Grad Talk with Harriet Lamb

Blanca Schofield-Legorburo 

I was so fortunate to have Harriet Lamb onto my Camfm radio show. An international development stalwart and Cosmopolitan’s 2008 Eco-Queen, Harriet’s career spans decades of working in organisations such as the World Development Movement (WDM) and as CEO of Fairtrade UK and now International Alert. During the show we spoke about her varied experiences in this field, including protests and more organisational work, as well as observations and advice she would give to a woman hoping to go into international development today. Read on to see what this amazing woman had to say on these topics.

Tell us a bit about your degree in Cambridge.

When I first came to Cambridge (Trinity Hall) I read English because I wasn’t aware of all the different options there were. I was good at English and loved it – among other things, it helps you think about words and how you present them. However, I became more interested in politics and switched to HSPS – this was a gift of being in Cambridge as I was lucky to be able to switch. Then I was able to begin work on the love of my life: politics and social activism.

Were you always interested in world affairs?

As a child I spent 3 years in Maharashtra in central India because of my father’s job, thus I was exposed to and always knew about terrible poverty. Yet I also learnt from that age that though imperial history has kept them poor, countries like India are also more than capable of tackling poverty themselves. I then went back to India when I was 18 to teach English, and began thinking more about these issues. After Cambridge, I went back again for 2 years and lived in villages and worked with small NGOS. Then when I went on to work for Fairtrade I had seen what it is actually like to work for a Co-op and take on big forces. That experience always kept me grounded.

How did you envision and start your career?

I’ve never had a grand plan – I’ve taken opportunities when they’ve come and so far it’s worked out really luckily for me. I struggled in my final year of Cambridge, wondering if I wanted to go down the G&T or brown rice route. I chose brown rice! After India, I did an MPhil in development studies in Brighton at Sussex University. This gave an intellectual framing to what I’d learnt first hand. I then decided I didn’t want to work oversees, but back in Britain as we also had to sort out our own problems.

I worked first on low pay – campaigning in those days for a national minimum wage. This taught me that what some think is impossible and everyone thinks will be an economic catastrophe can and does work! Economists say all kinds of things are impossible, but you actually can introduce them.

I then worked with refugees in the North of England from Palestine, Ethiopia and then for the World Development Movement, which focuses on how England works with developing countries, particularly in cancel the debt and arms sales. For example, we wanted to highlight the financing of fighter jets of Britain to Indonesia, which was using them to bomb people in East Timor who were fighting for independence. I’ll tell you about a protest we did: we actually bought a share in Midland Bank so we could attend an AGM in the city (I still have my £1 share) then drove a hired tank through the city of London (having told the press) and went to the AGM, put up our hands and asked why they were financing the sales of these fighter jets. I did wonder if I was going to get arrested… But actually it was fine!

Did anything happen – did they change their policy?

Not immediately, but we were trying to put the spotlight on them. I’ve always believed in campaigning – sometimes you are lucky and have short-term wins, but more often that not you aim to shift the ground. Then these companies learn that there is a risk of protest and the risk factor is taken into account more and more so the next time they will think harder about it.

When campaigning you are up against enormous forces – look at Britain selling weapons to Saudis who are bombing Yemen and then we send aid to Yemen. What you come up against all the time is that people are mainly preoccupied with making profit, leading to ever-increasing inequality. You hope logic is what they will answer to, but it comes down to money and short-term profits. For example, Fairtrade is more expensive, but in the long run it helps the company position themselves as attractive and ethical. So you need to convince companies and corporations to put long term profits above short term. It is the same argument for divestment! If the university wants to situate itself in the future it has to think about divestment! It has to show that it is ready to take the high-ground and be a leader.

How did you pick the areas of international development you wanted to work in? You did so much!

While working for WDM I thought: what are the structural things that keep countries oppressed? Arms, aid and trade. Given the power of multinationals and the impact they have on trade, we then started pushing for a general code of conduct, which the world still doesn’t have. For an example we looked at bananas and campaigned against the use of agrochemicals and the suppression of trade unions in Latin America. We dumped a tonne of banana skins in front of Del Monte HQ in Kent to protest. I then got hooked on bananas! They are a symbol of so much that is wrong with how international trade works. How can we create a bubble where we show that you can do it differently? Bananas and Fairtrade.

You’ve done such a mixture of large-scale organising and protest and activism!

I did more protest at that time and then worked for Fairtrade for 15 years, which was about always creating a positive solution to show it could be different. The power of the positive alternative is so important.

Can you tell us about your experience of being a woman in international development – did you see equal opportunities?

It is a sector that seems to attract a lot of women. But then you look at leaders and they are very often men! This is because of sexism, but also women leave to have children. Though it is much better now than it was in my day, there is still not enough support for women or available and affordable childcare. Many employers don’t make juggling easy. I have been lucky with employers who let me work part-time after my second child. It’s great working part time at 3 or 4 days a week. I lived and worked in Germany and there part-time was much more normal: people work in the office and then are creative and help their family or community. You can still succeed with part-time! I also did a job share once and I think the organisation benefited hugely as it had 2 brains instead of 1.

Do you think women will only find equality when society becomes less fast-paced and focused on productivity?

I actually found that women and people who worked part time were more productive! They know they have to get things done. Why are we so obsessed with a 5-day working week? Why not 4 and get more people into work? We have such a fear of a societal re-structuring. And now, although we have more economic growth, people’s leisure time has decreased, and with phones and laptops you can be expected to work all the time…Yet there are more and more opportunities for women. It is incredible how much has changed, if you think that just before I came to Trinity Hall it was all men!

Do you think we are losing focus on Fairtrade and workers’ rights?

We should not have to pick between Fairtrade and organic and vegan. We underestimate how much companies listen to what customers want: we can ask them to produce their products ethically and must never feel shy to do so and reward those who do the right thing and congratulate them.

We should also push on the fashion industry. We did struggle with Fairtrade cotton as the fashion industry is so fast paced – it is very hard to get them to respond. But how can you be paying the workers well if you are only paying £10 for a pair of jeans?

Though it does take a long time to push for social change, we can see how so much change can be achieved! Look at veganism: 10 years ago you wouldn’t be able to get a vegan meal so easily!

Tell us about the organisation you are CEO of now, International Alert.

I’ve always felt that the three big issues are poverty, conflict and climate change. The three are interconnected – conflict keeps people poor and climate is the exacerbating factor. We work with communities to bring people together across different sides of conflict, for example refugees from the Syrian civil war: when you meet other people you immediately find that there is more that connects than divides you. When they first enter the room everyone blames everyone, but by the end they are working together for social activism, etc. However, it needs to be taken to a whole other scale – conflict is rising and yet there is no proper adequate response to it. Strangely there isn’t a peace movement the way there was in earlier times. What can we do to raise awareness and what can we all do to help build peace? With Fairtrade we landed on something that everyone could do, but we haven’t found that with peace-keeping. You can email your MP and Jeremy Hunt etc. But we all must help to build a society of love and compassion against the competitiveness and aggression. Respect others and slow down.

Do you have any advice for students hoping to go into international development?

It is annoying, but the best way is to start working as a volunteer for organisations. I spent many a happy hour stuffing envelopes!

I also always believe that you must keep a work-life balance – keep work in perspective and have fun at it! You should enjoy it. If you do you keep up your stamina.

Any final thoughts and reflections?

What is that vision we want of internationalism in the future? How can we build a future that tackles inequality? At the moment we are hearing and seeing the voices of anger, but we need to put forward another vision of a more fair and peaceful world.

I hope you enjoyed reading Harriet’s thoughts on life in international development. If you would like to hear the whole interview please email us and we can send it to you.

Also, for more information on the Fashion Industry and its effect on the environment, I really recommend you watch The True Cost: 

Thank you and let us know if you would like to write a Grad Talk of your own with a graduate you admire.

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