A positive thinker with a keen eye for the big planetary picture

January 12, 2007

Gordon Conway, new head of the Royal Geographical Society, is keen not only to promote geography as a subject but also its role as a catalyst for intercultural and international relations. Nick Smith reports

British vulnerability against Afghan fighters, hand-wringing about the wearing of burkas, debate about Islam and secular education.

Sound familiar? Well, a new exhibition of rare Afghan images from the past 200 years shows that some of the same debates were taking place in the early 20th century. The exhibition, From Kabul to Kandahar , includes maps, diaries, lithographs and photographs. It is part of the Royal Geographical Society's Crossing Continents initiative, run in partnership with young people and organisations from the African, Chinese, Muslim and Sikh communities. It aims to deepen our knowledge of a much misunderstood area of the world as well as to celebrate the UK's ethnic and religious diversity.

Sir Gordon Conway, the new president of the RGS, thinks geography has a vital role to play in building community relations. Fittingly, he was head of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia set up ten years ago by the anti-racism think-tank, the Runnymede Trust. It published a paper in 1997 listing eight trends it identified as characterising a mistrust and fear of Islam by the wider public. The paper, Islamophobia: A Change for Us All , had, according to Conway, "some quite positive effects" such as making people more aware of why certain cartoons cause offence, although he concedes that in general "there has been a growth in Islamophobia in the past few years". This, he says, is driven mainly by the media's tendency to blur the distinction between terrorism and religion. Although he says there is more restraint in the media than a decade ago, he believes newspaper editors nonetheless have a moral duty to ask themselves whether what they are publishing "will make matters better or worse".

Conway sees the RGS as vital with regard to issues such as community cohesion. He says it is the place in the UK where "we can bring together our full range of disciplines to tackle global issues such as climate change, migration and infectious diseases". Conway is used to looking at the big problems. Although he is an agricultural ecologist by profession, he has spent much of his career advising on issues of international development. And while this has earned him the trendy tag "public intellectual", what he does in terms of the survival of the planet and the people who live on it is deadly serious.

Conway is Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development (DfID) in the UK, a role in which he reports to both Suma Chakrabarti, Permanent Secretary for International Development, and Hilary Benn, Secretary for International Development. He is also professor of international development at Imperial College London.

While the thoughts of many public figures in their mid-sixties may turn to retirement, the irrepressibly good-natured Conway's role at the RGS will give him lots of extra work. He sees it as a logical culmination of a career in "global issues, quintessentially geographical issues" and as a job where he can "provide ideas, counsel and help oversee strategy".

Conway sees his job as two-pronged: on the one hand, he is there to "enhance geography as a profession, partly through making sure that the subject is taught well in schools and that research is done well in universities". On the other hand, he wants to develop the RGS's role in advising governments on some of the bigger issues. One of these issues is, inevitably, Africa and some commentators think that the very public appointment of a key figure in international development as president of the society sends out important signals to the geographical, educational and research communities that the understanding of global social, environmental, catastrophe management and health issues are assuming a central importance to the society's work.

Conway was involved in setting up the Millennium Development Goals for Africa. He believes the continent's future lies in achieving them. What Africa needs is economic growth through sustainable development underpinned by science, he says, although countries will have different priorities, depending on their geographical position. In Malawi, for example, the priority is to get stable food security, while for countries further south it is getting on top of the HIV/Aids epidemic. And there is good news, says Conway: "The prevalence of Aids in east Africa is going down."

DfID involvement in such issues is at government level - a strategy that Conway claims is working. In the past, he says, donors went into a country with a project that often duplicated or conflicted with others. Now donors come together "to make sure there is a joined-up response" and to provide general budget support. "We need to be clear that what the DfID does is support countries," he says. He cites the example of Tanzania where it provides "about £100 million a year". This money goes into the national budget, where it is earmarked for a poverty reduction plan developed with donors. And while there is a continuing dialogue between donor and recipient, "the DfID does not micromanage. It's up to governments to determine what they want", Conway says.

This thread of optimism runs through everything Conway does - he is already making an impact at the RGS, where his charisma in chairing the Monday evening lectures is earning him a bit of a following. He is nothing if not positive, claiming that while he "gets angry" about issues he never gets depressed. "The world is better than it was," he says, "and it is getting better. We have to remember there is good news out there."

Nick Smith is former editor of Geographical magazine and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. From Kabul to Kandahar runs from January 8 to March 9 at the RGS, Kensington Gore, London.

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