Carving out a niche to make a difference
Mark Mattner (Li Po Chun UWC of Hong Kong, 1995-1997)
As part of our series of impact stories focusing on peacebuilding, we sat down with Mark Mattner (Li Po Chun UWC of Hong Kong, 1995-1997) who is currently working for German development agency, GIZ, which focuses on international development co-operation and international education work. Looking back on his time at Li Po Chun UWC over two decades ago, Mark explains how the experience helped to expand his worldview leading to a fulfilling and challenging career.
“If you have nothing to fight for, then what do you have to live for?” Mark remembers well how this question pulled him up short when it was posed to him by one of his new classmates at Li Po Chun UWC. As a 17-year-old German coming to UWC, Mark remembers bringing with him a certain sense of guilt about his country’s history. But, as he listened to the stories of his classmates from all over the world, it started to open his mind to other people’s experiences of war and conflict - giving him a much more nuanced perspective.
“It was these discussions, and the exposure to different cultures and points of view that really helped to broaden my horizons”, Mark reflects. Looking back, Mark realises now how ignorant he was of things happening in the wider world. Coming from a Europe-centred point of view, he remembers choosing Li Po Chun UWC specifically, as it seemed “so far away” and, sure enough, he was quickly exposed to real-world issues happening right on his doorstep: “The college was right next to a detention camp for Vietnamese refugees (referred to as “boat people” at the time). There were riots in the camp several times when I was there, and at one point the police were actually using the college dining hall as their command post.” At the same time, Mark remembers also being heavily involved in the local community through UWC’s focus on service, and it was this combined experience that helped to shape his desire to work in international development.
Mark developed strong friendships from his time at Li Po Chun UWC, “my roommates were from Hong Kong, Canada, Japan and Sierra Leone, and I went on to live in Canada for five years, and I worked in Sierra Leone. I stayed in touch with these guys, and they’ve often been there for me at very important times in my life.” Once he’d caught the travelling bug, Mark says it was difficult to shake, as he was keen to see more of the world and to discover where he could best put his skills to use.
From Hong Kong, Mark went on to SOAS University of London to study Politics and Economics with a focus on SouthEast Asia. Working for the World Bank a few years later, he travelled to Nigeria to help with a pilot violence mitigation project, and found it so pertinent (and interesting) that he decided to pursue doctoral research on violence and oil production in the Niger Delta. Mark comments, “for me, this is the great privilege that studying somewhere like UWC brings - you find something that interests you, and you have the confidence to pursue it, no matter where that takes you.” Mark had been set on continuing in academia, but then decided he wanted to return to engaging with international development issues in a more practical hands-on way, so jumped at the opportunity to lead a project for GIZ in West Africa, focusing on regulating mining companies more effectively and on reducing conflict in mining regions.
Much of Mark’s work has centred around violence mitigation, “we could say peace is the absence of war, that’s one definition of peace, and even if it’s not a very satisfactory one, it does at least give you something concrete to work on.” And it’s this sense of pragmatism that Mark credits with helping him to stay focused and hopeful in his work,
“It makes no sense to me to think that you can change everything….the problems are often very significant, and they affect people’s lives in terrible ways we can’t even imagine, but if you carve out your niche, and you choose to concentrate your energy there - then you can make a difference.”
Mark’s work at the moment focuses on government-to-government assistance, and this has brought with it its own frustrations, “yes, the systems I’m working with are often deeply dysfunctional - but I feel like I have learned ways to navigate them and still make a positive contribution.”
Mark alludes to a sense of his own moral compass in helping to guide him in his work, “it’s that sense of wanting to do something that is useful, and that I can stand by. Does that mean that I always know what to do, and I alway get it right? No, obviously not, but we have to try to do our best. There’s no point in waiting for the system to change, we have to do something about it.” Mark agrees that there’s certainly a lot to be worried about, the multilateral system breaking down, liberal democratic norms in the West under strain, the planet hotting up, and new diseases springing up. But he believes that education must, and can, play a key role in motivating and empowering future generations to act, “the only way out is to encourage people to think -what can I do?” Mark asserts that learning in diverse environments is an incredibly important part of this as, “it gives you more options to think creatively, to problem-solve, and it gives you more resources to draw upon as you listen to different people’s opinions and consider what they have to say.”
It’s easy to be myopic in our thinking, believing that the situation is irreversible, but Mark is reminded of his grandparents’ experience of living in Germany during the Second World War, “they wouldn’t have imagined at the time that one day Germany would see peace again.” Touching on climate change, Mark is also quick to assert how much these issues are inextricably linked with peacebuilding,
"We need to get away from this lofty view of peacebuilding, as people then start to question ‘but what does it really mean?’. To me, it’s very clear. It's the distribution of scarce resources, and how we can best organise them, so it’s fair, and not violent. At least this is somewhat concrete, and it helps individuals to see that they can make a contribution.”
Taking a more global perspective is necessary, Mark points out, as unless we tackle the violent way resources are often managed, we will never reach lasting solutions. In his policy work now, Mark believes that “combining short-term humanitarian approaches, so supporting people with what they need now, while also supporting more longer-term changes” will be something that brings a tangible positive impact.
It’s clear that Mark’s desire as a 17-year-old to go beyond the bounds of his immediate experience, has propelled him forward in his career, leading him to embrace opportunities as they’ve arisen. But he says he wishes he’d been even more assertive in grabbing those chances, “I sometimes wish I’d been less timid, and had less trepidation…what would my advice be to younger generations? I’d say, just go for it, the only way is forward, see what the opportunities are, and don’t be afraid to take them.”