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As a veterinarian by trade, my recent deployment on a United Nations (UN) operation in a non-clinical linguist and liaison role was eye-opening. It was not just the lack of veterinary capacity that struck me, but a broader lack of perspective and diversity, and a continued inability for organisations (including the British Armed Forces) to look to the longer term. I was exposed to the depths of UN policy and process, as well as different areas and fields of work, including both military and civilian components. As a professional deployed in a non-clinical role, I recognised that I was a bit of an outlier. This article draws on this unique perspective to argue the necessity of sustainable development and cognitive diversity to enhance operational effectiveness. Diverse perspectives and experiences are key to unlocking operational problems and provide invaluable relationship-building opportunities.
Early on in my deployment, I was struck by the lack of clarity on the long-term objectives of the United Nations in-country. There seemed to be no clear direction or, perhaps more pertinently, no defined end-state. Success was measured by short-term specific achievements, such as the effective movement of a logistic convoy, or media-monopolising events like parades and conferences. These could easily be catapulted into Western media but seemed to hold more focus than achieving serious objectives. And this filtered down to the level of troop-contributing contingents. Despite working closely with the UK Senior National Representative, it was still unclear what the ultimate purpose of UK troops was in-country, and what real long term benefit the presence brought to local nationals. Yes, a level of stability is a necessity for any form of development, but in order for development to be effective it must be sustainable from the offset.
For example, take a country with a high prevalence of malaria in children. One option may be to provide the local healthcare system with thousands of mosquito nets to distribute to areas in need. Simple, initially effective, easy to get good backing from sponsors and may result in a swift statistical reduction in the number of malaria cases in children in the region. But what happens over time, once the project has ended, as those mosquito nets degrade? A second option could be not to provide the mosquito nets themselves, but to support the development of the infrastructure for the region to build its own mosquito net factory. Provide financial assistance for the initial set up and business support, employ local nationals, and thereby create a long-term solution. That’s sustainable development. Ultimately, this is the level of foresight I expected from the UN, but those expectations were not met.
A Different Outlook
As a veterinary surgeon, it is unsurprising that I took great interest in everything animal and medical-related. Given the nature of the communities that militaries work with and their reliance on animals, I was very surprised to discover that there was no veterinary component to the UN. In fact, what I saw to be absolutely critical to the livelihoods of many regions in which deployments take place, was barely even considered. Despite structures in the civilian components that could easily be expanded to provide basic veterinary support; or military contingents that already held working animals such as dogs within their ranks (and therefore the clinical and practical expertise to support them), it just didn’t exist. There appeared to be no such consideration for what I saw as gold dust for relationship building, let alone the health and welfare benefits that reach beyond the individual animals and wider animal groups, but to the people who raise and manage them, live off their produce, and share an environment with them.
A discussion with a senior UN individual, however, suggested there was even more to it. They referred to a situation on a previous deployment of theirs, involving an incident that incurred damage to a woodblock. No civilians, infrastructure or even animals were harmed during the incident, therefore the Western view was that it was a success – no collateral damage. Or so they thought. Subsequently, the locals were outraged following the incident as the woodblock comprised of a vast number of large fruit trees, some 40 or 50 years old. What the Western view could not appreciate in this instance was their importance, or the priorities of the local population. The Westerners just could not comprehend the value of such trees, and that their worth may be placed above buildings, animals, perhaps even people, by the local community who relied on their produce. They did not consult them, they could not view the situation from any angle other than their own point of view, therefore the reputational damage was irrevocable. Put simply; children grow quickly, but fruit trees do not.
As we discussed this further, the senior officer highlighted that my differing perspective was not solely due to my veterinary qualification, but my background in general. He pointed out that I was from a farming family, I had grown up in the countryside. Naturally, I had a greater understanding of the importance of agriculture, farming, animals, and therefore the challenges faced. And whilst these challenges are entirely different in wet, lush England versus arid, sandy plains – it was still easier for me to understand the difficulties than someone who had grown up in the hustle and bustle of Western suburbia, having never seen a cow in their life. And yes, he continued, the militaries were full of these people. In his words, decisions were made about agricultural conundrums by individuals grown from urban backgrounds, without delving into the diverse expertise that is available if you look for it.
Highlighted here was in fact a practical example as to why diversity within a workforce is absolutely critical. And it’s not about stats. It’s not about the number of women within teeth arm roles, the percentage of multicultural soldiers across the Army, or the number of LGBTQ+ officers in senior leadership positions. It’s broader than that. It is about different backgrounds, mindsets, outlooks. Different ways of tackling problems, the ability to appreciate different cultures and understand, really understand, differing perspectives. It’s about cognitive diversity.
The incident that the senior UN official discussed may or may not have been avoidable had there been different outlooks in play. If there had been an environmentalist, or an agricultural expert, or just an ordinary soldier with an interest in fruit trees or a background in farming; different courses of action would have been brought to the table. Providing said individuals with the opportunity to offer their thoughts, learn from the locals and share their knowledge, may have led to a different result. Working in diverse teams can be more challenging than working with those who think and act the same way, but it allows more ideas to surface and more factors to be considered.
It is of course not always an option to add a multitude of opinions and perspectives to a problem, or spend vast amounts of time deliberating the pros and cons. Sometimes decisions are required quickly, with one sole voice at play, and sometimes small teams are required, reducing the variety of experiences at hand. It is also not to say that fruit trees are more important than the lives of children, but that we really must get better at taking other perspectives into consideration. A mere fruit tree to one person, is a livelihood (food and income) to another.
Taking these perspectives into consideration is critical for the development of longer-term, strategic plans, to pave the way for sustainable development. Many forces have historically been unsuccessful on many occasions at failing to look long term, highlighted recently with the aftermath of the redeployment from Afghanistan. My experience of working with the UN on a mission with an uncertain future proved to be another example of no clear future direction, no long-term planning, no exit strategy, and no diversity of thought. Truly understanding the environment, the perspectives, and priorities within it, helps shape and action effective longer-term plans. This should be broad, with input from diverse perspectives throughout to maximise achievement.
Broadly, we need to truly understand the environment we are working in and encourage differing perspectives from start to finish. This range of perspectives will come from a diversity that is of backgrounds and experiences, not just characteristics and stats. We need detailed consideration of the long-term picture, with a focus on sustainable development that will most benefit local populations, not just please external media. And a specific example of a significant missed opportunity – where are the vets?
Feature image credit: MOD
Meg is a mixed practice veterinary surgeon with a keen interest in One Health initiatives and emergency work. She has 8 years experience in the Army Reserve including a recent United Nations deployment, and is currently Second in Command of a Light Cavalry Squadron.