The Expert: Interview with Ambassador Neelam Deo

(The Art of the Possible, 29 Aug 2013)

Bram De Ridder ·

For Issue IV of Distilled Magazine, our goal is the possible. How do we make things happen the way we want them to happen? How do we successfully contribute to change in an immensely complex global world? One simple answer could be by looking at people who already did so. Therefore, Distilled Magazine spoke to Ambassador Neelam Deo, a distinguished representative of the Republic of India. Ambassador Deo holds a degree from the Delhi School of Economics, and amongst her numerous postings have been Denmark, Ivory Coast, Washington D.C. and New York. Besides her function in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), she is also active in numerous political and nonpolitical organizations, such as Breakthrough, Oxfam India and Gateway House. For Distilled Magazine, she was prepared to shed light on her own work and career, and how she managed to procure change through them.

But before delving into this, Ambassador Deo wanted to have some things clarified about the idea of making a difference. For one, the discourse of changing the world was not really present when she started working for the IFS. Moreover, the question needs to be put about the objective of using this particular language at the start of your career. ‘I think it is a legitimate question to ask to what you want to make a difference’, she stated at the beginning of our talk. And indeed, any good plan starts with a good objective.

The Indian professional scene

For her personally, the objective at the start  was to push back existing limitations. ‘There were lots of constraints within which women grew up and what their possibilities for the future were. So for me it was important to work. At all.’ ‘When I started working’, she mentioned further on, ‘the percentage of women working was not very high. Therefore, getting the job, having the job was the objective. But of course we certainly thought about which profession implied what, and what this job might do. Which is exactly one of the reasons why I taught at the University for three years. Nevertheless we perceived our jobs differently than they are perceived now.’

To a degree, one can expect that this has changed in India in recent years. As the country’s economic and diplomatic power grows, do Indian young professionals believe that they can use this power to better their world? The Ambassador is rather realistic in this respect: ‘People are more interested in pursuing their own interests than framing it in moral terms. But lots of people do go into the social or non-governmental sector. Clearly, they are hoping to change the current social setting.’

Serving in the IFS

Moving back to her own career, she felt that academia was too constraining and frustrating for her. Therefore, the future Ambassador quickly moved to the civil service, which suited her better. Nevertheless, moving as a young woman to work you like better does not immediately imply that your voice is heard and that your ideas are valued. Still, she remains very positive about this period of her life. ‘You do need to realize that the work in the diplomatic service is a confluence of the political and the professional’, she clarifies. And in her early years, much like most assistants today, it was professional work that was expected of her. ‘Nevertheless, I always felt that the analysis I put up was found valuable.’

The big difference with her later position as an Ambassador, a function which on the outlook still implies that you merely execute the political will of your government, was that she managed to be the initiator of much of her own work. This meant that there was much more freedom. ‘For example, when I served as an Ambassador in Denmark, it was for me to suggest what we could do. What I needed to work on was suggested to me by my own or by the Danish Government, but it was up to me to widen the order and be creative with it. It was a freedom in thinking about what could be achieved bilaterally.’

Within this freedom, there still would have been limitations nonetheless. These were not only determined by politics, but also by different working cultures. Therefore, does each country require a separate approach when you try to achieve diplomatic results, or are there similarities on which you can build? For Ambassador Deo, the differences however stretch much further than this: ‘It is always a dance of two people’, she highlighted. ‘I might have been the same, but my partner was always different or in a different position. So yes, it required a change in approach. When I was in Africa for example, the equation with Ivory Coast was different from the equation with Denmark. So in any case we were crafting different tactics.’

But does this mean that there is only flexibility, or are there some factors that remained the same? According to the Ambassador, some things were indeed invariable: ‘Yes there are constants. Projection of ourselves as Indians, what India seeks in its foreign policy, what India seeks from different partners. So there is a standard core to it, Namely, how we want to present India.’

But besides this returning theme, Ambassador Deo also had her own set of methods from which she could draw. ‘One of the things we always tried to do was to engage with the parliament of the country we were based in. In Washington, all the work I did was interact with the congress, and in Denmark I worked with the committee on foreign policy of their parliament. But because each parliament and each legislator is different, the way in which you do it still needs to be adapted.’ All things considered, the Ambassador therefore never had the feeling that she was working with distinct operational strategies depending on whom she was talking to. ‘There were certainly tactical differences, but strategy remained largely the same. What I am saying and doing is interacting with my interlocutors.’

Beyond foreign policy

So with her working methods within the IFS clarified, Distilled Magazine also inquired about her work at Breakthrough (a Human Rights organization), and the Climate Group (which, as the name suggests, deals with climate change). Two difficult topics, but which one is the more difficult to achieve results in?

Certainly, Ambassador Deo is rather pessimistic towards the possibilities in both fields, despite their importance and urgency. ‘With breakthrough the focus is on fighting (domestic) violence against women, and we have the hope to influence the thinking of young people. But I think you have to take a long term perspective on this. It is pretty discouraging. Sometimes it feels like there has not been a change in India regarding the attitudes towards women. And at times, you even feel that the violence has in fact increased. This in contrast to the increased opportunities for women, as they have appeared more and more in the public and are now more confident and sure of themselves. But there is some sense of a backlash. Nevertheless, it is one of those areas where one hardens in it, and it remains very satisfying to be in it.’

So what are the differences then with her support for climate activists? For Deo, there are not too many: ‘It is a topic as important as the work surrounding the attitudes towards women. It is our collective future.’ However, according to the Ambassador the results that can be expected for the Climate Group are also pretty much the same as those for Breakthrough: ‘As humanity, as a government, we do not seem to be taking climate change seriously. It is frustrating as well, but again it is something you care about and therefore engage with. I do have a daughter and now a grandson, so this is highly important for them as well. Coming out of culture dating back to an ancient civilisation, there is this idea that there is an anima within everything, both animate and inanimate. Indians are often laughed at for worshiping stones or trees, but the totality of the universe is something with which we grew up. So working with the environment is certainly important. And occasionally satisfying.’

Infuencing the public debate

With respect to these two organizations, Ambassador Deo is mainly supportive through her role as a member of the board, and, as she stresses, she is not engaged in any grassroots work. This is rather different for her work in Gateway House, a group that has seen it as its mission to get foreign policy much more debated in the Indian society, and the final topic of our talk.

The main question put to the Ambassador was how Gateway House intends to achieve its goals. And here it seems that a comparison with almost all small activist groups is possible, as their constraints are first and foremost created by limited financial means. ‘We are a membership organization, and therefore have to raise our own funds. We have to do things according to the smallness of our budget, which means that the website is our main tool to propagate our goals.’ But how then can these limitations be circumvented? ‘We try to be with the times so to speak. We are not academics and once we have an idea, we will simply put it up in op-ed style pieces. We are not yet ready to produce really deep scholarship. But we are really a generator of ideas, more than anything else, and want to see these infused into the national debate.’

So with this last statement, we seem to have come full circle. Distilled Magazine reached out to Ambassador Deo to have her discuss the Art of the Possible, only to find out that she herself is engaged in an enterprise that seeks the boundaries of what can be achieved. So in this respect, with the Ambassadors example set, it seems fair to say that the times are right for everyone, whatever their previous functions might be, to pursue all sorts of possibilities and to make a difference.