me, was the model of, at every point, am I building barriers. Am I blowing them up or maintaining that free pathway?
Am I falling for the technocrat trap? The idea is that I have a well-thought-out technical solution to this problem. It’s about design, and we have learned it in our universities.
We did it in Afghanistan, and now we are going to do Control + Alt + Replace to substitute Somalia, Syria, and Yemen in its place. I find it distressing the bureaucratic mythology that arises in these places that it’s very difficult to get things done. I think we make it difficult to get things done. The first thing the UN often does is to build a compound. Immediately, there is a castle mentality that sets in. In Somalia, you had to seek special access to go to a place where they used to be able to run on the beach. Something is going to undermine something sooner or later.
I think it instils a mental image of the place you are in. It alienates and distances you as the person on the ground. I couldn’t agree more with you that the hundreds of people that I have met in various industries, whether military or development, are well-intentioned, absolutely soul-of-the-earth people who are dedicating their lives and careers to making someone else’s life better.
I wouldn’t cast a shadow on them at all but oftentimes, because of the infrastructure that we exist within, we become part of the problem as opposed to a solution. I’m not saying all of us, but the general image. I think back to my own experiences, having deployed as a military person staying on bases but then going to Iraq as a civilian, and then for the first time, going into Baghdad City for a coffee or shisha.
I’m like, “What? Hold on. Can I do this? Wouldn’t somebody take me hostage?” However, that’s because of this implanted fear of the place that I’m going to because of the narrative and the oftentimes very limited understanding of the conflict that I’m in. However, because of these symbols and the images of armed vehicles, gates, and of 3 or 4 searches, just thinking back about how to get off to the Izyum, you have to plan your meetings. You have to leave an hour beforehand just to account for all the searches. That’s arguably necessary, but I also don’t know, as we would say, it’s self-leaking ice cream. You are perpetuating the problem because you are creating so many barriers as well.
I think with comms, that’s the first question you have to ask is what I’m doing. I’m picking, unpacking, and blowing up those barriers or adding more layers. That’s the guiding question in countries where there are physical and not virtual barriers in front of people. Through the narrative, reworking the narrative is critical too. In Somalia, that’s Black Hawk Down. Everyone feels like they know Somalia a bit because they have seen terrible things that have happened there.
However, Somalia also has the longest coastline in Africa and the fastest-growing youth population. It has rivers, agricultural, and entrepreneurial people. Why shouldn’t it be the next biggest thing? It’s this narrative that we tell that we reinforce by barriers, structures, and institutions, by not listening, and by denying sovereignty that often creates more problems.
I remember taking the president once to meet the head of Transparency International because Somalia was always down the bottom of any Transparency International list for corruption. The Somali government at that time had, and again, I won’t get the figures exactly right, but they will serve its purpose, a recurring annual domestic budget of around $14 million. That was it. On the other side of the fence for the International community, they had a recurring annual domestic budget of around $1 billion. Where was corruption most likely to take place? On the side of the fence that had $14 million or on the side of the fence that had access to $1 billion and the scale of it?
I remember we asked the head of Transparency International this question, “Fundamentally, some of these indexes that only serve to reinforce the narrative, to cut off foreign direct investment, to make it more difficult to do business have to be redressed in the light of the reality of who’s got what, and where does it go, and who has access to it.” That’s also been part of my comm’s career. How do you reset the narrative? How do you tell the stories of what’s happening without the filtered and branded background?
Also, the simplicity of it. That’s the other trap, and in many ways, I can also understand it. Domestic audiences want simple. We don’t have the time to analyse and understand the complexity of what the Taliban is. The guys that are shooting at us, they are the bad guys. They are all Taliban, but it also does a disservice when we talk about it again, and this is what I want to come back to the idea. I want to get your thoughts on this idea of interest versus values.
How do you tackle that challenge? I’m sure as strategic communications because you are still representing a brand, whether it’s the government, the president, or whomever that brand is. How do you unpack, how do you challenge, or how do you push back when interests override values, which happens all the time?
It goes back to where those stories originate and who tells the stories. I hate this expression. “We are working to give women a voice,” or “We are working to give XYZ group a voice.” Everyone has a voice. What we should be doing is giving access to people to hear that voice through different platforms. This is what I love.
As much as I hate social media, what I love about it is that anybody can tell a story anytime. I don’t need traditional media. I don’t need to spend a big budget on things. I don’t need to fly a film crew in. What I’m impressed about is initiatives that I see, which are telling people’s own stories through their own voices, and there are many of those where you provide technology, a platform, and then let people go for it.
They are the stories that we need to hear more of. They are the stories at the moment with Afghanistan. We are hearing a Kabul story. We are not hearing the story from the rest of the country. Those stories will serve to help us. It will either fuel us to greater efforts or to recalibrate what we need to do. For me, it’s about who tells the stories and where they get to tell them.
My job as a communicator used to be telling those stories on behalf of other people. It’s a very colonial, patronising, and self-serving way. I find that still often how donors work, but I think we are getting closer to saying, “We don’t need to tell anyone’s stories. Everyone can tell their own. We just need to provide a way for that story to be heard and listened to.”We don't need to tell anyone's stories. Everyone can tell their own. We must provide a way for that story to be heard and listened to. Click To Tweet
To go back to the point you said, it’s now about persuasion because everybody has a megaphone in their pocket. What role do you see social media companies have from this perspective we know indisputably that social media companies, in some cases, the tools that they have created have become tools of genocide in some instances.
They are not altruistic, are they?
To make their earnest money.
The business model itself is the attention economy where I need eyeballs, and scandal gets eyeballs on that platform. Therefore, this is why we have the algorithms that create stove piping. I love Zaynab. She did the research on YouTube. If you start googling moderate Islam to find out about the Five Pillars of Islam, but by the 30th video that you follow down that rabbit hole, you will be learning how to make suicide vests. The algorithms are designed to get you down the rabbit hole of more and more extremes.
The same happens with Facebook and Twitter. The algorithms are such that you start creating your own echo chamber of like-minded people or groups. We spoke about conspiracy theories offline. Depending on how far down you go down that rabbit hole, there’s no chance. Even though you have this powerful tool to speak and connect to the most diverse voices, the tool itself is designed in such a way that it funnels you. Particularly from a strategic comms perspective, what do you see as the role of social media organisations in combating and challenging this? Can they change? Can we put pressure on them? What do we do?
I think we must put pressure, and this is not so that we get a more sanitised feed or that we are only fed cat and dog pitches. We don’t allow ourselves to be funnelled because an algorithm is taking us to where we are going to buy something. Ultimately, that’s what algorithms do. They expose you to things that you purchase. As we all know from watching all the Netflix documentaries, you are the product.
I don’t have a magic wand. I don’t know what the way out of that is because it’s clear that things are only sustained through profit generally, and that’s not a world that development plays in. I wish it did more and that it set up things for a profit trajectory so it could hand over and switch, but that’s not how development thinks at the moment. I think with social media companies, I think it’s a delicate balancing act between freedom of expression and allowing people to say whatever they want and whenever they want.
That must be defended at all costs because that’s what people like the Taliban and Da’ish hate, with a responsibility that people are either exposed to different voices. That there is a way in which that permanent echo chamber could be broken. I think that’s probably about being tricky with algorithms or being innovative with algorithms that say every now and then, we are going to switch it up. However, it’s also about us as consumers being very mindful. When I wake up in the morning, I read The New York Times, The Australian, and BBC.
Do I read Al Jazeera? Do I switch it on at Al Kabeer? Where else am I consuming content from? That’s why I’m delighted at the breadth now that we have access to it, but as a consumer, it’s not just me. We have rights and responsibilities. As a consumer, I need to challenge my own viewing, listening, and reading habits as well and take responsibility.
I then think there’s a role for governments to step in and get to the heart of algorithms and commercial realities and say, “What can we do as a regulatory authority to ensure that there’s a little bit of breakup here or that at least there are systems in place that allow us to say, ‘These are the limits around what can be seen and said.’”
Whilst I wholeheartedly agree that responsibility lies with the individual, and the onus is on us to open up different browsers and look at different media outlets and see what they are saying to try and get some diversity of thought to challenge our own confirmation bias. We see this all the time. We see this now with vaccinations and whatnot. We saw it. We see it in politics. The US is a prime example. The stolen election, and so on. If you believe a story, you will find information that confirms it, but it takes humility and courage to step outside of that.The responsibility lies with the individual, and the onus is on us to open up different browsers, look at different media outlets, and see what they're saying to try and get some diversity of thought to challenge our own confirmation bias. Click To Tweet
One of the things that I find challenging is that I don’t know because I’m a strong believer that the environment shapes what we do. If my environment is such that I don’t get exposure to other news media and I don’t get exposure to other opinions, the chance of me hitting a mental bumper to tell me that I should look outside of this, I find this to be rather unlikely.
This is where I think regulation comes into play, particularly with social media. Unless the guardrails exist, that will force me or force the architecture through which I consume information. It will force me to look at other opinions. If the choice is only up to me, I don’t have that much faith in human autonomy. We also know that we are not as autonomous or rational as we’d like to think we are.
That’s why I think it has to be that holy trinity between individuals as consumers, the government as a regulatory authority, and social media businesses as commercial realities. How does that triangle work, and how do we interact in a healthy way? I wouldn’t use the word force. I would use the word opportunity. What opportunity can regulatory authorities provide to deepen exposure?
My own sense check that I always do for myself is, who told that story? Was that an Afghan woman on the streets of Kabul, Jalalabad, or Kandahar telling that story? Was that a White Western face that I saw? Where does that authenticity come from? There are problems. Maybe Afghan women are not able to tell the story in that place at that time, then we should be working to change that.
My own sense check is who told that story. One of the things that I’m proud of over the last few years is that the UN is helping to support a team of African journalists called DIRAJ to tell their own stories of what disaster risk reduction and resilience building look like in different countries in Africa. I think they are the initiatives that we should do more of. Not coming in with our set pieces or the narratives that we have as donors and agencies but going back to who tells the story and how we enable that. They are the stories I want to listen to because they are the stories that understand the nuances and know how to do something about it that’s lasting and sustainable when we have all packed up and gone home.
We are all growing accustomed to it, and that is the consequence of the last many years, particularly in the West. We have lost faith in our leaders in the institutions and in the system, whether that be Brexit or Trump. These are all consequences of significant portions of the population being left behind, which is what you were talking about before. Your 45-degree angle gap between the dream that was sold at the polling booth between reality.
By actually slowing down and realising that people aren’t stupid. This is the drain-to-swamp idea. We can almost understand that because we have been “fed” lies, although there might have been well-intentioned at the time, they have proven not to have eventuated. The same happens when we go overseas and when we try to sell a conflict-affected state or nation, “Here’s your dream of democracy. Here’s how we are going to solve it.”
Here’s your constitution written in English by an expert in Washington.
Like Bosnia, the Dayton Peace Accords, Annex D is the Constitution written in English, which is good for “Let’s stop the killing,” but it removes the actual local context.
It removes a responsibility too. That’s the dangerous thing because it’s then very easy for the people who are on the ground, the national leaders. “We didn’t write that,” and that’s true. It’s a very dangerous activity to engage in, or you will find that when it’s translated that some things change because, actually, the first English constitution didn’t fit the cultural sensitivities or the cultural context at the time. In the translation, certain things slipped. I have seen that happen as well. These are things that we insist on doing time and time again, and they are not rocket science.
What do you think is the fundamental mistake underpinning this? Have you been able to zero in on 1, 2, or 3 key things that you have realised that we keep doing the same mistake again? Some fundamental principles.
That’s a massive question. Going back to my own experience because this is not something that I study or have spent years refining through research. It’s what I have seen on the ground. It comes back to what we have talked about throughout the entire conversation. It’s that moment of pressing pause and opening one’s eyes to the situation in which you are in, not the situation you were in years ago in a different country. Someone once said to me, “Don’t come to Cairo if you don’t love the dust.”
For me, it’s pressing pause. It’s opening eyes with a deep concern and consideration and love for the very tricky people, and the very tricky situation in which you are now. Having the humility to come into a meeting and say, “We are here to ask what you think you need.” Do you know what we are going to do? We are going to commit for the next three years to doing what you think you need. Sometimes it’s going to sound like it’s going to be crazy, but we are going to listen to you.
I saw that once in Afghanistan, sitting down with the Minister of Finance to go through the budget for law and justice. The stationary budget was $20 million, and we couldn’t understand why the stationary budget was so high. As we went through line by line, we saw that it included 100 RPG launchers. Why do you need grenade launchers in the law and justice stationery budget?
They said, “We need them to defend the courthouses against the Taliban.” That would have been a very easy thing for someone to say, “Delete that line,” or as it turned out, a very wise person said, “You have said this is a fundamental need. This is what gives your lawyers the confidence to come to court, prosecute, listen to, and defend. If that’s the security you need to enable law and justice to work in this country, we are going to deliver it.” It was good for the US government at that juncture.
It’s that ability to say, “It sounds or seems crazy. Do you know what? We are going to give it a go.” I hear so many stories about we can’t do that because they are corrupt. What that means is we haven’t set up proper systems and processes that protect things from being corrupt, and that is very easy to do nowadays to set up online and digital systems that track everything.
There is no excuse to say, “We can’t do that because there’s a risk of corruption.” There should be very little risk of corruption. There are people that will always be dodgy people but that’s our laziness getting into the picture. The President of Somalia always said, and he was often ridiculed for this, and I could never understand why. “It’s like a plumber coming to fix a pipe in your house to stop it leaking. You have got to, at some stage, turn the tap on to see if it was fixed.”
The owner seems to be very reluctant to turn the tap on. Either they don’t have confidence in their own systems and processes, or they are afraid of letting go and seeding control. I think it’s a juggling act between the two. There are very great things that have happened with development. We have seen rates of poverty across the world go down. We have seen more girls in school. We have seen maternal health flourish. We are seeing many incredible things happen, but fundamentally, we don’t take the time to listen, to learn, and to love the people in the situation we are going into to give us the humility to say, “We may not have all the answers.”
It speaks so much to me and, again, is another piece of the puzzle in my mind against this dichotomy between interests and values. I cannot ask you, given your intimate involvement in Afghanistan, about the current situation. What are your thoughts?
It’s very difficult to speak without a great deal of emotion, which I won’t apologise for. I left Afghanistan when I was six months pregnant because my medical insurance refused to pay for me to be there any longer. It’s a very special place for me because of the people I know, the people I have met, and the stories that I have heard. I am deeply disturbed by both the absence of leadership from the Afghan government and the way in which the withdrawal was handled.
Also, the gross arrogance, protectiveness, and nationalism that I see on display from many countries around the world could easily open doors to let people who have served us who need another opportunity to continue their lives and their families’ lives. I cannot understand this reluctance to help and serve. We are all at one stage in our lives, migrants and nomads, all of us. We need to give the people who need a second chance the honour and respect that they deserve.
I’m deeply ashamed of the actions of the UN. I know that many of the UN leadership in country positions fled and left the country and left national staff there, and then issued irresponsible messages about what they should do if the Taliban comes looking for them, which is happening. We know that, and I think for the UN to have any shred of credibility, it must look after its national staff. It must now decide where the limits for its engagement with the Taliban are.
Are they humanitarian limits? Are they in the development field? I would hope that the Secretary-General uses his influence as he can and could and should to make sure that countries around the world open their doors to accept people who can’t have a decent standard or opportunity to stay alive in Afghanistan to find somewhere else.
That’s the point. It’s to stay alive. We are not talking about economic well-being. We are talking about keeping their head on their freaking shoulders.
I have friends who have sent their daughters away to hide in different places because they will get taken by the Taliban. I’m the mother of a nine-year-old. For me, that rips my heart apart, or colleagues of mine who cannot have money to buy food for their families. We are saying it’s difficult to look after those people, no. Then again, as an individual, what am I doing? I can’t just point the finger.
There’s a great Arabic saying, “You point 1 finger to someone else, and 3 fingers point back toward yourself.” What am I doing? I have to question myself every day. Am I doing enough to use my voice to ask politicians to do the right thing and to use the privilege I have of where I am and the money I earn to make a difference on the ground? We have to ask ourselves. What are we doing about this? We can’t be outraged and not be active.
Conscious of the time, I want to bring us to where we started. You said that violence is never the answer. War doesn’t get any solutions. What is the solution here? How do we solve this problem? I’m talking about, for example, the Taliban. We are seeing dozens of videos now of the gross abuses of human rights that are rife, not only in Kabul but even worse in other districts and regions of Afghanistan. What do we do? What’s the communications plan there? I’m not trying to be cynical. I don’t know what the answer is. I think I’m as close to a pacifist as somebody wearing a uniform can be, but I’m a little bit at a loss of ideas.
I don’t know, either. All I can think, and I don’t think anybody does at all. What gives me some measure of joy is that things have changed so irrevocably in Afghanistan with people having access to social media. I have no doubt that it fuels and empowers the women on their marches in Kabul because it makes them visible. When things are visible, they cannot be ignored. We have seen other places where things are visible and ignored.
I hope we have learned lessons from the Balkans, Rwanda, and from many places. What gives me joy is that the Taliban must be very scared that they are now having to govern a people who have their own way of expressing what they want and getting it. I hope that strikes fear into their hearts. I hope that the people of Afghanistan continue to use the means that they have as they feel safe to do so to protest and we should be doing everything we can to protect and give access to those rights of protests. Beyond that, from a communications angle, I don’t have any other million-dollar answers apart from the fact that I’m given joy by the fact that technology will enable people to say want to say, to be heard, and to be made visible.Technology will enable people to say what they want, be heard, and be visible. Click To Tweet
I interviewed Sahar, a young Afghan who now studies at King’s College in London. She was a filmmaker initially, but now she’s a vocal activist with strong links to Kabul. She has quite a powerful and impactful story. She is somewhat hopeful that the same message made about social media, about the world, and seeing what’s happening on the ground through the technology that’s available.
However, she also made a sad point that the louder Afghans scream, the more deaf the world grows, which to me is, I hope that’s not the case but I also somehow get the sense that there’s a lot of truth in what she says. It’s almost like it’s just too big a problem. In a 24-hour news cycle, let’s start talking about something else which saddens me.
It’s compassion fatigue but I have more hope than that because when I first started this international career, a friend, shout-out to Julian Simon Good in Canberra, who gave me a little card that I still have in my wallet. It’s the story of someone walking along the beach and picking up a starfish, and throwing back into the ocean, and a very cynical person walking along saying, “There are thousands of starfish on the beach.” He said, “No, but I made a difference to this starfish.”
It may sound a little naïve and hippy-ish, but it’s true. What we need is the courage, conviction, and consciousness of a few individuals. That’s the power of communication. To harness the power of individuals to change things for other people. The world may ignore you, but I have full confidence that there will be people like you, like the people you work with, like the people we have seen come to the fore who will not give up and who will do the right thing.The power of communication harnesses the power of individuals to change things for other people. Click To Tweet
They are the people we need to embrace, support, and give airtime too so that they can continue doing their bit to change things. The world can ignore it, but there will be 1 or 2 good people. I’m sure someone famous made a good comment about that one day, and I believe that. Without that, I would lose confidence.
That is a perfect note to end this on. It’s an optimistic note that is appropriate. Steph, it has been an absolute pleasure. I am in awe of everything you have done and what you do. You have energy that I have rarely seen surpassed, and I congratulate you on that. I look forward to seeing what you get up to next. I know that you are coming back to Australia. I am very much looking forward to having you back home and seeing what you get up to next. Between now and then, thank you so much for your time. I have enjoyed this.
Me too. Thank you very much for the opportunity.