It has been three years since Andrew Fleming became the Deputy High Commissioner of the United Kingdom (UK) to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The senior diplomat, who took up the position in July 2017, has made his mark by promoting business and trade between the UK and the two Telugu states, besides connecting with several people, especially through his personal Twitter profile
In an interview with TNM, Andrew, who joined the British Civil Service in 1986 and has held a wide variety of roles in the UK and abroad, talks about growing up, how he became a diplomat, his love for travelling and the work done by his office in Hyderabad.
1. Tell us about yourself
I was born in Carshalton which is in south London and I grew up in the neighbouring district of Wallington. I spent all of my childhood there. I went to state-run local primary school and secondary schools.
I have a neuro-diverse condition called dyspraxia as well as dyslexia. Although I was doing well at school overall, there wasn't enough support and I faced a lot of bullying. So, I didn't bother with university. Instead I went to the 'university of life', travelled the world and tried to explore as much as I could.
At 17, I joined the civil service and I took a job at the Home Office. I used most of my earnings and all my leave to travel. The education is still ongoing with every new person that I meet. I did get an honorary doctorate from the University of Bolton in 2019, which was in recognition of my work.
2. How did you become a diplomat? Was it something that always interested you?
When I was three years old, I could point to every country on the map. When I was 4, I had learnt all of the capitals, By 5, I could identify the flags of all countries. Every time I went to the library, I returned with books about countries
I was really obsessed with maps. I had to find my own interests and amuse myself as I was an only child and my parents were working. This was something that really attracted me. The more I read, the more I understood about different countries.
I wanted a job that let me travel and let me see the world. It so happened that I was sent to Uganda in 2001 after 14 years of joining the civil service, and when I went and lived there, I immediately loved it. Every weekend, I would travel to different colleagues’ villages and explored a lot. I knew at that point that I wanted to be a diplomat.
From 2001 to 2014 I was working towards this goal. I've had additional challenges that I've explained. I got the diagnosis of dyspraxia only at the age of 43, thanks to the Foreign Office, as it was part of the application process. It's been a long journey but it has paid off.
3. You completed three years of your tenure in Hyderabad. What were your first impressions of the city when you got here, and how has it grown on you?
I first came to Hyderabad after I got this job, for a reconnaissance visit in December 2016. When I did move here, I had done my research and I knew a lot of things I wanted to do and see. Having lived in other countries and having travelled so much, I felt at ease from the moment I got out of the flight.
That same night, I had an event locally and I began to make friends on the very first day. Since then, I have made many friends. There are so many people that I love spending time with. It's going to be extremely painful and hard when the time comes to leave.
I happen to think that it's important for diplomats to not just sit in their office but get out and explore and understand the region. I had made a pledge that I would visit all the districts in Telangana and Andhra.
I have loved every moment of travelling because that's when you really get to understand the real Telugu region and the people of the two states, and the diversity within those states as well. The experiences are absolutely irreplaceable.
4. As Deputy High Commissioner, what does your role involve? During the ongoing pandemic, how have you restructured your work?
Before the pandemic, my role was split between trade investment and prosperity and the other half would involve understanding the politics of the region, sharing that with my colleagues, making connections with representatives of all political parties, journalists, besides identifying civil society organisations that are credible and that we can work with. There was also the internal aspect of leading the team.
When the pandemic first hit, there was a crisis of stranded people who needed to get back to the UK. We had challenges of getting people spread across a large region. The day we had our flight out of Hyderabad, we brought people from all parts of AP who collectively had to travel a distance equal to that between London to Melbourne in order to get on to the flight
It was logistically challenging and massively helped by the fact that we have strong relations with the police in the two states. We are trained as diplomats to handle crisis situations so that kicked in and it worked out well.
After that, I thought that we have to return to normal business as best we can. In recent weeks, we have hosted a number of events virtually and we are also continuing our work on climate change. It's really a priority for us as we prepare for the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP)-26, which UK is hosting in Glasgow in November 2021.
The other challenge is keeping the team motivated and luckily, I have an excellent team.
5. You are quite popular on Twitter. How do you use Twitter for Digital Diplomacy?
My office always encouraged me to use social media. In Nigeria, I took to Twitter in 2014, but I didn't think much of it.
In 2016 for some reason, I said I'll try again and somehow, it worked for me. It even helped me as one of the things I struggle with, is to be concise while writing. I found it to be good discipline.
I got some good reactions and from there, it grew. Since I've come to India, it has been something that I have used to amplify important messages and sometimes also to challenge views and opinions. I've encouraged my team to work on one or another social media platforms as well.
6. What are your future plans?
I have worked hard here I feel and we have had quite a bit of success but I don't know where I'm headed to after this. Due to COVID-19, I have to see what opportunities will open up and what will work for my family. I hope to find a job that is as engaging, fulfilling and wonderful as the one I have now. I'm privileged to have a job that makes me so happy and makes me feel so welcome in Hyderabad.