When Harriet Lamb was asked by Dr Nick Maurice to give the Marlborough Brandt Group’s 2016 Lent Lecture, she was Chief Executive of the Fairtrade International. By the date of the Lecture (March 10) she had become the new leader of International Alert (IA) – an organisation that works around the world helping to bring peace and prevent conflicts spreading.
Her dual reasons for being in Marlborough were apt enough. She was able to congratulate Marlborough for becoming – just a few days earlier – a Fairtrade town. And her new job and the title of her lecture – ‘To bomb or not to bomb?’: That is the wrong question – was all too apt as the Syrian conflict and its results continue to defy the international community.
Oh, and Harriet Lamb could not resist an invitation to Marlborough because it was the scene of her first ever kiss.
She was introduced to a packed Town Hall by Lord Joffe – who was a founding trustee of IA. He described her as a ‘fighter’ for the under-privileged and war-torn people of our world.
Harriet Lamb told the audience that the three big issues – Poverty, Climate Change and Conflict – still dominate her life, but now there is greater emphasis on the tragedy of war and particularly when powerful countries become involved and too quickly resort to bombing with resulting radicalisation.
But in a time of war, peace building must continue and this must be at the level of local populations as well as in lobbying governments.
IA operates directly in Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Nepal, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which she is now visiting) and the Philippines. Indeed anywhere where conflict and violence dominate and humanitarian crises follow.
At present nowhere dominates their activity more than Syria both in peace initiatives and in refugees’ needs. Harriet Lamb told the audience how IA works with teachers both in Syria and in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan. This is humanitarian work that aims to prevent the cycle of violence carrying on into further generations.
She excelled at taking the audience from specific examples and individual stories to the bigger picture.
In a lengthy question session, she explained how IA is funded and was complimentary about the UK’s contribution particularly as IA is not as well known here as in other areas of the world. Although she did express frustration when funding for a programme – she cited one funded by the Foreign Office – stops almost as soon as it is achieving its first results.
The European Union, Sweden (a main funder), the Netherlands and Ireland all contribute the money that make IA’s work possible.
She spoke about the need to find work for Syrian refugees in the camps – and how IA was lobbying governments to lift their prohibition on refugees being allowed to work.
She was asked about the media’s negative attitude to refugees and the unfortunate perception given that refugee = terrorist. Ms Lamb felt that increased awareness of good things actually happening needed to be reported: “Get the good stories out there.”
She was asked whether IA believes in talking to terrorists. Ms Lamb was in favour of serious discussions citing the success in Northern Ireland and the hopefully imminent success of talks in Colombia – a devastating civil war which has been going on since the early 1960s.
Harriet Lamb explained how, after a period following World War Two of more peace than war, war was winning again. IA’s role is redolent of John Lennon singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ – while facing a significant and deadly military tsunami.
Nevertheless there needs to be peace advocacy and it has to be on the ground – and that is precisely where IA operates. Respected and listened to there is no independent organisation better placed.
The audience at the Marlborough Lent Lecture certainly applauded her and her organisation’s work – even as it has to advance, as she said, with the speed of the snail.