St Helena Online

Tag: Andrew Gurr

2013 election: why women aren’t climbing the greasy poll

There may be only four female candidates in the 2013 St Helena general election – taking up a mere fifth of the ballot paper – but that’s not to say that women are without influence on the island.

In a talk to the Friends of St Helena in 2012, former governor Andrew Gurr said:  

“I looked round my advisers and nearly all of them were female, and it really says a great deal about the island and the ability of the ladies to get through the work. They are very competent.

“The men aren’t as competent generally. I hate to say it. I wish they were.”

Maybe the women have worked out that they wield more power in behind-the-scenes roles, rather than as politicians.

That would tie in with another of Mr Gurr’s observations.

“The councillors, although they had democratic power, were more reticent to wield it,” he said. “They had no control of real happenings; not in total, anyway. There was a big area of the civil service over which they had very little influence indeed.”

We were not told who staffed that big area. Could they have been women, perhaps?

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
St Helena election stories

Who ‘disarmed’ the Boer War bomb in the tower?

In his column in the St Helena Independent, Julian Cairns-Wicks recalled the saga of the unexploded bomb that was discovered in the old round tower on Ladder Hill. But what happened to it? Here’s the down-to-earth answer, as told to the Friends of St Helena by former governor ANDREW GURR.  

The unexploded bomb – now there’s a good story.

We learned about it as the RMS St Helena was a day out of Ascension, and I was also told there was a bomb expert on Ascension who could put it right. So after a lot of haggling, we turned the ship round and we went back to Ascension.

We then had haggling with goodness knows how many people in the UK as to whether this lady could get on the ship, and at midnight, after we had been negotiating all evening, she got on board and we took her back to St Helena.

And the story has a wonderful end, because she said it was an air-burst cluster bomb from the Boer War and she couldn’t dismantle it because she didn’t know how to, but she suggested we roped off the area and didn’t go near it, and sooner or later somebody might come.

So she went back.

I rang up the Ministry of Defence and said, could someone come and take it away? They said, “It’s not our bomb.”

I said, “Of course it’s your bomb: you fought in the Boer War, didn’t you? It’s a British bomb. Come and take it away.”

And they wouldn’t.

Only last year (2011), I noticed the area wasn’t roped off. I said, “What’s happened to that?”

I was told: “Oh, a fireman picked it up, went down the Ladder, and threw it in the sea.”

St Helena Online asks: who was the no-nonsense fireman who carried the 110-year-old on the long walk down Jacob’s Ladder, thus saving taxpayers a bill for a couple of thousand pounds or more? If you know, click on the “Contact” tab at the top of this website or tell Mike at the St Helena Independent. 

Listen online: what slave graves mean for St Helena

Photo montage showing map extract, drawing of slave camp, and surviving slaves, overlaid with excavation earth
The liberated African depot, and survivors who stayed on the island. Montage by Simon Pipe

If you missed Saint FM’s broacasts on the excavation of 300 human skeletons on St Helena, don’t worry: the programmes are still available as two podcasts on St Helena Online. 

The discoveries in Rupert’s Valley in 2008 brought new insight into the horrors aboard slave-running “pirate” ships in the 19th Century.

An archaeologist works on one of only five coffin burials found

The skeletons were those of Africans who were liberated on St Helena when captured slave vessels were brought to the island. Over more than two decades, 26,000 people arrived, many dead or dying. It is thought 5,000 were buried in the desolation of Rupert’s Valley.

Some 500 of the survivors stayed on the island, but lived apart, speaking their own languages. Traces of them vanish in the records.

The lead archaeologist, Dr Andy Pearson – who is returning to the island to catalogue its archives – says he has spoken to older St Helenians whose grandparents were alive at the time of the slave liberations, and who remember the tales they told. “We are within historical touching distance,” he says in the second podcast.

The first podcast, Human Traffic, the story behind the discoveries, and the effects on the team of “coming face to face with victims of slavery.”

The second, Saints and Slaves, examines what the finds mean for the island and its people. As former governor Andrew Gurr says, the history of slavery remains an international story, “and St Helena is right at the heart of it.”

They are based on interviews recorded by former BBC journalist Simon Pipe, editor of St Helena Online. They feature Pamela Ward Pearce and Colin Fox of the Friends of St Helena, as well as members of the archaeology team.

Read more here.

Click here to listen live to Saint FM.

PODCASTS: Hear the story of St Helena’s anti-slavery fight

Teeth with grooves cut into them, in an exhumed skull from St Helena's slave burial grounds
Archaeologists on St Helena found skulls with grooves cut into the teeth – evidence of African tribal ritual

When a Lieutenant Wilcox declared that his men were too exhausted to haul the dead out to sea any more, it brought home the horror of St Helena’s role in ending the “depravity” of the slave trade.

The Lieutenant’s complaint is recalled in one of two audio podcasts produced for St Helena Online. They describe the island’s harrowing years as a liberation base for Africans found aboard captured slave-running ships.

The first details the excavation of more than 300 skeletons from barren Rupert’s Valley, just a few hundred yards from the colonial elegance of Jamestown. The archaeologists tell of their emotions on coming face to face with victims of a barbaric trade. As one said: “It was a moment of intense grief. Those were people. That was someone.”

Graphic: sound wave overlaid on image of archaeologists at workLISTEN: Human Cattle – Victims of the South Atlantic Slave Runners
Presenter: Simon Pipe  Duration: 14.51 minutes

The second podcast, Saints and Slaves, explores what the finds mean for the island and for its people, who were confronted with a stark reminder of their own slave heritage.

Graphic: soundwave overlaid on image of graveyard map from book coverLISTEN: Saints and Slaves
Duration: 14.23 minutes

As lead archaeologist Dr Andy Pearson explains in the recording, the African burial grounds lay in the path of a new road needed for airport construction traffic. The archaeologists’ job was to carry out the “sensitive exhumation” of any remains that might lie in its path.

They will be reinterred and given a memorial when the disruption is over – “not imminently,” he says. The airport is not due to be finished until 2016.

The St Helena finds are described in a book

The finds have been momentous for historians, writes Dr Pearson in an article on his own website.

“Over 11 million people were transported across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, but Rupert’s Valley contains one of the few (and perhaps the only) graveyard of Africans rescued directly from the slave ships. Although remote in geographical terms, this small valley is therefore of immense cultural and heritage significance.”

Dr Pearson and his colleague have described their discoveries in a book, called Infernal Traffic: Excavation of a Liberated African Graveyard in Rupert’s Valley, St Helena.

It shares new insights into the history of the island, as well as telling the story of the long struggle to put down the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Information from long-forgotten archives brings to light the scale of the ordeal for both the Africans and those who tried to care for them.

St Helena was ill-equipped to cope with the 26,000 who arrived, many dead or dying, between 1840 and 1863. Smallpox and dysentery were rife.

The first camp was in Lemon Valley, with a ship anchored just off shore to quarantine the most sick.

On Christmas Eve, 1840, Dr George McHenry wrote of Lieutenant Wilcox’s refusal to allow his exhausted men to carry on their grim task of hauling the dead out to sea:

“…in consequence of which we will be obliged for the future to sink close to the vessel the bodies of such as may die. As the vessel is not very distant from the beach, the probability is that the bodies will be driven ashore and what the result may be I leave yourselves to judge…”

As a result, a new camp was established in arid Rupert’s Valley, just over the hill from the elegance of Jamestown. Over the next two decades and more, liberated Africans continued to arrive without warning, sometimes hundreds at a time. They were housed in inadequate tents made of sails from captured ships, which were usually broken up.

Andrew Gurr, who was governor of the island during the excavation, reflects on the story – “almost too painful and solemn” – in a foreword to the book:

“Awareness of what lay beneath the surface of Rupert’s Valley was sketchy to say the least, and in many ways it had been ignored.

“And yet the surprises unearthed by Dr Pearson and his team shout to us down the ages not only of the incredible cruelty of the slave trade, of the immense mountain of human suffering, but also of the absolutely pivotal role that St Helena played in helping to alleviate and eradicate such inhumanity.

“The sheer scale of the graveyards is both revealing and disturbing: standing by the excavated graves, it was not hard to imagine that this barren, steep-sided valley once contained a human conveyor belt that channelled relief and horror at the same time.”

AUDIO SLIDESHOW: ‘My intense grief for St Helena slaves’ (warning: includes images of skeletons)
Slavery role should boost World Heritage case, says expert

Infernal Traffic – book
Pearson Archaeology: St Helena

Boris tries airport seduction, as BBC zips him off to St Helena

Close up of Boris
The mane is blonde: Boris should follow St Helena’s lead, says the BBC’s man. Picture: Watchlooksee/fotopedia

Andrew Gurr may have missed a trick when he was fighting to revive St Helena’s airport project, after it was stalled during his governorship of the island.

Apparently, the thing to do is to hug the British prime minister, nuzzle up close, and whisper the word “airport”. A husky voice might help.

This has emerged after London’s bid for a new airport was “paused” until after the next general election – a situation that may seem familiar on St Helena.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is even less happy about it than he was when he got stuck on a zipwire during the Olympics, judging by a quote in The Guardian.

“The government needs to stop pussyfooting around,” he says, eschewing the more diplomatic approach taken by the St Helena lobby. “The attempt to try and long-grass it for three years, into the other side of the election, is just not realistic. Totally mad and it won’t work.”

A picture in the paper shows him being hugged by Mr Cameron during the recent sporting euphoria, with the caption: “Johnson revealed that when Cameron grabbed him in a hug during an Olympics event, he whispered ‘airport’ into the prime minister’s ear.”

Andrew Gurr himself is more cautious about comparisons. That’s obviously not because he’d have had to hug Gordon Brown, who was prime minister at the time.

“My view is that major capital investment takes an enormous about of political courage in a democracy,” he says. “It is easier for Boris to show such courage as he hasn’t got to make the ultimate decision.”

He also says: “I am not sure that it is all that helpful to see any link between London and St.Helena!”

Maybe so – but the presenter of the BBC’s flagship Today programme couldn’t resist doing so, after listening to an interview on the St Helena project with Julian Morris, the chief pilot for the island’s economic take-off plan.

The questioning by business reporter Simon Jack briskly covered all the key points – the airport might end reliance on British aid, and no, St Helena won’t become an offshore tax haven – but there was nothing new in it for island-watchers.

At the end of it, presenter Jim Naughtie said: “You see, we are building airports and infrastructure spending – it’s just in a dot in the middle of the South Atlantic.”

Simon Jack’s response: “Send Boris out to investigate.”

With St Helena’s own airport not yet built on Prosperity Plain, Boris may need a longer zipwire.

Napoleon misses the plane as runway boost delays opening
Adapt or fail, says economy boss who finds business ‘too hard’

BBC iPlayer: Today programme, 16 August 2012 (UK users only: Julian Morris’s interview is available on the Listen Again feature until Wednesday 22 August, approximately 10 minutes from the end of the programme)

In pictures: life at Plantation House, by Andrew Gurr

Andrew Gurr took thousands of pictures of St Helena during four years as governor. He showed some of them when he addressed the Friends of St Helena, and agreed to share them with readers of this website. This first selection gives a flavour of life at his official residence, Plantation House. 

The governor’s office (actually in The Castle) is large: the same size as the council chamber, just across the landing. A portrait of The Queen keeps watch on her official representative on the island.

“One of the great privileges of being governor is the entertaining,” says Andrew. At Christmas, the table is set to suit the grandeur of the 18th Century mansion. Plantation House was built in 1792.

“We had a dinner for Bobby Robertson and Dulcie on their 60th wedding anniversary,” says Andrew. “Bobby never said a word against me in council after that. It was one of the shrewdest dinners I ever gave.” Bobby was a popular and long-serving councillor who helped many families on St Helena. Shortly before he died, he was awarded the island’s Badge of Honour

“We had a smaller room at the back converted into a dining room  for us. We used to dine at that table, just Jean and myself, with this wonderful Napoleonic chandelier. Napoleon died under part of it. It’s two parts from Longwood House: one part was in his dining room, one in his bedroom.” After Napoleon died, the chandelier was put back together and moved to Plantation House. There had been talk of returning it to Longwood at one time.

Not every aspect of life at Plantation House was glamour and luxury. The kitchen was not impressive: “It was a disgrace, in my view – a health risk”

Andrew had the kitchen stripped out and fitted with modern equipment. “I apologise to one of the cooks bending over there,” he says. “It’s just how it was.”

Councillor Mervyn Yon at a function in the garden at Plantation House. Andrew chose pictures featuring well known personalities on St Helena, but says of the picture: “It’s unfair – he wasn’t always on the booze.”

Ethel Yon is a Saint who rose to become Deputy Chief Secretary of St Helena Government. “Ethel was a very hard worker – a very useful person to have around.”

“We did have a tennis tournament or two at Plantation. We put a few tents up, and people came and had a great time.”

When the St Helena cricket team took part in its first ever overseas tournament in 2012, Dax Richards scored more runs on his own in one match than the whole of the Mali national team. He also cut an impressive figure on the tennis court, for rather different reasons. “Some of the men dress up as females,” says Andrew. No further explanation required.

Sharon Wainwright, taking a break from her arduous role in pushing for St Helena to be given an airport. Her efforts were successful, but she did not live to see the day of the announcement, in November 2011. She died suddenly while in London. “She was a wonderful person. I used to have a weekly chat with her. A very good man manager. She got things done: a priceless individual, sadly missed.”

Visit St Helena Online again for Andrew Gurr’s pictures of the natural wonders of St Helena, due to be published on Wednesday, 8 August 2012.

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2
Civil service versus the can-do culture: a governor’s view
What the nurse said to the governor: Andrew Gurr looks back

What the nurse said to the governor: Andrew Gurr looks back

When Andrew Gurr arrived on St Helena in 2007 as the first governor to be appointed through open competition, he found an island civil service that was financially adrift. It needed to undergo surgery – and so, later on, did Mr Gurr himself. In the fourth and final extract of an address to the Friends of St Helena, he reflects on changes made in his four years living in the governor’s mansion, and on some of the possibilities for the future – including a boarding school for rich South Africans, and even a space station. 

See also parts one, two and three.

On government accounting

During my time we made some important changes. The accounting system was really pretty awful: good, old-fashioned Victorian accounting. Cash accounting – penny in, penny out. No concept of time in the management of money throughout the whole civil service.

And over the last four years we put in accrual accounting.

[St Helena Online note: cash accounting records transactions only when money actually comes in or goes out. But many deals – including DfID funding – involve payments in the future. Accrual accounting includes these future payments (in and out) to give a better picture of finances. It is complex and costly to set up, but is used by nearly all but the smallest businesses].

The Foreign Office said it was not worth doing, but then, they said that in the Falklands but we did it in the Falklands and it undoubtedly was worth doing. It improves your management of funds and it means people begin to develop an awareness of the value of money over time, which is very very significant if you are going to manage it.

On media

We put in place a plan for re-aligning the media. That’s still going on, isn’t it?

The silly situation was we had two media organisations and the government was funding both, and it really wasn’t necessary.

Okay, we weren’t funding the Independent to the same extent we were funding the Herald, but councillors were getting increasingly restless, as indeed DfID was, about the fact that the two papers were so similar – and the two radio stations were so similar.

So that, I think, has been dealt with.

[St Helena Online note: Mike Olsson, who oversees both the St Helena Independent and Saint FM radio station, insists that the newspaper received no subsidy, though some content was directly funded. The St Helena Herald closed in March and was replaced in the same month by the government-funded Sentinel, which – unlike the Herald – was allowed to compete with the privately-owned Independent for advertising. Since Mr Gurr gave his talk, Mike Olsson has applied to run further radio stations in competition with three being set up by the St Helena Broadcasting Corporation, which publishes The Sentinel].

On advisers’ reports

Reports are difficult, because a consultant can come and make recommendations and then we will say to DfID, “Okay, let’s have the money to put this into practice.” “Oh, we haven’t got the money.”

About half of them, I would say, you cannot take forward because you haven’t got the resources to take forward what the consultant might be recommending, or you have to wait to do it.

And as I said when I talked about consultants, some are excellent, some aren’t. The ones who succeed are normally the ones you work with, so they leave behind people who have inculcated what they are saying and carry it forward. We don’t do enough about that: it’s a kind of, “the report is for DfID, not for St Helena” type of attitude.

It’s not a perfect situation, by any means.

On new economic opportunities

There are some very good ideas that have been around.

One, I think, is education: boarding schools for South African kids. A lot of people would like an English education for their children – people who live in South Africa. It would bring in staff, it would bring in activies, and that would be very good.

[There could be] all sorts of academic things – a marine laboratory, like what the Norwegians did with Spitzbergen, a coal mining island in the Arctic. It has become such a centre of excellence that it pays for itself.

On everyone knowing everyone… and what the nurse said to Mr Gurr

There are many things that St Helena is a good research environment for.

Not least is this non-anonymity thing. It astonishes me. People, when my grandfather was alive, if they had been to the next village they would stand in the village hall and tell everbody about it. It would be a big deal. It’s like that in St Helena still.

That lack of anonymity impacts on the police service, on the medical service. The nurse tending your bed when you’re sitting there in pain: you know her and you know her children and you know her way of life, and she knows you.

I went in for a rather nasty exploratory operation and the nurse said to me: “Don’t you worry, I see everything and I see nothing.” [laughter] I thought, that’s nice.

On Ascension as a space centre

An idea I touted round is Ascension as a space centre. If you are going to take off from a runway to get into space, which will happen, you have got to be near the equator because you have a better launch speed and it’s cheaper to get into orbit from the equator. And you have got to be somewhere that’s secure.

It seemed to me [Ascension is] the place where the West has the longest runway in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s near the equator.

On exploiting isolation

St Helena has always paid its way when its isolation and position is worth something to somebody. Unless you major on that isolation as being the thing that is going to deliver, you are copying somewhere else that can do it cheaper. So you are looking for things that have that special characteristic.

On Plantation House

It’s iconic, isn’t it, Plantation?

I was looking at a country house and thought, “I wish I lived in a house like that – and I did! I had so much junk I could fill every room. I would say, “Do I mind living all by myself in a big house?” And I didn’t: it was really quite easy.

Having staff was a new experience for us. It’s not that easy. Suddenly the house isn’t just yours: there are people who think it’s theirs too. It’s their workplace and you have to take that into account every day.

The kitchen was a disgrace in my view – a health risk – and we had it refurbished into a modern kitchen.

On the late Bobby Robertson, councillor and fund-raiser

One of the great privileges of being governor is the entertaining. We had a dinner for Bobby Robertson and Dulcie on their 60th wedding anniversary and do you know, Bobby never said a word against me in council after that. It was one of the shrewdest dinners I ever gave.

On the late Sharon Wainwright
[Sharon was air access co-ordinator for St Helena; she died suddenly while in London, helping press the case for an airport, in August 2011]

She was a wonderful person to work with. I had a weekly chat with her: she was a great communicator and a very good man manager. She ran what she did well, she got things done – a priceless individual, sadly missed.

On the Friends of St Helena

Those people need the support here that you give them. They are very grateful for that. It’s very much in the interest of St Helena that this organisation, the Friends, exists.

On the future

We were trying, in our time, to move the island towards self-sufficiency and maintain the balance of interest. And it is about balance.

The situation is that the airport [contract] is signed, the ship’s capacity is being increased, there’s a sensible political structure, there’s better systems in the civil service. I think the private sector is getting increasingly engaged and people are getting excited about the airport.

Whether the future is bright or not I don’t know. I think it’s better, however you look at it, than the past; it’s better than it would have been but it’s still up to the Saints to grasp the opportunities that are there.

And they are there now, real opportunities, with – how many? – 170 people working on the airport or airport-related things. That will increase over the next few years.

Shelco are going to take a lot of people into that hotel and housing complex, so all that is going to be brighter, without any question.

On being remembered

Part of me says I would love people to say, “Well, he did a good job”, and part of me says, does it matter in the long run? I will just be a name on a wall or a fading photograph.

I enjoyed it. It was a tremendously enriching exerience and very colourful, and I will always have fond memories of it. But how people remember me depends on what people remember, and who’s telling them to remember it.

I loved the place, I love the people, but your time comes, you do your four years and you leave it. You have fond memories and life moves on.

(One or two of Andrew Gurr’s reflections from his talk to the Friends of St Helena in May 2012 have been kept back as stories in their own right, and will appear shortly. A gallery of his photographs may also appear soon).


The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2
Civil service versus the can-do culture: a governor’s view

Foreign Secretary ‘wants hands-on help for islands’ – report

Friends of St Helena

Civil service versus the can-do culture: a governor’s view

In the third extract of an address to the Friends of St Helena, former governor Andrew Gurr reflects on the island’s emerging private sector, optimism and – just briefly – education. Read part one of his recollections here, and find part two here.

On the private sector

You have the private-versus-public tension, which is always there: the cry from the private sector, “Why is the public sector doing this? Why can’t we do it?”

But what happens? Classic – we saw it with dustbin men on the Falklands, we saw it with quarries on St Helena. You privatise something and immediately they exploit their fellow islanders by putting the price up.

It’s one way, I would agree, of getting rid of inefficiency in the public sector, by putting it in the private sector, but it can be quite damaging. You have to be very careful in a small island that you don’t get monopolies that become exploitative of their fellow islanders.

On no-can-do attitudes

There’s also the civil service attitude against the private sector attitude. Having worked probably an equal time in both sectors, I’m well aware of this:  the civil service no-can-do, or “I will obey the rules and follow the system” attitude against the private sector, “Yes I will do it come hell or high water,” and those two attitudes are very different and they exist even on a small island.

“There’s also the pessimism against optimism tension.  Many local people are very good at being pessimistic: “It won’t work.” “Why not?” “Because we did it before and it didn’t work.” “And why not?”  “I don’t know – we never knew.” “It might work this time.” “Oh no, what a waste of time and money.”

That was so common. What about the space race? We would never have got into space if people hadn’t put up with failure amd gone and improved on it.

“Something gets condemned right at the beginning and you get the optimists who keep on  ploughing ahead and wasting money that is never going to work.

On transparency

There is also tension between freedom of information and the proper management of that information. If everybody  is going to know everything  about everything, which is the cry over here as well, that can be very difficult in some situations, and on a small island it’s even more difficult, because everybody knows everybody and everybody’s children are known by everybody else’s children.

That lack of anonymity is one of the biggest differences between St Helena and this country. You drop a clanger here and you go to the next village and nobody knows you dropped a clanger.

But you drop a clanger on St Helena and what do you do? Escape to the UK.

On the health service

Another big problem area – the health sector. The lack of medevac – how do you get off the island if you are really ill and the ship’s just left?

Generalists are very hard to get. The whole of the health sector specialises these days: general surgeons – how do you find them.

Some sophisticated medical equipment needs regular servicing. Is a man going to come at regular intervals. or do we train up somebody to do it? And if you train up someone good they have nothing to do for two thirds of the year. It’s very difficult to make that work.

The Falkands have any number of beds here in the NHS. St Helena has two a year.

I think expectations of the island are far too high. One has to look at where the island has come from over the last two years rather than look at the UK and try and catch up with it.

I think there is also sometimes on the island a good old-fashioned service level which doesn’t exist here [in the UK]. There are big advantages there as well as disasadvantages.

On education

The education sector: girls’ academic ability and development and their exam results are far better than the boys’. There seems to be a culture among the boys that they would much rather go to Ascension and become a fireman than learn something slightly more academic – without criticising firemen.

On farming and food

The boys don’t want to go out in the fields and work, so there are all those lovely fields out at Longwood that haven’t been used for years that could be, for arable or for farm animals.

And of course you’ve got the problem of the RMS and the fact that it’s heavily subsidised, so it’s cheap to import food on the RMS rather than make it yourself.

People say, “Yes, but look how we used to provide food for ships that called.”

Apparently, if you look in the archives it’s full of complaints from ship’s captains and pursers about the high cost of what the Saints were actually selling them. If we could get the equivalent money from ships today, then farming would probably pick up again.

On the RMS St Helena

There are so many interests conflicing on the route of the RMS. How do you handle that? Very difficult. You have workshops with peo0ple and try to make decisions to get the route optimal, but you have to have it either side of Christmas going back and forwards.

Do you bring back Namibia into the cycle or not? There are advantages of doing so and disadvantages of doing so. The price of beer goes up because all the cheapest beer comes from Namibia and what do you do about that? It very important to a lot of people.

It is hoped that part 4 of Andrew Gurr’s thoughts on St Helena will appear on this website over the weekend – breaking news stories permitting.

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2

Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2

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.

On bureaucracy

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.”

On finance

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.

On expats

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.

On experts

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

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Planning board backs eco resort – but Governor has final say

Communist Tristan da Cunha? That’s like waving a red flag…

The potato patches aren’t exactly a gulag, and the closest similarity to the Berlin Wall is that its buildings get blown down in storms… but Tristan da Cunha has been described, by its former governor, as a communist state. In the nicest possible way, of course.

Andrew Gurr was paying a compliment to the 260-or-so people of the world’s most remote inhabited island when he made his observation, but it’s raised the eyebrows of one seasoned Tristan watcher.

Mr Gurr told this site: “Tristan is a successful example of communism and I really stand by that.

“I think that for me, they just pull together in a way you wouldn’t expect in a society that was much bigger.”

His original comments can be seen here, in a transcript from his talk in Oxford in May 2012 to the Friends of St Helena.

A reader has responded by quoting Wikipedia:

“Communism is a revolutionary socialist movement to create a classless, moneyless, and stateless social order structured upon common ownership of the means of production.”

Leaving aside the bit about money, it’s that common-ownership bit that spoils the analogy, says our reader:

“While Tristan has a great deal of communal ownership, and everyone is pretty much provided for equally, the primary means of production is the fish factory… which is owned by a South African company.”

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Tristan’s ‘Mr Fix-It’ turns 65 – but will Joe really retire?