Alumni Profile - Charlotte Seymour-Smith

Charlotte Seymour-Smith talks to us about aid, trade and her career in international development. 

You began working as an anthropologist, before moving to the UK Department for International Development. What was the driver behind that decision?

I have always been interested in the practical application of anthropology. During my time in Peru I became interested in how different agencies can work with local communities who are in the thick of economic change and are often deeply disadvantaged in power relations. This led me to work in international development.

What does your work with Christian Aid involve?

This is a really rewarding role and one which I cherish. As a Trustee, I aim to contribute my experience of a wide range of international development challenges and issues of policy and practice. Different Board members bring different skills and experience so I try to take a broad strategic overview and contribute my specialist knowledge. Christian Aid is a wonderful organisation that has a true passion for its work, and a real commitment to helping those in poverty and challenging the systems and structures that keep people poor.

What key international trade issues will we be tackling over the next ten years?

The international trade agenda is one that is becoming ever more complex and challenging. Climate change and high food prices highlight the need for trade rules to support fair and sustainable systems of food and agriculture. We also need to ensure that intellectual property rules, long a contentious part of the trade agenda, strike the right balance in protecting the interests of innovators and investors as well as those of consumers and small-scale farmers.

Many people have criticised the imbalance of 'aid and trade' between Europe and Africa. Should we stop providing aid and focus on reforming international trade rules instead?

I don't think it is a question of either aid or trade, I think we need both to work together, including 'aid for trade', which needs to be more effective and evidence based, focused on tackling constraints to growth and barriers to markets, trade networks and value chains for small producers. I would also like to mention in this context that tax justice is a really important part of the picture. Governments in the developed and the developing countries need to work together to ensure a fair tax take, enabling them to build the systems that can support society and help poorer countries grow their own way out of poverty.

Is the idea of eradicating poverty just a pipe-dream?

No. A lot of progress has been made in poverty reduction in the last 20 or 30 years. Many Asian and Latin American countries, for example, have made great strides. Eradicating the worst forms of poverty is by no means unachievable if the political will is there. The private sector and non-governmental organisations have a big role to play, as well, in helping governments and local communities tackle the remaining challenges. Governance is very important too: without good governance progress will be much harder.

Some people are particularly sceptical about the current government ring-fencing the international aid budget, as domestic programmes are being severely cut. Do you believe this is the right decision to make?

I think the current government has been courageous in maintaining its commitment to the aid budget in the face of economic difficulties and hardships at home, and I hope this will continue. However difficult things may be for British people, cutting the aid budget is not likely to help. We are a country which leads the way in an enlightened and progressive approach to international development assistance and it's something to be proud of.

If you had the power to instantly make three changes to UK trade policy, what would they be?

I would like to focus on just two. Firstly, a renewed commitment to putting poverty reduction at the heart of the trade agenda. It's natural that our trade policy should aim to increase opportunities for British business and investment, but it can also aim to make a better and fairer system for everyone, including poor countries. Secondly, we need to focus on the delivery of fair and sustainable food and farming systems. This needs to be made a higher priority in light of the huge challenges highlighted by the campaign 'Enough food for everyone IF'. Everyone can have enough food if world leaders act now, but I am not sure I see that urgency in our UK policy (yet).

What effect will the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the 'BRICS') have on the international environment?

This effect is already being widely felt, and policy makers are probably still running to catch up. The trade, investment and business landscape in South Africa, for example, has been radically transformed over the past decade by the new relationships emerging with China and India. There is a need for a new dialogue at international level, which learns from the BRICS and their experiences, and draws them in to debate and deliberation about a new global development agenda. Discussions about which framework should follow on from the Millennium Development Goals, post 2015, have still not achieved this kind of inclusiveness.

What has been your most difficult moment professionally?

Gosh, that is hard to say, there have been a few! Trade negotiations can be wearing and demoralising at times, there just seems to be no progress and clever negotiators can easily cancel each other out. The working environment in Brussels is high pressure and mistakes are not easily lived down. I got some really good results in the negotiations I was responsible for, but it felt a bit bumpy at times along the way.

What influence has your time at Henley had on your career to date?

The Henley Certificate in Coaching was something I wanted to do because of my enduring interest in mentoring and in enabling others. This has always been something I have found tremendously rewarding. As someone with a social sciences background and a lifelong interest in psychology, the coaching skillset I learned at Henley was an excellent way of building on existing knowledge and skills.

How has your perspective changed throughout your career?

Being in a high-pressure working environment brings its own rewards and perspective, moving out of that and taking a more distanced role as a non-exec or a Board member feels very different. It enables a different kind of balance and objectivity.

Charlotte began her working life as an anthropologist in the Amazon region, publishing the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology. She then moved to the UK Department for International Development in a number of roles including Head of the International Trade Department, Head of the UK Aid Programme in India and Director of Asia. She is now a Trustee of Christian Aid and a member of the Quaker United Nations Committee.