Rory Stewart Reflects on His Career and on His Priorities as Carr Center Director

Longtime human rights activist grants interview to The Citizen

March 11, 2009
by Mallika Kaur Sarkaria, The Citizen

The full version of this interview originally appeared in The Citizen, the student newspaper of Harvard Kennedy School, on March 11, 2009

Rory Stewart is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Practice and the newest director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The founder and chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the regeneration of Kabul, Afghanistan, Stewart has served in the British Army and the British Diplomatic Service. He also covered 6,000 miles on foot across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal and wrote about his experience in his critically acclaimed book, "The Places in Between."

Q: What is it like being back at the Carr Center – from Carr Center fellow to director?

A: I think what has been exciting for me, having spent the last three years working at a more grassroots level in Afghanistan, is to return to an environment where it’s possible to have more sustained conversations about policy. It has always struck me that there is a surreal gap between the rhetoric of international intervention in places like the Balkans, or Afghanistan, and the reality on the ground. And I’ve been looking for an opportunity to be able to think more seriously about human rights in the context of intervention. So it’s really a chance to move from an active position of management…to step back and think.

Q: Did your international childhood spark your interest in joining the British Foreign Service?

A: I’ve always felt very comfortable living particularly in Asia. I was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Malaysia, and had my first posting in the Foreign Services in Indonesia. Now the comfort is partly because I speak Indonesian and Bahasa Melayu, but also I think because I find it’s an incredibly warm, generous culture.

Q: Do you recommend public service to students interested in human rights?

A: I guess when I was younger I would have had a very clear answer to that question. I was very romantic about working for the government. I began as a soldier. I became a diplomat. I think now I am more aware that you can be useful and achieve personal satisfaction in a very wide range of ways, including the private sector. I think the key question is where you feel you can be of most use. Public service is still a unique opportunity to receive extraordinary responsibility at quite a young age. When I was working in Iraq for the government I had a personal budget of $10 million a month, to spend at my discretion, delivered in vacuum-sealed packets. There is nowhere in the private sector that you would have that kind of financial flexibility. But I feel I may have been more useful, ironically, working for a non-profit for the last three years, where my budget was a fraction of that.

Q: The nonprofit you founded, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, aims at the “regeneration of Kabul.” Can you tell us what that means?

A: We began three years ago. Our idea was that we could regenerate the area through a combination of creating a center for traditional arts, where we bring crafts people together and market their products to generate income, and actual physical rehabilitation and community services. In practice, this has meant that in the last year we have cleared over 15,000 trucks of garbage; set up clinics, primary schools, and women’s community centers; trained women and men in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, and jewelry; and repaired 60 buildings, provided drainage, sewage. In all this work, we are trying to make the center of this amazing, historic city a place of which Afghans can feel proud, and from which the community can benefit. What we’d like to see in 20 to 30 years is a beautiful, historic area, vibrant traditional crafts, and a prosperous community able to exercise their fundamental human rights.

Q: Are you still involved with your foundation? Will you be traveling a lot to the Middle East?

A: I’m the executive chair of the foundation. And yes, I was in Baghdad last week, in Kabul last month. And I will be in Kabul again in three weeks time…for Spring Break!

Q: The walk from Afghanistan into the South Asian sub-continent became the subject of your first book. What was that experience like?

A: It was a very strange experience. In the end, I walked 6,000 miles and stayed in 500 different village houses. The thing that was most important to me really was not the 500 days of walking but the 500 nights in those houses. In that time, I was able to see how very different communities – Sunni Turks in Northwestern Iran, Christians in the Punjab, Buddhists in Kathmandu, Hazara Shi’a in central Afghanistan – were able to make sense of their lives and governments and international policy. It gave me a confidence in engaging with the international policy community that I would have never found simply as a diplomat.

Q: You’ve written many articles and two books on the Middle East. How do you think the new Obama administration will approach the region and its issues? Can the policies be made right at this stage?

A: Fundamentally, the question for the new administration is what they think they are doing in Afghanistan. Have they really changed their foreign policy, or are the underlying structural assumptions not very different from those of the Bush administration? Will they be able to develop a policy that is sufficiently nuanced and attentive to Afghan realities? How will they be able to produce policy that is convincing to Afghans and still be marketable to US voters?

Q: What issues do you hope to focus on at the Carr Center?

A: I suppose four sets of issues seem most important at the moment. One is human trafficking and migration from the horrors of sex trafficking to the protection gap that affects Afghans and Iraqi refugees in the ‘jungle’ of Calais. The second priority is a more theoretical analysis of human rights, whether from the philosophical perspective of Mathias Risse or through our measurement program. The third is the interface between the military, human rights, and the threat of genocide, which is studied by Sarah Sewall’s team. Our newest program is focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, reflecting one of the key priorities of the Obama administration and one of the most difficult challenges in contemporary foreign policy. This will be the first of a series of regional programs, focused on hard cases.

Q: How do you hope to increase HKS student involvement with the Carr Center?

A: What one needs to do is to make clear what you are doing, open up the doors, and crowd them in! And you can do that in a range of ways. I’m very keen to do more and more student-focused events. Very keen to have students working with our faculty and fellows. Very keen to use our case studies as a way of involving students. The dream of this center is to make students from the Kennedy School more effective and sophisticated in their use of human rights policy, to develop more nuanced, informed responses than we have seen to date. The delight of directing a center lies in the potential to get away from solitary scholarship and create an opportunity for practitioners to argue with and learn from academics. I would like our fellows to work in groups, conducting intense policy debates over months, responding to the best theories and ideas of professors and students in order to produce more thoughtful policy that can transform our approach to international human rights. That process should be driven by and directed towards Kennedy School students.

Photograph of Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart, director of the Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

"It has always struck me that there is a surreal gap between the rhetoric of international intervention in places like the Balkans, or Afghanistan, and the reality on the ground. And I’ve been looking for an opportunity to be able to think more seriously about human rights in the context of intervention." -- Rory Stewart