Life on the front line

Protestors on the streets and a government lockdown of all media is all in a day’s work for Norwich High School alumna Alice Walpole.

“Yes, now is a perfect time to talk… Yes, now is a perfect time to talk… Yes, now is a perfect time to talk… Yes, now is a perfect time to …”

A chilly Friday morning in London towards the end of last year, and we are trying to speak via WhatsApp to Norwich High School alumna Alice Walpole at the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in Baghdad. After listening to the same phrase on a loop for a few minutes, we send her an email to let her know of the problems in connecting. This is when we learn that just moments before our aborted call, the Iraqi government had closed down all social media platforms and much of the internet in response to the hundreds of thousands of protestors who had taken to the streets of their capital to demand more jobs, an end to corruption and better public services.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Alice Walpole is Deputy Special Representative (Political Affairs and Electoral Assistance) in UNAMI, a frontline role where she is uniquely positioned to effect change in a country that is desperate to move forward. Once we were able to reach her on the phone, she explained: “Iraqis are wonderful people, diverse, proud and resilient. The country has emerged from terrible conflict and there’s a chance now for it to build a stable and prosperous future. Our role, under a mandate from the UN Security Council, is to advise, assist and support in that development.”

The bigger picture she paints shows the scale of the work to be done, particularly in the realm of women’s advancement.“ Women here have been largely excluded from the political sphere, despite quotas for female MPs,” she says. “With just one female minister, there are very few women in the national decision-making process. This includes the judiciary, senior civil service roles, diplomacy, academia and so forth. Essentially, the top echelons in all professions are severely underrepresented by women.

“Iraq has a huge cadre of energetic, experienced women. It cannot afford to ignore the talents of 50% of its population.”

An increase in the number of women in decision-making roles would offer significant social and economic benefits; it’s widely documented that those countries where girls finish their education and are enabled to join the workforce will enjoy greater economic growth and social stability. In other words, women’s empowerment builds political stability, boosts productivity and increases economic diversification, in addition to other positive development outcomes. UNAMI is working with female advisers from all walks of life, to get women’s voices heard in Iraq’s national dialogue. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is dedicated to improving gender parity within the UN itself, and has been successful in establishing it at a senior level.

“Iraq has a huge cadre of energetic, experienced women. It cannot afford to ignore the talents of 50% of its population.”

“We’re now working to get it to filter through the organisation,” says Alice, “although unsurprisingly, there can be difficulties in reaching gender parity in some fields.” It follows that while some posts will attract all applicants, there are still some, for example on security and engineering teams, that remain predominantly the preserve of men. Equally, Iraq as a posting can prove tricky. As a designated ‘non-family duty station’, many people will be put off. “It’s true that we face challenges in Iraq to recruit and retain female staff, but for those that do come, we are trying to do all we can to accommodate them,” she says, and mentions mentoring, a female doctor and yoga classes as some of the provisions now being offered on the Baghdad compound. Not to mention an entirely female senior leadership team. Alice talks about showcasing the work of female colleagues, so that “people don’t think of the UN in the field as just male peacekeepers”.

What was it that drew Alice to this world in the first place?

“My mother was a politician and she had a career when a lot of women in the UK did not. I was brought up in a family with strong female role models and a long history of public service. Norwich High School had very much the same ethos, and actively encouraged us to engage with society. We were taught by strong-minded, independent women; it was a very good launching-off point. It wasn’t until I got to university that I realised how radical some of that thinking had been. Our headmistress, the redoubtable Dorothy Bartholomew, made us believe that we could do anything we wanted with our lives.”

And the challenges?

“The toughest challenge for me is being away from my six children. I miss them all the time we’re not together. But I do get home for a week, and sometimes longer, every six weeks or so. And I know that my children – who are all in their twenties now – fully support me and understand the value of the work I do. “We live in an era of increasing nationalism – the building of barriers – across the world. I believe in internationalism and multilateralism. The organisation that most embodies this global interconnectedness is the UN. So now, with countries closing in on themselves, the UN’s work is more important than ever. It’s a privilege to work for this organisation.”


Alice Walpole
The Hon Alice Walpole OBE is the Deputy Special Representative (Political Affairs and Electoral Assistance) of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). She has previously served as British Ambassador to Luxembourg and to Mali and Niger, and as British Consul-General in Basra, Iraq. She has also served in various capacities in London, New York, Brussels and Dar es Salaam with the British Foreign Office. She was appointed OBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for Services to British Diplomacy.

Established at the request of the government of Iraq, UNAMI has been on the ground since 2003, working to fulfil a wide-ranging mandate. Elements include advising and assisting the government on advancing political dialogue and national reconciliation, assisting in the electoral process, facilitating regional dialogue between Iraq and its neighbours and promoting the protection of human rights and judicial and legal reforms. The operation is one of the UN’s biggest: costing $100m a year, requiring almost 1,000 national and international staff, and working closely with UN agencies including UNDP, UNICEF and UNESCO.