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Collaboration key to MBA alumnus success in Afghanistan

Chris Austin meeting Boris Johnson

20 September 2017

Recently appointed Head of the UK Task Force Hurricane Irma (and Maria), Chris Austin CBE (MBA, 1993) is based in Barbados overseeing the UK efforts in British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, and Anguilla regions. Here, he reflects on his recent deployment to Afghanistan. 

Within days of Chris’s arrival in Afghanistan to begin his job as Country Director for the Department for International Development (DFID), he found himself diving for the office floor scrabbling for his flak jacket after an attack on the British Embassy. In that same week, an official car was bombed and two of his colleagues were killed.

“It was just like the training we had been given, but this time it was for real,” muses Chris, while on paid ‘decompression leave’ after 2.5 years in Kabul.“Afghanistan was a very unusual place to work, but when I got to my desk, it was very similar to the job I had been doing in Bangladesh, where I was not in danger. It was all about trying to achieve the greatest improvement in the lives of Afghan people, through the best use of British aid.”

Chris does not court danger, but his career as a senior civil servant with postings in Africa (4 years) and Asia (5 years), means that he has often had to work in what are called ‘fragile environments’, and he has learned to cope under that pressure. He does not rule out going back to Afghanistan, because he knows that his work makes a difference, and he is proud of his team’s work.

The statistics he produces speak volumes. When he first worked in Afghanistan in 2002, girls were not being schooled because the Taliban forbade it and only 8 % of the population lived within two hours walk of basic health services, but by 2015, 6.4 million children attended primary and secondary school, including 39% of girls, and 60% of the population lived within 2 hours walk of basic health care. Chris attributes this to a combination of effective use of British aid and the creation of strong collaborative networks.

Chris's work is all about collaboration and taking ideas from others sometimes in ‘pressure cooker’ situations. He sees this understanding as the key outcome of his year at Lancaster University Management School - in particular the team working.

He says: “The Lancaster MBA taught me about the value of listening to others and about how to go about breaking down barriers between people. This was not about thinking as an individual, or even as a team - collectively it was a shared challenge.”

The London University History graduate was in his late 20s when he came to Lancaster. He had been in Malawi for four years on a tough Civil Service posting, in which he had lost friends in car and plane accidents, and needed a change, when a person he himself was mentoring suggested Chris did an MBA. He leapt at the chance to test his intellectual mettle.

Although initially worried about working with numbers, he immediately saw the relevance of the Economics course, especially for the understanding it gave him about the workings of international markets and how government interventions affect them.

He was also astonished to find himself drawn to the Accounting and Finance module, because it shed new light on how organisations work, which he had never before encountered. He says it paved the way for his current role as chairman of the IAESB (International Accounting Education Standards Board). After his MBA, when the DFID later wanted to give its senior civil servants more financial knowhow, he volunteered for a Warwick diploma in Leadership and Finance.

He says: “I would never have gone into the world of financial management had it not been for Lancaster.” 

Lancaster was not all about work however. He is still a keen sportsman now and relished Lancaster’s sports facilities to play rugby and cricket for the 1st teams and also to get to know undergraduates at a very different stage of their lives from himself.

Within two years, he was appointed as the UK Executive Director’s Assistant at the World Bank/IMF in Washington DC - bolstered with newfound financial knowledge and confidence from his Lancaster MBA.

Since then he has gone through a number of demanding head of department roles for DFID - directing the Western Asia department from 2001-3 and playing an important part in developing the UK’s strategy to both Afghanistan and Iraq’s reconstruction. He has also had a leading post in the Africa Division, been DFID Country Director in Bangladesh, as well as working in the UK on national security issues.

His days on overseas postings revolve around meetings with ministers and their deputies, discussions with other major aid donors, engagements with contractors and work with the ambassador on security, staff moral and the successful implementation of the UK aid plan.

Aid is a long-term game, in his experience, with plenty of critics ready to challenge whether financial assistance should be given out abroad at all. Chris is adamant that DFID is getting better and tougher about assessing projects.

To any suggestion that handing out aid might be reviewed in times of austerity, Chris gives an uncompromising answer: “Britain’s security against terrorism and aid to Afghanistan are totally interlinked. It’s about helping the Afghans to feel that they have a future. If we did not have an aid programme in Afghanistan, there would be a high risk of it falling under terrorist control.”

Chris is passionate about this despite its stressful nature and is clear that Lancaster played its role in equipping him to do it, saying: “It helped me to understand the benefits of joined-up government and it built up my confidence in my intellectual possibilities.”