Helping Governments and NGOs Communicate
Grassroot Diplomat's CEO Talyn Rahman-Figueroa was interviewed by Peace is Sexy on her vision in helping governments and civil society to communicate.
1. How did you get started?
During my time at university, I was fascinated by how the United Nations was able to host peace talks with 192 countries that were, at one time, at war with each other. I was incredibly eager to learn about how an institution that operated on a multilateral diplomatic level was able to handle the world’s most pressing problems. I found that the easiest way to get involved in the work of the UN was to join non-government organisations that are affiliated to them.
I joined the WILPF International which is the oldest women’s organisation in the world. WILPF campaigned and advocated for issues supported by the UN and even had offices in the same building as the UN in New York and Geneva. As an active member of the organisation, I was nominated onto the executive board which enabled me to plan and influence the organisation's national campaigns. At the same time, I also joined Action for UN Renewal as the Director of External Relations, where we educated the public about the work of the UN. Since working for both of these organisations, my passion and understanding for international diplomacy grew and led to my career in diplomacy.
2. What interests you most about what you’re doing now?
Working for NGOs inspired me to join the Foreign Service. I liked the idea of representing my country abroad and being a role model for the host country where I would be working, but I felt conflicted that my role as a diplomat would mean supporting government policies that I personally disagreed with. Considering my background with NGOs, I felt much happier representing the interest of the people rather than the interest of the government. This is how I came about with the idea of being a ‘grassroot diplomat’, as it meant supporting the people's interest through governments.
As a citizen and private diplomat, Grassroot Diplomat provides me with opportunities to step into the diplomatic realm and liaise with top officials that are otherwise out of reach to the public. We treat the people of all countries equally, even if they are not sovereign. As such, it is my duty to create and develop relationships with embassies and foreign governments for the benefit of those people in mind.
I am proud to say that we are currently representing projects in Canada, Ghana, Pakistan, and Britain, and have had interest from organisations based in India, Sudan, the Pacific Islands, Brazil, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Afghanistan.
3. What has been your biggest accomplishment? Biggest challenge?
My biggest accomplishment was to get Grassroot Diplomat off the ground in less than a month. The organisation has excelled in terms of its development and I am pleased to have a great team of experts supporting this initiative. Sustaining peace is at the heart of diplomacy and I hope that Grassroot Diplomat can make a big impact in the way that civil society and governments communicate with each other through peaceful methods.
Of course, the challenges of setting up a new business are maintaining momentum and creating enough interest around the work one does. The main challenge is successfully reaching out to civil society groups that we feel sincerely require our help. We hope to create a Corporate Social Responsibility Programme to support those with limited funds but as a social enterprise, we don't see the profits which is otherwise reinvested into our programmes.
4. Who or what inspires you?
I find inspiration from many things and there are very few people who have influenced my path. While I was training in diplomacy, I became very aware of Britain’s dearth of female Ambassadors. As a young woman aspiring to join the diplomatic service, I felt disheartened by the lack of role models we have in the UK, and I made it my mission to learn about the history of women in diplomacy. During my research, I grew quite fond of Dame Anne Pringle, who was the British Ambassador for Russia. Not only is she a self-confessed rock chick, quite like myself, but Dame Pringle was the first woman to enter Russia as a diplomat in its entire history. I think that’s a commendable achievement.
I am also quite inspired by Carne Ross, the former British representative at the UN who resigned his post after giving evidence to the Butler Inquiry on Iraq. After his resignation, Mr Ross formed Independent Diplomat, organisation that helps states become formally recognised by the UN. I think Independent Diplomat is a bold and innovative move that considers the traditional failures of diplomacy, and I like to think that Grassroot Diplomat does something similar, just working with a different set of stakeholders.
5. Why is peace sexy to you? What does “Peace is Sexy” evoke for you?
Peace is essential for our existence and should be treated with respect and the utmost priority. I agree that peace needs to be redefined in a way that encourages governments to uphold harmony among its people and between states, but conveying peace as ‘sexy’ is quite a bizarre concept. Peace needs to be a selling point, a prerequisite to forming alliances and trading routes, and an essential tool for dialogue, but such cooperation must also include mitigating risks. Arms and military trading are large sources of income for many countries and an even larger national security risk for countries that lack national security resources. But we must also remember that non-military sources of instability such as economic, environmental and social pressures may also threaten peace and security.
‘Peace is Sexy’ should aim to promote its initiative to weapon manufacturers, peacekeeping missions, diplomatic institutions, war think tanks, and governments of every country for it gain momentum and have an effect on global peace-building.
6. What is a simple thing you do to create peace? What is something you do everyday?
I think education and dialogue are essential in understanding the importance of peace. By opening a gateway for dialogue between citizens of countries that have a history of violence, we will see that these people yearn for peace and harmony. I remember going to an event in Geneva where two strangers from Israel and Palestine got up on stage to plead their wish for peace and friendship to world leaders that were present at the time. Their stories of what war did to their families resonated deeply among the audience who were forced to think about how their family would feel in an environment of daily violence, hatred and destruction.
I think diplomacy and peace go hand-in-hand, which is why I have dedicated my professional life to this field. By working with international civil society directly, we aim to create peace and build better relationships with officials that have the power to uphold peace unilaterally and multilaterally.
7. How would you like Peace is Sexy to make a difference in what you are up to?
Peace needs to be promoted as the ideal solution rather than an idealistic utopia that only civil society groups talk about. When working on civil society projects, I have heard policy experts say that ‘peace’ is too vague of a description for it to be taken seriously. What exactly does ‘peace’ mean and how can this be achieved without relying on the UN? We shouldn’t just rely on multilateral organisations to ensure that peace is internationally obtainable. Dialogue for peace must come from all groups and be integrated within law and trading legislations should peace be respected as part of a bilateral partnership.
8. Where would you like to see your passion go in the next 10 years? 20 years? 100 years?
Passion is the fuel that powers you toward realising your dream and I would like to think that my dream to work in the diplomatic field is currently being achieved. It is difficult to tell what can happen in the next few years. We have witnessed multiple events over the last decade that has shaped the world we live in now and we must continue to adapt with our changing circumstances. Perhaps it would be a better world if everyone’s ideals were the same but, as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life.
9. Is there anything else you want to tell us?
The greatest challenge between governments and the rest of society is the lack of communication between them. Securing a link between high-level decision-makers and ground-level organisations is the only way to ensure that policies are created in the public interest. If governments continue to follow this trend of ignoring the demands of society, the very foundation of democracy will crumble and fall.
Grassroot Diplomat is a diplomatic consultancy that aims to modernise the practices of diplomacy in a fast changing environment. We need to be proactive, innovative and challenge the way diplomacy is viewed on a wider scale, and that will take time. I am hopeful though. The work of Grassroot Diplomat is that of a legacy which I hope will continue without me.