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March 7, 2013 / Kate Gross

In praise of public service

In my old life, my role was to shape a state – and later, states – ability to respond to what their people need. But things are topsy-turvy, and now I am the grateful recipient of the state’s offerings, as a patient, Cambridge city resident, and as a mother of soon-to-be school boys. Before, it was my job but it wasn’t about my life. Too young, too privileged. But I knew why I was doing it, if only in the abstract, and I used to carry the story of the Happy Prince in my head to remind myself that behind each jewel on the statue there was a person’s story, just as in my work there were people not statistics on the end of the decisions I was helping to make.

Then I started AGI, and I didn’t need the Happy Prince because the stories were up close and personal. The student I met at the National University of Rwanda who told me how he hid in the forest for months after his family were killed in the genocide, how he emerged and was sponsored through school by a kindly foreigner, about his dreams for the future and for his hilly, beautiful country. Kadie, who helped our very first AGI teams get themselves settled in Freetown, showing us what to buy in the market and how to get the aircon fixed, who died when she was younger than me, of godknowswhat, leaving a seven year old boy behind – and how this wasn’t abnormal in a country where you are beating the odds if you reach your fifties. Albert, our driver in Liberia who had lived through the war there, and is now just trying to build a life for his family, whose wife wants to start a sewing business and whose kids want an education and a decent job. None of this is about politics. It’s about people needing to be able to rely on the system around them to protect in times of uncertainty and to provide for their needs. And now, in my limited way I can understand this even more clearly. The desire to protect your kids, especially when your own future is uncertain. The need for financial security for your family. What it feels like to be dependent on people, to need so much from others. How the shadow of loss can shape a family and the decisions you take. As I’ve said before, I’m abundantly clear that hardship is a spectrum and we are at one, exceptionally privileged, lucky and well-supported end. But I see the whole of that spectrum more clearly now, nonetheless.

All of this has been percolating away in my mind for the past few months. But this week it’s at the top of my mind because I’ve decided to step away from my old job at AGI permanently, so the organisation can appoint a new CEO. The people who need me most are under this roof, and my treatment path and my future are too uncertain to keep things in stasis. There is too much going on at AGI and in Africa to wait for me. I am so proud and happy to have spent the last five years building an organisation which has my beliefs about public service at its heart. An organisation full of people who look for the stories behind statistics to motivate them as they support some of the most fragile countries in the world, and help these countries provide public goods themselves rather than relying on outsiders to do the job of building roads or curing the sick or educating the young. Of course, there is so much I am missing and will miss about my work. Most of all, the feeling of hot sun and the inimitable smell of elsewhere when I get off the plane in Juba, Freetown, Kigali or wherever. Seeing those I now call friends who carry the responsibility of government there, and being energised by the wonderful people of AGI who work alongside them. AGI is too dear to me to step away forever, and though I am pretty sure it would bust our fundraising targets to insure me to travel to Africa with the nuisance in tow, I hope to get back to work in some smallish way in the Autumn, probably irritating Nick and the gang with some back-seat driving.

I’m not really thinking about the long-term future. It seems too much like tempting fate. But I am so sure now that even administrators can feeling a calling. If I have a vocation, public service is it. Here in the UK. Out in the world. Government is a fact of life, a necessity everywhere. It can be done well and it can be done badly. Where it is badly done, the weakest and the poorest suffer most, and that single fact animates me most of all. But we pushers of paper, desk jockeys, bureaucrats, mandarins, eminence grises don’t have a trade. We are masters of the general, of the finely written minute, of action and reaction, of complexity, of taking decisions, of making things happen, of creating something from nothing, and of caring whether it works or not, and who it works for. These are things I am proud of, though they are not fashionable, as my former big boss Gus said on the radio this week. So I will spend the next wee while in my own small state, the principality of 47 Ross St, making sure that the weak and vulnerable (Billy, who the boys beat up every day) are well cared for, there is a part of me that will hope to return to a bigger stage one day.

Post script – read Sul’s story which is everything I mean above and more about the places and people we work with :

One Comment

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  1. Caroline Al Shammas / Mar 7 2013 6:05 pm

    Wonderful post. I think it is amazing and heartening that there are people like you in the world who can face major obstacles in their own lives and who still feel committed to doing something worthwhile for, effectively, strangers. It’s an important lesson; it’s not a matter of having it all. I know you’ll miss your work, but I’m very much looking forward to the next chapter of What Kaker Did Next xxx

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