Andrew Gurr, immediate past governor of St Helena, has been sharing his insights from his recent four-year stint behind the big desk in The Castle in Jamestown. See part one of his talk to the Friends of St Helena here. In part two, below, he talks about attitudes to expats, experts, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and about his favourite adviser.
On Eddie Palmer of DFID
Probably the most valuable meeting of the week is the tele conference with London. That is a weekly hook-up for the governor and Eddie and Ernie. Ernie was the head of my governor’s office, a Foreign Office employee, and Eddie was the DFID representative on the island.
Eddie was my favourite adviser for all sorts of reasons (at this point, Mr Gurr broke off to general laughter and said to his wife in the audience: “Well, Jean, you are my favourite adviser, I hasten to add.”).
Eddie filled a big gap because DFID provided the money and Eddie understanding what was going on and influencing what was going on and being consulted on decisions was absolutely essential.
The need for a man in that role, or a woman, who is a shrewd political operator and understands the culture, is absolutely paramount. It will be a sad day for the island when Eddie finishes his long term, probably later this year.
So we had the three of us sitting round the phone on the island, and back in London you had both the Foreign Office and DFID people responsible, probably three or four of them.
When DfID was just across the park that was easy. they did it by week, one walked to one office and the other walked to the other one. Now the DFID overseas territory bit is right up in Scotland and they can’t do that and you have a very difficult three-way telephone link that doesn’t always work.
That was a vital weekly communication that I found extremely useful.
On FCO types
I was fortunate, I think, not to be an FCO person, for all sorts of reasons. I was recruited from outside. I was told no other governor had been recruited anywhere in that way. They had been appointed from outside but not through open competitive recruitment.
One finds with people who are in an organisation a long time, their loyalty is primarily to that organisation. I was able, I hope, to be loyal to the island every bit as much as I wouldbe loyal to my employer. Spanning that divide is quite important.
There is a conflict of interest, I think one has to admit it, between HMG [the UK government] and the island. The conflict is that HMG’s job is to fulfil international obligations at a minimal cost to the UK government, whereas the island wants to improve quality of life and maintain its culture, and those two things are not totally compatible. And all the time, the governor is spanning that conflict.
On FCO versus DFID
The other conflict is FCO and DFID. They are different types of people.
Generally speaking you join the Foreign Office because you want to see the world. If you speak to youngsters who are lining up in corridors for interview, that is generally what they want to do.
People join DFID because they want to help alleviate starvation in Africa. You get a different motivation in the staff. It’s a general rule and it doesn’t apply to everybody, but as a generality I think it’s a fair comment.
That translates itself into, let’s say, the talkers and the doers – you can see the difference – or the compromisers and the decision makers.
In my first year I was really taken aback by the fact that I was asked do my objectives. So I did my objectives and handed them in.
I think the Foreign Office were the first to send me a request for objectives. I sent the same set of objectives to DFID.
They said, ‘You can’t send us this, these are your Foreign Office objectives. I said ‘Yes, but I’m not going to change my objectives.’ And they said, ‘Never mind that, you have to do them in our format, in our way with our back-up papers.’
“This is ridiculous. Nobody should have two sets of objectives. That kind of thing does create a problem.”
There was quite a problem with the bank. Nobody owned the bank. When we came to look at the details of the bank and how we were going to run it, there were no shares that anybody owned. As a legal entity it has no ownership and the default is the government because the government would be lender of last resort.
We had to set up a structure whereby there was a proper form of ownership. It cleared up all sorts of problems which needn’t have existed.
Another problem is the Saints versus the expats. Or translated in the Falklands, the Falkland Islander against expats. The view of an expat from your average Saint of Falkland Islander is the three Ms: missionaries, mercenarys and misfits. I have to admit there’s something in that.
With all the conflicts you come across, this island against expert knowledge is always going to be there. Sometimes the islander is right and sometimes the expat is right, and it’s awfully difficult to make a judgment on that.
There is a wary envy of the expat. It’s entirely understandable.
Consultants and experts: you can get brilliant ones, and many of them are brilliant and you can get one not so brilliant. It’s quite wrong of Saints to criticise all of them, which does happen, and it’s equally wrong to praise all of them. It has to be looked at against what they deliver.
There’s also a problem with the single consultant, because DFID has experts in each area – education, health, public works. One expert. So one expert comes to the island and writes a report that becomes DFID’s policy; that becomes absolutely the bible as far as DFID is concerned.
Imagine getting one economist to advise you on what’s happening to the Eurozone. Very often problems are like that. And that one expert can be wrong.
I would rather get people disagreeing in a room before one has to make a decision, rather than a single person giving a view. I think that is a big weakness of the present system.
On experts with doctorates
[Experts with doctorates – PhDs] are the most difficult people on Earth of work with.
We didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t know what they did know, so they assumed other people knew what they knew and they couldn’t relate. Whereas the problem with islanders was that they didn’t know what they didn’t know, so they thought what they knew was what needed to be known, but there was other knowledge out there that didn’t need to be known. It was the reverse with the PhDs.
On the environment
Another area of tension is environment against development. How are you going to balance the genuine economic growth that is needed, against the wirebird, and against other invertebrates and goodness-knows-what that might be threatened?
I have been out there on Prosperous Bay Plain, in fact I was out there with the head of the Overseas Territories Department in the FCO when he visited, looking at the spiders in the dark and seeing this amazing display as their eyes light up as you shine a torch on them.
It’s fantastic and I wouldn’t want that to be damaged for anything, but compared with £20 million plus every year going out of the UK’s pocket to finance the island that’s got no chance of development without an airport, it’s got to be a no-contest.
This business of environment against development really does need a fair balance and a lot of work has been done by Shelco [the promoter of Wirebird Hills eco resort] on that.
On Shelco and the airport
During my time we made some important changes. The change process started. The fight for the airport; a very long, hard fight. Many of you [the Friends of St Helena] played a vital role in that here, and it was very important because the fight really was here for a long time.
Keeping Shelco interested: now they are interested, but there were several times when they nearly lost interest and one had to really cajole them to come back on board with their significant interest.
Part 3 of Andrew Gurrs thoughts on St Helena will appear on this website on Sunday 10 June 2012