Wisdom, history and a remarkable life Book review By David Bull

World to Rights

A blog on international development, human rights, leadership, charity and generally making the world a better place


Wisdom, history and a remarkable life

September 9, 2018 David Bull

This blog site was never intended as a place for book reviews. However, on this occasion a book says so much that chimes with my thinking, and that feels important in the current political context, that I felt a review would be appropriate. I hope you will read the review, but also the book itself, which I strongly recommend. While the book covers many issues and tells a great personal story, for me it most importantly brings a narrative of hope for a world increasingly mired in nationalism, isolationism and protectionism. What is needed is the reassertion of values of global solidarity and this book provides that much-needed worldview at a time of the greatest need.

It is a rare privilege to review a book by someone you genuinely admire. This is three books in one, and in spite of its 500+ pages is an absorbing read. It is far more than a memoir. It is a book for our times, but one that leaves the reader with a sense of hope that, despite setbacks, the world is on track for a better future. In a way, you could even say that this book, in its gentle way, is a manual for the work we all need t

o do to build a world fit for children, and therefore for all of us.

The first of the three books is an autobiography of an exceptional man. It is the unique story of a boy who grew up in a remote village in rural Nepal. A place where there was no road, no school, no health service, no post office, no telephone and no electricity. His parents were married when they were children. While child marriage is something he has campaigned against, his own parents and grandparents were caring and supportive and, in spite of their own lack of opportunity, gave him the chance to excel, and to become “Kul – Global Citizen from Gulmi”.

From this unlikely background, Kul went on to become Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, an Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Nepal’s highest ranking international civil servant. Thus the second book is a documentary – the story of UNICEF’s work for children across the world through the eyes of someone who was intimately involved in bringing about dramatic gains in child survival. We follow him through moments of history and see how, even (perhaps especially) at the most challenging times, it is possible, with great skill and diplomacy, to make a difference. From the dawn of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia, through the dictatorship of Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti, to his central role in high level diplomacy in New York, in Latin America and Asia, and his key role in helping his native Nepal to overcome its own strife following a brutal Maoist insurgency, we can witness through Kul’s eyes, the unfolding of the last half century of change across the world. Change in which he was not merely an observer, but an actor.

The third book though is the one that I believe is most important and the reason why this exceptional volume should be widely read. That third book is a philosophy of hope, a book of wisdom and reflection that addresses our worries, fears and uncertainties and brings the lessons of a unique life to bear on our past, our present, and most importantly our future. He reflects on the curse of ultra-nationalism and offers a convincing and powerful case for a world where states work together to address the key challenges of our time, which know no borders. He discusses the role of religion in world affairs, for good and ill, and his own journey from a Hindu upbringing to what may perhaps be described as Buddhist agnosticism. He contemplates the tricky balance between principle and pragmatism and shows how to hold to the principles of human rights, freedom and democracy even while seeking pragmatic solutions to seemingly impossible dilemmas and building a global consensus for progress. And he offers an optimistic vision for the better future we can achieve. All the ingredients for that future are in place. It is within reach. Developments that may seem to be taking us in the wrong direction are (if we make it so) just small blips in the positive sweep of history.

These three books are woven together so that we are carried along by the personal stories and what might otherwise become a description of bureaucratic endeavour becomes instead a compelling narrative. We learn how Kul came from the most unpromising roots, but through hard work, good luck and some inspirational people he met along the way, was able eventually to gain a scholarship to a leading US University. He nearly didn’t make it as the Government of Nepal seemed determined to prevent him getting a passport. The story of his battle for a passport is a lesson in how bureaucracy and political absurdity can get in the way, and is just one example of how Kul’s special combination of curiosity, energy and persistence enabled him to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles in every phase of his remarkable life.

While Kul is passionate about his home country of Nepal, his life has led him to embrace another identity, as a global citizen, as the embodiment of Thomas Paine’s dictum: “I am a citizen of the world and my religion is to do good”. It is this approach to identity that can help us to be proud citizens of our own countries while serving the greater global good. There is no contradiction. Indeed, it is through solidarity that we become the best we can be.

I only met Kul Gautam when I joined the UNICEF family in 1999, but there are so many overlaps between his story and mine. While he was a student activist at Dartmouth in the late ‘60s, campaigning against the Vietnam War, I was demonstrating in Grosvenor Square, and committing to the struggle against apartheid. After he served in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge took power, I wrote a report for Oxfam on the impact of UN decisions there, and later travelled to New York to lobby the UN in support of humanitarian aid to post Pol Pot Cambodia.  While Kul campaigned against the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, I wrote a book on the use and misuse of hazardous pesticides in developing countries. We were both closely involved in the huge effort to bring to global attention the impact of HIV/AIDS on the world’s children. And we both found in UNICEF, the organisation which, despite its flaws and its variable leadership, offered the best opportunity to apply our energy to changing the world for the better. And we are both long-time supporters of Oxfam, Kul currently as a Trustee.

The book also contains some lessons in leadership, built on the experience of serving alongside someone who inspires unprecedented loyalty and admiration among those who worked with him – UNICEF’s former Executive Director Jim Grant. As Kul puts it: “Grant came to UNICEF like a tornado with a bright rainbow on its horizon. He was bubbling with ideas and bouncing with energy”. Grant was the initiator of a revolution in child survival. His diplomacy, vision and leadership “probably saved more lives than were destroyed by Hitler, Mao and Stalin combined”. Grant’s success as a leader owed much to his positive outlook, his belief in humanity’s capacity to do good, and the deep faith he inspired in those he met, even the unsavoury world leaders he managed to convince to invest in immunisation, or to halt wars to bring help to children. It is fascinating for those of us who knew some of them to see Kul’s scores out of ten for UNICEF’s Executive Directors.  I’m surprised Ann Veneman got as many as four. Grant got eleven!

Having retired from the UN, Kul is in a strong position to examine its weaknesses and does so without flinching. Nevertheless, his wisdom and experience underscores with precision and power why the world needs the UN and why we should all support a multilateral approach to world affairs. He recognises the need for reform, not least in the Security Council. But he is scathing in his critique of some of the more doctrinaire and ideological pressures of member states to undermine the distinct mandates of individual humanitarian and development agencies like UNICEF.  He is well aware (though he spends, for me, too little time on it) of the unique “people to people” nature of UNICEF within the UN system, as the only agency which derives a substantial part of its support from the global public, especially through its network of National Committees. He also emphasises their role in advocacy and education in industrialised countries as a key element in UNICEF’s commitment to every child, wherever they live.

Kul’s conclusions on the UN are worth quoting at length:

“in our imperfect world that is rapidly shrinking into a global village, there is no alternative to inter-dependence and solidarity. As the issues of global warming and climate change highlight, whether we are rich or poor, from the North or South, we are all destined to sink or swim together. Assuming we would rather swim than sink, we need an organization like the UN to help establish some common rules of the game for managing global public goods and values. As it has been said, if the UN did not exist, it would have to be created anew. Since it already exists and it has endured and overcome some of the toughest tests to its raison d’etre, let us make it an effective instrument for tackling those planetary problems that no nation, no matter how powerful, can hope to tackle alone”.

The UN’s vital presence is evident across the world in peacemaking, humanitarian response, international development and the adoption of global norms, standards and conventions that allow us to hold leaders to account. One of the greatest of these, and the most widely ratified, is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives UNICEF its mandate. Only the USA, to its great shame, has not ratified this landmark human rights standard. Jim Grant’s deathbed appeal to Bill Clinton led to its signature but the US has failed to follow this with full ratification. A change in this US position will be one important element if we are to see Kul’s bright vision come true.

In looking to the future, Kul believes that two great issues define our current dilemma: migration and climate change:

“For the next couple of decades, xenophobic restrictions on migration on the one hand and “migration for development” as a positive force are likely to coexist as dominant themes in the world’s political and development agenda. Climate change and how we harness the earth’s natural resources will challenge human ingenuity. Striking the right balance between adaptation and mitigation, and dealing with these issues from a trans-national perspective, will surely be the greatest public policy triumph, or tragedy, of the next generation of world leaders”.

Kul spells out other elements of the change the world needs to see if his vision is to be realised. These are ambitious but he manages to make us believe they are possible, even inevitable: a democratic China, a united South Asia (with India and Pakistan especially learning to work together), the emergence of Africa as the new miracle of economic development, and a renewed United Nations at the centre. At the heart of the empowerment of the UN is the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ – the principle of solidarity and international duty to act wherever states are grossly violating the rights of their people. This solidarity will, in Kul’s view, overcome the parochial concept of sovereignty which is so prevalent today:

“It is heart-breaking to see how parochial national interests of countries – especially the big powers – is preventing the UN from acting to implement the noble concept of the “responsibility to protect” in situations of conflict, massive refugee crises or gross violation of human rights as is the case currently in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and North Korea. But I strongly believe that over time application of the principle of “responsibility to protect” is likely to be the most enlightened marker of the UN living up to the ideal of “We the peoples of the United Nations”. I bet that a hundred years from now, the Westphalian view of sovereignty – that states should run their own affairs without any foreign interference – will sound quaint and outdated. Today’s ultra-nationalists will seem like dinosaurs”.

His vision is inspired also by the example of Costa Rica in reducing military expenditure and investing instead in development. True security will not emerge from a greater stash of weaponry (neither for individual US proponents of the gun lobby or for states) but from economic and social wellbeing and solidarity that ensures a better future for citizens. He is also convinced that a focus on greater equity will be a vital element in this more secure future:

“the progress made for humanity at large in the past half century – including in the poorest countries of the world – in terms of increased life expectancy, reduced mortality, control of diseases, access to education and communication, poverty reduction, spread of democracy and human rights – is of such scale and magnitude that our ancestors would find the world today unrecognizable. Yet, if we did a public opinion survey, there would probably be more people complaining about their misery and deprivation. The major reason for people feeling they are worse off than before is directly related to the growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots, even when the have-nots today are objectively much better off than their parents or grandparents. Visible inequity and growing disparities in the living standards and lifestyles of people magnifies the sense of deprivation and injustice among the less well- to-do”.

Even the IMF has realised the dangers of growing inequality, warning that it creates “an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential” that threatens “the precious fabric that holds our society together”.

If, as Kul believes we can and will, the world is able to overcome its divisions and tackle global challenges together in solidarity and share responsibility for the protection of the most vulnerable, then “the era of democratic stability and peaceful progress is clearly on the horizon”.

His hope is founded not just on a positive and optimistic outlook, but on a lifetime of service and experience, and in a belief in the young people who will become the next generation of world leaders. This book is important. It offers us a vision that counters the narrow parochialism that seems to be gaining too much traction in our recent politics. It is a new manifesto for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, who will not gain from ultra-nationalism, austerity, Trumpism and Brexit but from global solidarity, equity and protection of human rights. And it is a guide and manual for all of us – a lesson in principled pragmatism, determination and the power of an optimistic vision.


Wisdom, history and a remarkable life