Catriona Laing

Catriona Laing

British Ambassador to Zimbabwe

Part of UK in Afghanistan

23rd June 2013 Harare, Zimbabwe

FCO Human Resources Director visits Helmand PRT

From left-right: Deputy Head of Mission David Ward, Lisa, Menna Rawlings, Ric Nye and Halima
From left-right: Deputy Head of Mission David Ward, Lisa, Menna Rawlings, Ric Nye and Halima

The following is a guest post by FCO Human Resources Director Menna Rawlings on her recent visit to Helmand PRT.

I recently visited the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah. As the Foreign Office HR Director, I often feel that I need to get out more. It’s easy to get stuck behind my desk in London, thinking about our global workforce (over 14,000 staff in 270 posts around the world). But I get a fresh perspective by getting out and talking to our staff about what’s on their minds.

A former colleague of mine used to call this getting “dust on shoes” reflecting, he said, the need for diplomats to get out and about to understand the countries in which they serve.

The same principle applies, in spades, in HR. It’s easy to invent people policies in London, but without talking to those who are on the receiving end, and understanding what is and isn’t working, there’s a risk of becoming divorced from the realities people face on the ground – including in difficult places like Afghanistan.

So here I was in Helmand. More dust than I could wish for. Not to mention body-armour, helicopters, and hours hanging around in Camp Bastion waiting for flights. All of this was pretty much expected. Other things less so.

To start with, the PRT is more of an oasis than I might have imagined, with some green spaces and decent recreational facilities. Easy to forget, for a while, the heavily-fortified nature of the compound, and the continuing threat which all our staff face in doing their jobs.

It was also great to see people working across different boundaries. Civilian and military staff from across the British Government, under the overall leadership of Catriona Laing. But also international partners working alongside the UK – the Danes, the US and (until recently) the Estonians.

In many posts, we still struggle to have a truly joined-up team which is much more than the sum of the Whitehall parts. But in Lashkar Gah, there really is a sense of One Team, despite the usual systemic issues. These were as bad in the PRT as anywhere – 10 different IT systems, 4 telephone systems, complex lines of reporting and accountability. The difference was the collective will to overcome them and to work together.

It was also a privilege to meet our Local Staff, who have contributed in so many ways to the gains in recent years – on health, education, infrastructure and political voice in Helmand. I heard concerns from our Afghan staff about what would happen after drawdown next year, and the fears some of them had for themselves and their families as a result of their association with the PRT.

In a week when stories on this subject were all over the British press (ahead of a final decision and announcement), I explained what I knew – and what was still to be decided. But I was at least able to reassure that their voice was being heard, and that – as the PM had said – we were not in the business of turning our backs on Helmand or our staff.

I finished my trip with two days in Kabul talking to staff and international partners there, before heading back to the UK.

Looking back on my visit now, on a cool and rainy day in London, I can say it was an inspirational experience. I am left feeling an urge to tell people about the successes of our mission in Helmand, rather than (as the press inevitably does) focus relentlessly on the negatives. But also to say – wow! Look what amazing staff we have working for the British Government in Afghanistan. And look at the dedication, resilience, expertise and optimism they show in the most difficult of circumstances.

A terrific example of achieving Diplomatic Excellence through People, which is what my job is all about.

Menna Rawlings

7 comments on “FCO Human Resources Director visits Helmand PRT

  1. Menna, I’m one of the Directors in the PRT and I just wanted to add my thanks to those above for your kind words and this recognition. I also worked in the PRT in Basra and I want to reinforce your points about the effectiveness of the Helmand PRT as an organisation. We’ve learned some very hard-won lessons from the past and applied them to what has been for some years an organisation that has made real progress in difficult circumstances, despite the more rapid turnover of staff than you see in most organisations. Achieving that in the complex mix of nationalities and organisational cultures takes patience, effort but, most importantly, a real committment from all the staff here to make it work – and it’s really great to have that recognised by senior leadership in London. Thanks again!

  2. Menna, I just want to say thank you very much for visiting Helmand province and meeting with local staff this was really encouraging.

  3. Menna, I am one of the Police Advisors in Helmand and was sorry to have missed meeting you on your visit. ‘ Dust on shoes’ in your world equates to ‘visible leadership’ in mine. It is recognised and appreciated by all staff. Throughout my three enjoyable and challenging years here I have been particularly impressed with the care and support I have been given by the Stabilisation team in London. Nothing is ever too much for them and their ‘can do’attitude is palpable. Thank you and all the people that provide us with the support we need from home.

  4. Menna,

    It was nice meeting you in Helmand and thank you v much for your time speaking to our locally engaged staff in the PRT.

  5. Menna,
    Thank-you so much for taking the time to write this guest blog. Everyone here was so pleased you were able to visit and have been really motivated by this great feedback. We are indeed very proud of what we have achieved and it is so nice to have the good work recognised.

Comments are closed.

About Catriona Laing

I was born in Cardiff but brought up in South London. I studied economics and joined the civil service through the Government Economic Service after 2.5 years working for the…

I was born in Cardiff but brought up in South London. I studied
economics and joined the civil service through the Government Economic
Service after 2.5 years working for the Government of Botswana as an
infrastructure economist.
I was posted to Kenya to advise on the government’s development
programmes in East Africa, and then seconded to the United Nations
Mission in Somalia heading the UN Development Office.
I spent five years working for Prime Minister Tony Blair in his
strategy unit, and was later posted to head the DFID office in Sudan
running a £116 million programme and addressing the drivers of conflict.
Most recently I have been working for the Ministry of Justice to
establish the new international function with responsibility for
European and international justice.
I live with my partner – Clive Bates and our Sudanese dog – in
Balham. My hobbies are yoga, dog and mountain walking and cooking.