Imperfect world of UN platypusette

Never Learn to Type
May 23, 2003

When Margaret Anstee joined the Foreign Office (as it then was) in July 1948, she met some extraordinary people. There was the great Ernest Bevin - Attlee's foreign secretary who did so much to bring Nato into being - and the infamous Donald Maclean with whom Anstee had, unwittingly, perhaps the last official contact before his defection in May 1951. She also met the vice-marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Marcus Cheke, a Gilbert and Sullivan character apparently in deep denial over the presence of women (other than cleaners and tea ladies) in "the Office". He was not alone: this was a time when women diplomats were routinely paid less than their male equivalents, had to resign if they married and were assumed to be too delicate or too stupid (or both) to be able to write a whole report.

The FO, Anstee writes, "was not an easy bastion for an inexperienced 22-year-old girl to penetrate". Particularly not for a highly motivated young working-class woman from Essex who had gone from grammar school to a first at Newnham College, Cambridge, and then to a lectureship at Queen's University, Belfast.

The atmosphere in the Foreign Office in the late 1940s seems close to Patrick Barrington's 1934 caricature of diplomatic life, The Diplomatic Platypus ("I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity").

Uncannily, there are even close parallels between the platypus' subsequent career and Anstee's. The platypus became an accomplished diplomat, paddling the world stage. But then he was discovered to be a platypusette, was made "Platypus, Dame Vera" in the honours list and retired to a quiet life in Bordighera. Anstee became one of the first female undersecretaries-general at the United Nations, was made "Anstee, Dame Margaret", and retired to Bolivia, which as everybody knows has a climate similar to Bordighera. The main difference is that Anstee had been outed as a woman much earlier in her career, and so had to battle against prejudice all along.

Anstee joined the UN in the Philippines, principally to raise enough money for a ticket home and escape a failing marriage. Her subsequent career can only be described as impressive. In 41 years at the UN - with a brief interlude in Harold Wilson's think-tank in the late 1960s - Anstee served all over the world and was closely involved in attempts to resolve many of the international crises of the late 20th century. With shades of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, Anstee's account of her work in Africa, South America and Asia demonstrates her courage and sense of adventure, as well as her fine sense of place.

What also becomes clear is her passionate commitment to alleviating global economic and social underdevelopment, and to improving the UN's capacity to act effectively as a development facilitator.

There was a time when development aid was something that the developed world, in its lofty wisdom, handed out to those less fortunate than itself.

Sometimes aid was given with ulterior motives, more often out of philanthropic conscience, but usually without much interest in what the recipients thought of the matter, or what they could do on their own account, given the right conditions. Together with colleagues such as Sir Robert Jackson, the force behind the seminal 1969 study on the capacity of the UN development system, Anstee rejected the traditional methods of capital injection and dirigisme, in favour of what has become the orthodox approach to development aid: coordination of UN development activities within the UN Development Programme; maximum decen- tralisation of executive authority to UNDP resident representatives, with field experience being the preferred basis for development policy, rather than academic theory; an emphasis on technical cooperation and pre-investment; and, above all, a sense of partnership between donor and recipient. "Development," insists Anstee, "is homemade."

Although the 1969 study set the scene for modern development practice, its full potential has never been realised - a "tragedy" for the UN and the developing world. That failure is largely down to the ponderous nature of the UN and its inability to reform itself. A bureaucracy that can produce "a consultative committee on substantive questions (operational)" would probably succeed in frustrating the most ardent and imaginative reformer.

From her determinedly practical perspective, Anstee encountered huge problems in seeking to improve the UN and its development system: periodic funding crises; constant reorganisation, either arbitrarily or for reasons of diplomatic tit-for-tat; good initiatives too often not followed through.

In all this, the UN emerges as a perfect democracy, a species rarely found outside certain of Britain's ancient universities, where decisions (let alone progress) can be made only when there are no good and compelling reasons not to.

Like many apologists for the UN, Anstee does, however, fall for for the perfect solution/imperfect world fallacy. Her "logical", "rational" and "effective" solutions for improving development aid and reforming the UN were undone, not by flaws in the argument but by the short-sightedness of inter-state politics (particularly during the cold war). If only international politics could be made more enlightened and less obstructive, then Anstee's intelligent, determined and humanitarian methods could be allowed to triumph. The problem with this counsel of perfection is that the success of development and UN reform are made contingent on some alternative version of reality. Yet effect and cause really ought not to be jumbled together in this way. It is precisely because the world is as it is that we need development; if the imperfections of the world could be put to one side, what need would there be for development and poverty alleviation? But I quibble.

Never Learn to Type is an insightful anti-history of the cold war years, as well as a valuable account of the origins of modern development thinking. Anstee has had a remarkably full career, and has written a memoir to match. As her 1940s FO colleagues might have said: "Jolly good show. For a girl."

Paul Cornish is director, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London.

Never Learn to Type: A Woman at the United Nations

Author - Margaret Joan Anstee
ISBN - 0 470 85424 3
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £19.99
Pages - 544

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