In a modern hurried-up world, they rank as some of the least understood or acknowledged forces for policy, diplomacy, human justice or humanitarianism.  There are less than 200 of them in a world of billions and inevitably become the face of their country.

I’m speaking of ambassadors.  They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  They aren’t the celebrity type, appointed by UNICEF or other vast organizations because of their profile.  Instead, most have gone through years of foreign service training that includes a background in foreign aid, conflict management, military functioning, and communications.

In Canada’s case, our international reputation owes much to the high quality of diplomatic acumen in key regions of the globe, especially during the formative years of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  If it has slipped somewhat in recent decades, it is largely because of political manipulations that inevitably undercut this most valuable of Canadian assets.

A team of 11 Canadian volunteers have just returned from South Sudan, where, annually, our organization visits to provide support of our women’s programs in that troubled land.  The heroism and inspiration of the region’s women was as always – valiant, collaborative, enduring, sustainable, and, remarkably, hopeful.  All this despite the death of thousands by famine, civil war, a crisis in healthcare, and corruption at high political levels.

One of the key occasions that will remain with our team was our meeting with Canada’s ambassador to South Sudan, Alan Hamson.  The moment we arrived, grubby and fatigued, he was at the door – tall, well-attired and with a kind of familiar efficiency that lent easily to discussion.  The meeting room barely fit us all and many of us found ourselves wondering how someone so pivotal functioned in such a small space.  And yet day after day Hamson and his team somehow navigate the constraints in order to accomplish tasks both great and small.

It was clear from the moment we entered that the ambassador and his team weren’t there for the financial reward or the notoriety.  In simple terms: they endured all the hardships for the sake of their country.  Most were Canadians in a faraway and frequently hostile place so that the Canadian flag itself carried the value of understanding, compassion, a firm belief in global justice, inclusion and tolerance.  Each was skilled in their own particular discipline and had worked hard to get there, despite the hostility of the surroundings and the difficulties endured as part of their work.

The ambassador prodded us, seeking clarification on what was happening in the remote regions of the country where we worked.  He was especially keen on learning of the plight of women in the area and was delighted to hear of their advancement despite the obstacles.  And when we questioned him as to his insights, Hamson was careful to converse within the boundaries of his diplomatic responsibilities – revealing enough to intrigue us with his knowledge yet restrained enough to maintain the confidentiality required to work with all partners in the country.

It became clear to me only a few moments into the meeting that our ambassador to South Sudan was conscious of the reality that he was the key representative by which his own country of Canada would be judged by the locals.  Any thoughtless act would reflect on the Canadians he represented.  Every effort at patient understanding would inevitably hint to others what his home country represented.  Hamson was careful on this point, but not to extent that he wasn’t open.  He spoke of his frustrations and hardships, along with his belief in the average Southern Sudanese citizen, especially women, and their right to reshape their new nation status by their own values.

For Hamson, humanitarianism wasn’t so much an activity as a calling card for Canada itself – including his own reason for being there.  In a land with so high a death and conflict rate, mixed with devastating poverty, a human face and an extended hand can frequently mean more than words.  As he put it in a recent interview:

“The volume of people in a dire humanitarian situation is mind blowing.  Five and half people within the next six months will be facing severe food insecurity.  This will affect half the country’s population.  That’s a staggering number of people who really require a concerted effort from humanitarian agencies to maintain their basic food and nutrients.”

This formed a great part of the reason he wanted to meet with us.  Regardless of our being only a small organization, the fact was the we had been working in the country for two decades and Hamson was thirsty for anything that would enlighten him on the state of the Southern Sudanese themselves and their fight for survival.  He dutifully reminds anyone who will listen that Canada has pledged millions to the humanitarian effort, but it was clear to all of us that more was required if the nation was to endure.

We left the office with increased knowledge of how vital Canada’s foreign service is and how individual servants like Alan Hamson are as vital to our country’s image and effectiveness in the world as any prime minister or corporation.  He willingly accepted us because, for all his professional accomplishments, he is a humanitarian at heart – a man suspended between two worlds.  That was more than enough for us and a badge of honour for our country.


This post can be read in its original National Newswatch format here.