Walking into knowledge

Until this weekend, I didn’t know of Rory Stewart. Now that I do, I am not sure whether to admire him or not. His political alignment and social background are poles apart from mine. His lifetime of achievement (at the tender age of 37) makes me jealous. But I love the way he works.

Mellor ChurchStewart is, at the time of writing, Conservative prospective Parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border. However, at least one commentator believes that he has a more significant political future ahead of him.

You heard it here first – Rory Stewart will become prime minister of Great Britain.

I think this is a long shot. However, Stewart’s record so far  suggests that it is not impossible.

After a privileged upbringing (Dragon School, Eton and Balliol), he served briefly as an officer in the Black Watch, joined the Foreign Office, and in 2003 was appointed Deputy Governor of an Iraqi province by the Coalition Provisional Authority. By the age of 31, he had been appointed OBE for his work in Iraq. In 2004, he became a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2006 he was appointed by Prince Charles to run the Turquoise Mountain Foundation — an organisation working on the regeneration of an area of the Afghan capital Kabul. Most recently, he was appointed Ryan Family Professor of the Practice of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

So far Rory Stewart looks like a typical member of the new Establishment. But buried in this list of achievements is a rather unusual preference for personal learning. Rory Stewart walks. Between 2000 and 2002 he walked a total of 6000 miles through Iran, Pakistan, India and into Nepal, and then back across Afghanistan. In the process he emulated his boyhood hero, T.E. Lawrence, living with and learning from the people whose land he traversed. As a consequence, he has a view of our involvement in Afghanistan that is somewhat at odds with the political establishment. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Stewart suggests that President Obama needs to reduce rather than increase troop numbers.

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

He made a similar argument in the London Review of Books.

After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

Stewart’s perspective, which does not fit any simplistic model — whether pro or anti involvement in Afghanistan, is not the kind that arises from traditional learning processes. As such, it feels more like the kind of sensemaking approach suggested by the Cynefin framework as a response to complex scenarios. He is using a similar approach to find out more about the constituency he will seek to represent in the next Parliament. Walking around the largest and most sparsely populated constituency in England is, for him, the best way to make sense of what is going on.

Walking has given me more than I hoped: living in Cumbrian homes and experiencing the great distances between communities. It allows me to learn from a hundred people I might never have encountered by car. But it has not provided neat solutions. It is easy to see they should have listened to the gritter driver about his truck — but I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district. This is not just about an individual’s decisions, it is about budget lines and regulation insurance and a whole way of looking at the world. I realise that to change government needs not just cutting regulations or giving parishes control of money, but also shifting an entire public culture over decades.

It will be interesting to see how well this works for Rory Stewart, and whether it really makes him fit for high office. There is a real possibility that his very different approach to knowledge and learning might make it hard for him to be accepted within the traditional systems of British government and politics.

Whatever comes to pass for Rory Stewart, I think there is a wider point for knowledge and learning within organisations. Getting out into the organisational community and listening to people’s stories, worries, concerns, interests, views is likely to have more of an impact than reading case-studies, theories, position papers or the like. I read something else today that makes a similar point. That’s another blog post.

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