HEAD OF EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA | ARTICLE 19
What do you do for Article 19?
I head the Europe and Central Asia programme. We're a relatively small team ofteam of five and a part-timer. We work on protecting freedom of expression across Europe and Central Asia, which includes the EU states, Eastern European states and Central Asia. We mainly focus on the former Soviet Union.
We have various projects, which I'm ultimately responsible for, collaborating with project officers who work more on direct implementation in each country.
What is a 'typical day' like?
It always depends - my job incorporates a range of different areas. The part I enjoy the most is strategy development and thinking about what we can do and how we can work with local partners to have an impact on freedom of expression and information. That's in response to on-going monitoring of the current political situation in country.
A major part of my work is fundraising with government donors and with private funds and foundations.
I do a lot of work on implementation: research, reviewing work done by colleagues and developing training manuals or submitting legal briefs. In that case, we work with lawyers, and we will provide the political and social context, and then submit them.
There's a lot of communications work: writing advocacy letters and policy papers to parliamentary assemblies or the UN.
Then there's all the assessing and reporting that comes with implementation to make sure we can understand and measure what our impact is, reporting it back to donors and making sure we’re on budget.
What are you most proud of?
Working on freedom of expression in the former Soviet Union is challenging. You don't see a lot of breakthrough. You never really have a huge impact.
We've recently finished a project we are hoping to get more funding for. It was about countering hate speech against LGBTI people in Kazakhstan. It was a great project for me because it was really new for the organisation. We had been working at a policy level on how freedom of expression is restricted for LGBTI people and hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, but we hadn’t been doing much in terms of implementing the policies and pushing the UN and other international structures to encourage reform in this area. This was a chance to work with LBGTI activists, journalists and lawyers in Kazakhstan to start challenging hate speech by producing counter speech. I was recently in Kazakhstan to evaluate that work and one of the things that came out was that there was actual change at an individual level: journalists were changing the way they would write about LGBTI issues. In Kazakhstan, it's very difficult to see progress. Seeing so many people believing in the project and thinking it could achieve something felt great.
Another example would be in Azerbaijan. We've been doing a lot of work on the crackdown on human rights defenders and journalists there. There were a lot of people in jail. Recently 14 political prisoners, who should never have been there in the first place, were released. This is partly due to the changing economic context in Azerbaijan, but I think our campaigning showed the authorities there that they would need to make concessions to human rights. The campaigning was the work of multiple human rights defenders, both local and from Europe and the US. We'd been campaigning around the European games, at the UN level, with the Council of Europe… Often campaign work doesn't really lead anywhere but we are seeing impact as those 14 prisoners were released. It shows international pressure can work, although clearly there's a lot more to do. It's good for the prisoners who were released, but we are yet to see systemic change regarding human rights.
Why did you decide to join Article 19?
I've known of Article 19 for a long time. When I was a student I was involved distantly in some of their campaigns. Previously I was working in conflict prevention, which is a bit different, but I always knew my interest was Europe and Central Asia. Freedom of expression is really dear to me because it is an enabling right. In the same way that you can't have development if you have conflict, you can't have democratic development without freedom of expression and access to information.
How was the application process?
It was pretty tough. I sent my cover letter and CV and was then asked to do a test. I thought the test would be not too much. They sent it to me on the Friday evening and I had until the Sunday evening to submit it. It was shortly before Christmas. The test was to write a six years strategy for promoting freedom of expression in Europe and Central Asia. They'd also given me a blog to edit and excerpts of a report and asked me to propose recommendation for it.
I remember receiving it and wondering 'do I really want this job'? I decided I did and cancelled all my weekend plans. I did the test and then I had the interview and then I got the role.
Why the interest in Europe and Central Asia?
I studied Russian and French at university. As part of the course, I spent three months in Russia and found it fascinating. After graduation I went back for a year, teaching English and improving my language skills.
Initially, I chose Russian because I love Russian literature but then I became fascinated in the political developments. The media coverage of Russia is frustrating and simplistic, often without trying to understand what the Russian perspective is.
Living there and speaking to Russians, I felt news coverage was trying to fit Russians into a box they didn't necessarily agree with. After I lived there, I did my master European Studies, but focused on Russia and Central Asia and I was lucky to get an internship at Chatham House. I became more and more interested in the political events and decided I wanted to focus on that region.
Why didn't you become a journalist?
I considered it, but Masters' degrees in journalism were all expensive. I explored my options and discovered that the UK offered a scholarship to study at the College of Europe. So I went down the political science route and then it made more sense to pursue a career in an NGO.
You spent four years working at Saferworld before joining Article 19.
Saferworld is a conflict prevention organisation. I worked on the Caucasus and Central Asia. We worked on trying to improve relations between communities and security providers in the belief that you will have instability when people don't feel safe.
The other area was ensuring people's perspectives were reflected in the political peace process and making sure any security and conflict regulation mechanisms responded to people's needs and try to ensure that they would not drive further conflict.
Did you enjoy working there?
Yes, I enjoyed it an awful lot. It was brilliant. With conflict, sometimes it helps to have an external perspective within it. The work we were doing responded to a huge need in terms of working with partners and facilitating meeting. Often, for people involved in the conflict situation, it's hard to do, so there is a clear value of working with an external partner.
We could develop constructive relationships with governments. At Article 19, it's difficult to have constructive relationships with a lot of governments because they see us as an external, Western threat.
Sometimes, when you're working on conflict, it's clearer why you're there and what you're doing so there’s more trust. That's one of the challenges of human rights work, particularly working with former Soviet countries where there is a huge backlash against human rights and international influence: you continuously have to explain why you are doing it and why it's important. It's a constant battle.
Could this attitude towards Western NGOs change?
Not in the short-term in many countries. There is a very strong narrative that sees Western NGOs as posing a huge threat to stability in those countries. We are trying to change that at a societal level but at a political level that's not something we're in a position to change.
How was studying French and Russian at UCL?
That was great. The Russian department at UCL is incredibly supportive. I didn't study Russian before I went to university; I started from scratch there. Russian is a much closer course than French; you know your course mates very well. It's very intense because you have a lot of lectures to get your Russian up to a fluent level by the time you graduate. My degree was much more literature-based than politics-focused.
In the French department, you had less of a feel of knowing everybody within the course. I chose more philosophy than literature, which was fascinating and changed the way I approach a lot of things.
A lot of people are put off going to university in London. I come from Hampshire/Dorset and a lot of people were nervous about going to London universities because they worried about the cost and about meeting people. But that wasn't my experience. I always try to encourage everyone where I am from to at least look at London universities and the courses they offer. I had a very positive experience there.
What was studying at the College of Europe in Warsaw like?
It's a funny experience. In my year there were 101 students, from 40 different countries. You live in a former palace outside Warsaw and the course is incredibly intensive and very different from the British way of teaching. The lecturers come from all over Europe and the world. Rather than having on-going course, you tend to have one week focused on one course, then move on to another and then pick the first up again.
It made me feel very European. It was helpful in terms of understanding how the European Union works and of being able to see how it needs to be reformed. That's so important now in the UK, where we’re having this debate on Britain leaving the EU. So much of the debate focuses on In or Out rather than reform.
The College of Europe enabled me to see myself as a European who believes in Europe and can articulate what's wrong with it and what needs to change. There aren't enough people in the UK who get the opportunity to study the EU. Erasmus is another programme that allows you to do it. I did and loved it.
What is your advice to young girls who would like a similar career?
Languages are important. Speaking Russian has helped me to get internships and jobs. It's so much more than understanding the language, it's also understanding the culture. My advice to anybody going into their studies would be to include languages as well.
My second piece of advice would be to know what you want from a job. It can be quite tough to get into this sector so if you're passionate about certain areas and certain rights, it's much easier to get the role.
You need to be realistic and know that there's a lot of admin. It’s important to understand exactly what comes with the roles and doing internships can help. As well as the brilliant parts like working on strategy and working with partners, there's an equal amount of time writing reports and doing the less exciting parts.
How do you make up for it?
No two days are ever the same. Our local partners are some of the most inspiring people I've ever met. They work in difficult contexts where they make personal sacrifices. They have so much belief in what they do and speaking with them is always a revelation and makes the less exciting stuff more worthwhile.
What do you see in the next five years?
I've only been at Article 19 for a year. I’ve got a great team and we’ve just finished our strategy for the next six years. I’m very excited about implementing it and fundraising for it. So within the next five years I hope to still be here but with more projects and to be able to follow on the successful projects we’ve been doing.
Katie Morris | Head of Europe and Central Asia | ARTICLE 19
Six years' experience
CV in brief
Previously worked as Regional Conflict and Security Adviser, Europe and Central Asia (2013-2015), Project Coordinator, Caucasus Programme (2012 - 2013), Project Officer, Caucasus Programme (2011 - 2012) at Saferworld | Intern, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House | Charity Fundraiser at Listen | Intern at Eclectic Publishing
Languages spoken English, Russian, French
Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, April 2016