Scholar Spotlight: Hamish Falconer
The following interview is part of a series of the European Studies Council’s Spotlight of Scholars in European, Russian or Eurasian Studies.
Hamish Falconer is a member of Britain’s diplomatic service. He has led the Foreign Office’s Terrorism Response Team, UK efforts to start a peace process in Afghanistan and served in Pakistan and South Sudan. He has worked for the UK’s Department for International Development and National Crime Agency on humanitarian response, state building, and human trafficking investigations. Before joining government service, Mr. Falconer was a campaigner and activist. He studied at Cambridge University and Birkbeck University. He runs access events to the Foreign Office for teenagers from inner-city London schools.
Following his tenure as a Fall 2020 World Fellow, Mr. Falconer will remain at Yale through February 2021 as a European Studies Council Visiting Fellow.
What led you to apply to the World Fellows program?
The program is exceptional—an opportunity to be with an inspiring group of people from across the world committed to making it better. I hoped I could contribute a perspective from my time in British foreign service to those debates.
Could you tell us a little about what your current work involves? What would you say is your favorite aspect?
I have been a British diplomat, aid worker, and law enforcement official, and served across the world in Pakistan, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. It has been a privilege; I have loved the adventure and exploration, and being, at times, the person able to direct Britain’s strengths to helping people who are very vulnerable or to act to prevent wrongdoing. Diplomacy can sometimes feel like it doesn’t have much traction - long debates in airless rooms, with bored looking colleagues. But when it works, the rewards are terrific.
You have worked on difficult issues, including human trafficking and terrorism, and in very challenging environments. What has been the most challenging part of your career? How do you remain motivated?
I was very affected by the suffering I saw in Pakistan after the floods, in South Sudan, and Afghanistan. I often felt like a helpless bystander to misery. But I also felt like I had to find ways to make a difference, to use the strength of the office to create some space for hope, to help in some way, even if small - and that always felt hard, but never impossible.
What were your main takeaways from your field work experience in Pakistan and South Sudan?
That politics can trump everything, and if you think what you are doing is just “technical” and apolitical, you don’t adequately understand the place in which you are operating. And that it is only when you feel you have a good understanding of the particular characteristics of a place that you can even start to think about how general theories might apply there.
We understand you are active in working with teenagers from inner-city London Schools. How and why did you become involved with this? How do you balance the responsibilities of these activities with those of your full-time occupation?
I am very lucky: all I do is get students who wouldn’t normally come into an old traditional institution like the Foreign Office through the door and get them talking to diplomats. It’s a really powerful experience for me and my colleagues, a reminder of who we are there to serve and what our country’s future looks like. It always reminds me how unlike the rest of the country the inside of a big institution is, and how important it is to stay engaged not just with other nations and diplomats, but also with our fellow Brits. For the students, I think it is very useful for them to be exposed to an institution which is important, and which they often would have never thought of before. I’m always delighted when students visit and think that they would like to work there.
Coming back briefly to Yale. What has your experience been like with the ESC and/or Jackson Institute, and have you been enjoying your time at Yale? What specifically have you been up to in terms of programming?
I’ve had a terrific time with the World Fellows, with Jackson, and the ESC. I have been really pleased to be able to publish on the Afghanistan peace process, and work with colleagues on Britain’s grand strategy post-Brexit, and been hosted by ESC for a great event on the topic. I intend to continue working in particular on the UK’s industrial strategy options after Brexit, and what our foreign policy might look like in a changing world.
Is there anything that took you by surprise about the academic environment here?
Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by how open Yale is to practitioners like me being welcomed into the academic environment and invited to contribute. I’ve been delighted to be offered a Visiting Fellowship by the ESC and look forward to making a contribution to ESC’s important work as well as to the wider university over the next semester. I’ll need to buy a scarf and gloves.