As he walks past University buildings, adorned with blue plaques that celebrate some of history’s most remarkable people, Gareth Owen OBE is filled with hope and excitement for the next generation of leaders learning at Manchester today.
Gareth, Humanitarian Director at Save the Children UK, believes that our people possess the compassion, leadership skills and courage to create waves of future political change. They will work to make the world a fairer place and it’s their names we’ll see on buildings in 100 years’ time.
Gareth arrived at the University in 1987 and called Owen’s Park in Fallowfield home. A career in the aid sector wasn’t always on the cards – influenced by his father, he embarked on a Civil Engineering degree.
Any big system can fall into status quo mode. You need people whose job it is to agitate things.
It was a wonderful time to be in the city, the “height of Madchester” with “the most incredible music scene”. Despite a positive experience overall, graduating in 1990 and landing his first job in London, Gareth didn’t feel any passion for his chosen career.
So, he said: “I made one of the bravest decisions I’ve ever made – to go back to university.”
He studied for a master’s in irrigation at Southampton before travelling to Somalia with aid agency Concern Worldwide in 1993. He was 24 years old.
Working as a base logistician, Gareth helped the agency feed a population starved by famine and civil war. Although engineering hadn’t been his passion, his degree proved invaluable.
“Engineering gives you useful practical skills. You’re numerate, literate and able to communicate. You have to think logistically and problem-solve.
“The mindset of completing a task is ingrained in engineers. You don’t build half a bridge! Manchester was a really good grounding for that.”
Now a leading figure in the aid sector, Gareth worked with Concern Worldwide, Voluntary Service Overseas, Action contre la Faim and Oxfam, before joining Save the Children UK in 2002. Since then he has led responses to some of recent history’s most devastating crises, from the Iraq conflict and Indian Ocean tsunami, to the Haiti earthquake and civil wars in Somalia and Angola. His work earnt him an OBE in 2013 and the University’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 2017.
Becoming a disruptor
Gareth is, in his own words, a “disruptor”. Since taking his current post, he has lived by the motto ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’, shaking up the international humanitarian system and helping it “change with the times”.
As he puts it: “Any big system can fall into status quo mode. You need people whose job it is to agitate things.”
It’s this disruptive nature that saved the lives of 10,000 refugees in the Mediterranean in 2016.
Conflict, persecution and extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East forced unaccompanied children to risk everything on life-threatening journeys across the sea to Italy in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.
A risk they had no choice but to take.
“We put a 60-metre search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean,” says Gareth.
But first, they needed to find someone to pay for the large anchor handling tugboat, a piece of kit that sits low in the water so refugees can board easily. A boat set to cost $1 million per month. His first point of call was Greek shipping magnates who, according to maritime law, were legally obliged to respond to distress signals from refugee boats in the Med, costing them $1 million per day. It was in their interest to help Gareth and Save the Children UK.
Gareth’s actions made an immediate impact. After the ship was positioned 12 miles (19km) off the coast of Libya, 400 people were rescued in complete darkness from a boat in distress. One in four people rescued were children, the majority of whom were travelling alone. The ship saved 10,000 lives.
Sadly, these perilous routes still claim the lives of thousands more every year and Gareth continues to push for change, calling on world leaders to stop the Mediterranean becoming a mass unmarked grave for children.
“I’m about creating political action. People say to me ‘What’s the point of doing that?’
“Well it’s like when you protest and wave a placard. The only difference is 10,000 people’s lives were saved by doing that. It’s about being on the right side of history.”
Finding humanity in the darkest places
Gareth’s career has seen him encounter the brutality of conflict, famine and natural disasters across the world. It’s the humanity found in the most desperate of situations, however, that keeps him going.
You’ll always find humans who refuse to despair, whatever their circumstances.
“You always find inspiration – even in the worst of times. It’s the most uplifting thing you can experience. You’ll always find humans who refuse to despair, whatever their circumstances.”
Only once has he come home early. After eight months establishing a feeding programme for starving children in Angola – a country torn apart by civil war – he came home at the behest of his family, who were deeply concerned for his safety.
“My dad doesn’t do much in the way of emotion. He’s only hugged me twice. He grabbed me at the airport, held onto me and said ‘I thought we’d lost you’. It was a big moment.
“And it’s meant that for the rest of my career as a humanitarian, I’ve been very empathetic.”
In Angola he had encountered lawlessness and extreme violence. His experiences left permanent mental scars. Or, as he later realised, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“What happens with PTSD is your system thinks it’s in danger. Your brain knows you’re going to be fine, but your body goes into high alert.”
Even today, Gareth still suffers with its effects: “The most dangerous time as an aid worker is when you’re moving. So when I’m on a train to Manchester, my system equates moving with danger and you can’t switch it off.”
Learning from experience
Gareth’s experiences have given him an appreciation for and awareness of wellbeing – one of the University’s key priorities. He believes it’s this ability to express mental health concerns that will give the next generation the inner strength to make a real difference in the world.
“Humanitarianism is about human connection and hope. And you need a thin skin. Thin skins get a bad reputation! Being sensitive is the road to empathy, human connection and loyalty.
“We need that in the 21st century, or we won’t solve planetary-level crises like climate change.”
HCRI is stacked full of brilliant humanitarians. It’s a real powerhouse centre of learning. And I love that it’s here in Manchester.
Inspiring the next generation
Today, Gareth is back in Manchester speaking to the humanitarians of the future at a careers day hosted by the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI).
His return is thanks to Save the Children UK’s partnership with the HCRI. The charity uses the Institute’s research capacity and expertise, and HCRI is able to conduct field research that directly informs policy.
“It is stacked full of brilliant humanitarians. It’s a real powerhouse centre of learning. And I love that it’s here in Manchester.”
As part of the annual careers day, Gareth is sharing his experience with the students who will change the way the world thinks about helping others, something that can’t happen without critical reflection: “The big criticism of aid is that practitioner agencies have been weak at promoting reflection from within. We haven’t created enough space to think as the world evolves.”
Looking ahead, it’s the students of today who will think more, agitate more and disrupt the political landscape to make a positive impact.
“That’s what academic institutions like The University of Manchester are all about. They’re places of disruption and thought.”
Because now is the time to reimagine how we help the world, and as global citizens, create stronger, healthier futures for all.
Gareth’s latest book, When the Music’s Over: Intervention, Aid and Somalia, is available now.