Choos­ing dan­ger

Ottawa Citizen - - OBSERVER - PETER HUM

It was a Satur­day night in Mogadishu, and Ben Rowswell was par­ty­ing with his co-work­ers.

He had only just grad­u­ated from Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s School of For­eign Ser­vice that year — 1993 — and was part of the United Na­tions op­er­a­tion in So­ma­lia. On that par­tic­u­lar night, some of the mem­bers of New Zealand’s con­tin­gent had hosted a din­ner. “Peo­ple were dancing and try­ing to have a fun Satur­day night,” he re­calls.

But the rev­elry didn’t hold his in­ter­est, so he de­cided in­stead to walk back to his tent on the Mogadishu airstrip.

That’s when the ar­tillery shell landed: 30 me­tres away from him.

“I heard the whistling sound and then a thump,” he says. “I turned to my friend, and we yelled in sur­prise, and then jumped be­hind a Jeep.

“We stayed there for two or three min­utes, got up and re­al­ized that the bomb was not go­ing off . ... We ran back into the party to tell the sol­diers that there was un­ex­ploded or­di­nance out­side and so they went and their did bomb-dis­posal work.”

Rowswell’s heart was rac­ing, and he was vis­i­bly shaken — so much so that a heav­ily tat­tooed, toughas-nails U.S. Marine came over to hug him and com­fort.

As fright­en­ing as it was, that was the day, Rowswell says, that his pro­fes­sional pri­or­i­ties snapped into place.

“It was re­ally at that mo­ment that I re­al­ized this topic I’d been study­ing in univer­sity and I’d been in­ter­ested in for so many years — world pol­i­tics — was real, and was about life and death,” he says.

“In­ter­na­tional re­la­tions is about life and death. Ever since then, I’ve found it hard to de­vote any pro­fes­sional time to is­sues that aren’t about life and death.”

In the years since his sum­mer in So­ma­lia, Rowswell, who grew up in Ot­tawa, has spent his diplo­matic ca­reer in some of the world’s most dan­ger­ous set­tings: There was Bagh­dad fol­low­ing the 2003 U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq; Kabul and Kan­da­har in Afghanista­n from 2008 to 2010; and, for the past few years, Venezuela. Rowswell, now 47, was Canada’s am­bas­sador to that now-cri­sis-rid­den South Amer­i­can coun­try un­til late last month and has since re­turned to Canada.

Along the way, he’s seen the strengths and lim­its of state power, the dev­as­tat­ing hu­man cost of putting staff into harm’s way, and he’s be­come a be­liever in a new, still-emerg­ing force for the ad­vance­ment of hu­man rights and democ­racy: tech­nol­ogy.

As he leaves Venezuela, Rowswell has taken a three-year un­paid leave from Global Af­fairs Canada, and has re­lo­cated him­self and his three young chil­dren to Toronto, where he is launch­ing a tech startup called Peren­nial Soft­ware.

It has be­gun mak­ing avail­able an app called Udara which, if it meets the ex­pec­ta­tions of Rowswell and his co-founder, Farhaan Lad­hani, will “mo­bi­lize thou­sands and thou­sands, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple even­tu­ally, to take ac­tion di­rectly in global af­fairs, whether it’s de­fend­ing hu­man rights or op­pos­ing cor­rup­tion or pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.”

In Rowswell’s words, he’s ded­i­cat­ing him­self “to ex­plor­ing and adapt­ing tech­nol­ogy for mak­ing the world a better place.”

A pas­sion for the world be­yond staid Cen­tral Canada runs gen­er­a­tions deep in Rowswell’s fam­ily.

Grow­ing up in the 1970s, raised by his mother in a mod­est Mead­ow­lands Drive town­house in what was then Ne­pean, Rowswell heard sto­ries of his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther and grand­mother who, in the mid-1920s, lived in cen­tral China. Arthur and Katie Rowswell ran a hos­pi­tal in Kaifeng dur­ing the Chi­nese civil war un­til po­lit­i­cal strife over­took the city, forc­ing them to flee and re­turn to Toronto. On his mother’s side, rel­a­tives in the 19th and 20th cen­turies had ad­ven­tures in the Cana­dian North.

“There was al­ways the knowl­edge in the fam­ily that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had kind of struck out and gone to some of the most un­fa­mil­iar cor­ners of the Earth,” Rowswell says.

And then, when Rowswell’s mother, Mary Marsh, mar­ried again, her sec­ond hus­band played a piv­otal role in fos­ter­ing her son’s in­ter­na­tional as­pi­ra­tions.

From the early 1980s on, Rowswell’s step­fa­ther was Bill McWhin­ney, the first full-time ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Cana­dian Univer­sity Ser­vice Over­seas, and later a se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Agency, who had lived in what was then Cey­lon and trav­elled to 129 coun­tries around the world.

McWhin­ney’s world­li­ness and wan­der­lust rubbed off not only on Ben but also on his older brother, Mark, who stud­ied Chi­nese lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at uni­ver­si­ties in Toronto and then Bei­jing, and by 1990 had be­come stun­ningly fa­mous in China as the TV en­ter­tainer nick­named Dashan.

McWhin­ney, who died in 2001, “re­ally wanted us to explore the world,” Ben says.

While in Grade 11 at Ne­pean High School, Rowswell spent three months in Madrid in 1987 thanks to a high school ex­change pro­gram.

“It was at that point that I had that first inkling that I wanted to spend my life learn­ing other lan­guages and be­ing im­mersed in other cul­tures and learn­ing about other coun­tries’ pol­i­tics,” Rowswell says.

He found it fas­ci­nat­ing that his Span­ish host fam­ily thought favourably of their coun­try’s late dic­ta­tor, Fran­cisco Franco. “That, some­how, piqued my in­ter­est in how peo­ple can see world in dif­fer­ent ways and try to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives they have.”

Grad­u­at­ing from Ne­pean, Rowswell knew that he wanted to study in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions in univer­sity. Although he had ap­plied to some Cana­dian uni­ver­si­ties, he was ed­u­cated in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he at­tended Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s School of For­eign Ser­vice from 1989 to 1993, and was one of only a hand­ful of Cana­di­ans en­rolled there. “Most couldn’t af­ford it,” Rowswell says. But at that point, McWhin­ney was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Canada at the In­ter-Amer­i­can De­vel­op­ment Bank head­quar­tered in Wash­ing­ton and the IDB paid for Rowswell’s school­ing.

He was at the train­ing school for diplo­mats, dur­ing the end of the Cold War and the be­gin­ning of what was then called the New World Or­der, with for­eign politi­cians reg­u­larly vis­it­ing the cam­pus. “It was a pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tro­duc­tion to the prac­tice of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions,” Rowswell says.

The school made its im­print on his diplo­macy: “Ob­vi­ously, I’m a mem­ber of the Cana­dian for­eign ser­vice so, as a practition­er, I have this Cana­dian em­pha­sis on norms and what the world should be like. But hav­ing stud­ied in the United States, I’m also quite im­pa­tient. ... Amer­i­cans, be­cause they have so much power, they’re fo­cused as much on the achieve­ment of re­sults, and not just on what the re­sults should look like even­tu­ally. So I think I’ve had a prag­matic bent in the prac­tice of diplo­macy that some­times leads me to be a bit im­pa­tient with lack of re­sults. When we con­front ma­jor global is­sues, to me it’s never quite enough to say the world should be dif­fer­ent, or this is what things should look like. I’m a lot more anx­ious to ac­tu­ally get to the so­lu­tions, to how we can use what­ever in­stru­ments we have at our dis­posal right now.”

After grad­u­at­ing from Ge­orge­town, Rowswell took the sum­mer job where he was nearly blown up. And, when that job ended, he joined what was then Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Canada.

McWhin­ney, he says, en­cour­aged him to take that tack. “I’d say with­out him, I prob­a­bly would have stayed in So­ma­lia, do­ing the UN peace­keep­ing thing, be­cause that was my pas­sion,” Rowswell says.

“He was a very prac­ti­cal guy, and his view was I needed to have a ca­reer, a per­ma­nent job with an in­sti­tu­tional home, and a pen­sion and a ben­e­fits pack­age and all that.”

Nonethe­less, Rowswell did what he could to steer his work in the for­eign ser­vice to­ward com­bat­zone post­ings.

“I chose to learn Ara­bic, be­cause the Mid­dle East was the part of the world where the con­flicts were most fre­quent and most in­tense,” he says. “I thought de­vel­op­ing a Mid­dle East spe­cialty would be my ticket to get­ting op­por­tu­ni­ties to work on that prob­lem set.”

“He’s a truly ex­cep­tional col­league,” says David Malone, who was the as­sis­tant deputy min­is­ter in the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs when Rowswell was work­ing in Iraq. “I don’t think the de­part­ment has ever pro­duced any­one who has taken on as much risk.”

Rowswell’s first full for­eign post­ing was from 1996 to 1998 in Cairo — which is where Malone, now the rec­tor of the United Na­tions Univer­sity in Tokyo and an un­der-sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the United Na­tions, first met him.

Malone says it was al­ready ob­vi­ous that Rowswell “didn’t want one of those clas­sic ca­reers where you bounce be­tween Paris and Wash­ing­ton and per­haps New York, com­fort­ably. He was quite se­ri­ous about the ex­tended Mid­dle East. Also he was a risk-taker. He was quite will­ing to go the most dan­ger­ous places.”

After Cairo, Rowswell pur­sued grad­u­ate stud­ies in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Ox­ford Univer­sity and then work­ing in Ot­tawa at the Privy Coun­cil Of­fice after 9/11.

How­ever, Rowswell says that it was only in 2003, when he was able to de­ploy to Iraq, that he truly started to set his own path.

“The des­tinies of the United States and the Mid­dle East were very clearly go­ing to col­lide in Iraq, and I wanted to be at the heart of the col­li­sion,” Rowswell says.

Then-prime min­is­ter Jean Chré­tien wanted Rowswell — or more cor­rectly, some­one like him — to be there too, Malone says. While Chré­tien kept Canada out of the U.S.-led coali­tion that top­pled Sad­dam Hus­sein, the Cana­dian govern­ment wanted “a civil­ian on the ground to as­sess whether there was any­thing Canada might be able to con­trib­ute from a civil­ian, non-mil­i­tary per­spec­tive,” Malone says.

“I’d been re­ally lob­by­ing to get to Bagh­dad, and the op­por­tu­nity came in Au­gust 2003,” Rowswell says.

“I was ba­si­cally just told to get on a plane and get off in Bagh­dad and fig­ure things out for my­self … where to stay and how to avoid dan­ger, and how to make my­self use­ful to the Coali­tion Pro­vi­sional Author­ity.”

Malone says that “Bagh­dad was fe­ro­ciously dan­ger­ous” when Rowswell was there. While the U.S. had es­tab­lished a 10-square-kilo­me­tre “safe zone” called the Green Zone in cen­tral Bagh­dad, “it wasn’t safe at all,” Malone says.

“All sort of or­di­nance was lobbed into it, there were shoot­ings reg­u­larly at the en­try points of the Green Zone. Ben wound up liv­ing in a (ship­ping) con­tainer; there were very few per­ma­nent build­ings left in the Green Zone.”

Rowswell re­ported nom­i­nally through Canada’s am­bas­sador to Jordan, who was not al­lowed to visit Iraq be­cause of the dan­ger, Malone says.

Rowswell, Malone says, “was al­ways at great risk, some­times more than he re­al­ized. We in Ot­tawa were privy to a great deal of Amer­i­can and Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence. Ben knew what was go­ing on, on the ground, but he didn’t nec­es­sar­ily know the meta story of what var­i­ous war­lords were plan­ning for the Green Zone. Whereas we oc­ca­sion­ally heard about that. We wor­ried about him tremen­dously.”

Rowswell says he was struck by two themes dur­ing his two years in Iraq.

“One of them was to yet again see the lim­its of how far a state power can get you. The Amer­i­cans — by far the most pow­er­ful coun­try in the world — bit­ing off way more than they could chew in Iraq. They couldn’t han­dle So­ma­lia and they were in way over their head in Iraq, as the world has sub­se­quently found out. I got to see that up close and personal and that was pretty ugly to see at short range.”

As well, Rowswell was fas­ci­nated by the “sur­pris­ingly deep pas­sion that Iraqis had for democ­racy.” In Jan­uary 2005, Iraq held its first free and fair elec­tions in two gen­er­a­tions, and Rowswell says that what he saw ran counter to ex­pec­ta­tions.

“The re­ceived wis­dom in for­eign pol­icy circles was that democ­racy was not ap­pro­pri­ate for Arabs and the Mid­dle East, and was kind of a silly dream, or some­how im­posed by the United States on re­luc­tant Iraqis,” he says. “Yet what I saw on the ground was the ex­act op­po­site. The Iraqis were fe­ro­cious in de­mand­ing free and fair elec­tions and want­ing to take con­trol of their own lives.”

When his time in Iraq ended, Rowswell en­joyed an­other stint in Ot­tawa, where he cre­ated and headed a unit at For­eign Af­fairs charged with fos­ter­ing democ­racy abroad. The unit still ex­ists, and Rowswell calls its cre­ation one his ca­reer’s great­est sat­is­fac­tions.

But Rowswell re­turned to a war zone in 2008, throw­ing his abil­i­ties into Canada’s en­gage­ment in Afghanista­n.

When we con­front ma­jor global is­sues, to me it’s never quite enough to say the world should be dif­fer­ent, or this is what things should look like. I’m a lot more anx­ious to ac­tu­ally get to the so­lu­tions.

At first, he was the deputy head of mis­sion at the Cana­dian Em­bassy in Kabul. Rowswell quickly high­lights the best thing that hap­pened to him there: In Kabul, at the air­port, he met his fu­ture wife, Kate, who was work­ing for the Bri­tish NGO Turquoise Moun­tain. “So the rea­son I’m no longer do­ing the con­flict cir­cuit is that I met her and fell in love and we now have three kids.”

In Kan­da­har, where Rowswell from 2009 to 2010 picked up the moniker the “ROCK” (Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Canada in Kan­da­har), there was an­other happy meet­ing. Rowswell’s di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions was Farhaan Lad­hani, who would go on to work with him on tech projects af­fect­ing Egypt and Iran be­fore they founded Peren­nial Soft­ware. Lad­hani “had more ex­pe­ri­ence and more ex­per­tise in the use of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy than any­one I knew,” Rowswell says.

The mag­ni­tude and im­por­tance of the work there made the Kan­da­har as­sign­ment “ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ex­haust­ing,” Rowswell says.

“It was pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary to be at the heart of that ef­fort (to re­build Kan­da­har) be­cause we were throw­ing ev­ery­thing we could as a na­tion at that,” he says. “We had 3,000 troops on the ground. We had 81 civil­ians, which was by far the largest de­ploy­ment of civil­ians in any war zone in Cana­dian his­tory. Kan­da­har was at the heart of the Amer­i­can ef­fort, too, and Obama got elected and had the troop surge of 10,000 troops; they were mostly based in Kan­da­har as well.”

Wil­liam Cros­bie, who was Canada’s am­bas­sador to Afghanista­n when Rowswell was in Kan­da­har, said Rowswell was an “ex­cep­tional diplo­mat and man­ager” and “a leader in dif­fi­cult times.”

Cros­bie vividly re­calls wit­ness­ing Rowswell’s keen abil­ity to con­nect with Afghans dur­ing a visit to Kan­da­har’s chief of po­lice.

“We were all ner­vous about that visit, in­clud­ing my close pro­tec­tion team. The chief had been the tar­get of many sui­cide at­tacks,” Cros­bie says. “The po­lice sta­tion bore the scars of these at­tacks.

“The chief wanted to host me for lunch; it was a tra­di­tional way to en­ter­tain a large num­ber of his fel­low of­fi­cers us­ing the ex­cuse of a vis­it­ing HOM (head of mis­sion). I did not want to dine in the po­lice sta­tion — the threat of at­tack the longer you are there, the risk of food ail­ments. So Ben changed the time of the meet­ing and we ar­rived ear­lier in the morn­ing. It didn’t mat­ter. A huge spread of food was laid out on an enor­mous ta­ble in a filthy room. Steam­ing dishes of boiled goat and other meats. I stuck to the rice and ba­nanas. Ben dug in, to the delight of our hosts. As he kept fill­ing his plate with var­i­ous del­i­ca­cies and talk­ing to the chief, it was clear how much he was liked and re­spected.”

Per­haps the most gru­elling mo­ment for Rowswell came in late De­cem­ber 2009, when he re­ceived ter­ri­ble news while home for Christ­mas in Canada, vis­it­ing his brother in Prince Ed­ward Is­land. A phone call told him that a mas­sive IED had killed four sol­diers and Cal­gary Her­ald jour­nal­ist Michelle Lang, and in­jured sev­eral others, in­clud­ing a young po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cer, Bushra Saeed, who lost her leg. Hear­ing of the at­tack, Rowswell says, was “heart­break­ing.”

“He was ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated,” Kate Rowswell says of her hus­band. “I’m not sure he’ll ever get over that com­pletely. He felt re­spon­si­ble. Im­me­di­ately he wanted to rush back and be there to try and help in some way, and of course, he felt guilty that he hadn’t been there.

“He re­ally cares for the peo­ple who work for him and the peo­ple in these sit­u­a­tions of con­flict. He takes the po­si­tion very se­ri­ously and very per­son­ally,” she says.

De­spite the tragedy, Rowswell says Afghanista­n af­firmed his be­lief in the im­por­tance of his work.

“What it did re­in­force for me is that Cana­dian for­eign pol­icy is about some pretty harsh re­al­i­ties. The world is very dan­ger­ous place, and Canada, I think rightly, has as­pi­ra­tions to have a pos­i­tive im­pact. That means we have to be in some very dan­ger­ous places and put our staff at risk. It’s only when we do that, that we re­ally un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing and are able to have a pos­i­tive im­pact, as we did in Kan­da­har.” After Afghanista­n, Rowswell took a break from the for­eign ser­vice. A year-long sab­bat­i­cal al­lowed him to hon­ey­moon, and also explore a grow­ing in­ter­est in tech­nol­ogy, which he stud­ied at Stan­ford Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia.

How­ever, his goal was al­ways to de­ploy tech­nol­ogy in the ser­vice of the same goals he’d had as a diplo­mat — bol­ster­ing democ­racy, sup­port­ing hu­man rights and more.

Plus, his time at Stan­ford co­in­cided with the Arab Spring that saw the lead­ers of Tu­nisia and then Egypt, where Rowswell had been posted in the late 1990s, taken down by peo­ple power.

When Rowswell saw the mass protests in Jan­uary 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he thought: “I just knew that I had to be there. … This was a cause that I’d been in­volved in, there were ac­tors I knew well, ac­tivists I knew well. With my in­ter­est in hu­man rights and in Egypt and in tech­nol­ogy com­ing to­gether, there was no ques­tion that I had to get on a plane and get over to Egypt and be part of it.”

Dur­ing the first of three trips to Egypt in 2011, Rowswell met with ac­tivists work­ing with hu­man rights cru­sader Mo­hamed Mustafa ElBa­radei, who told him that they wanted to get as many Egyp­tians as pos­si­ble par­tic­i­pat­ing in an on­line de­bate about hu­man rights pro­tec­tions that should be in their con­sti­tu­tion. Rowswell took that idea back to Stan­ford, and after a “mad­cap 48 hours,” he and his col­leagues had built an Ara­bic web­site — the Cloud to Street project, Rowswell calls it — that would al­low 18,000 Egyp­tians to par­tic­i­pate in the draft­ing of their con­sti­tu­tion.

Even if, as Rowswell says, “the story of Egypt went off in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion,” his project “was a demon­stra­tion of how fea­si­ble and tan­gi­ble it is to do some­thing that’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions by us­ing tech­nol­ogy. If you come up with the right idea, you can get tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, ef­fec­tively overnight, in­volved in a po­lit­i­cal process that they weren’t in­volved in ear­lier.” After his sab­bat­i­cal at Stan­ford, Rowswell was nom­i­nated to be Canada’s next head of mis­sion in Iran. He was sup­posed to go out in sum­mer of 2012 and moved back to Ot­tawa to be­gin Farsi lan­guage train­ing. Then, Canada de­cided to close its em­bassy in Tehran.

Still the govern­ment asked Rowswell if, given his in­ter­ests in tech­nol­ogy, there might be a way to use the in­ter­net to ad­vance Canada’s for­eign pol­icy ob­jec­tives in Iran. “Which is a pretty tall or­der, right?” Rowswell adds. “You close your bricks and mor­tar in­sti­tu­tion, and then ask a diplo­mat to have an in­flu­ence — it just doesn’t work that way nor­mally.”

Still, Rowswell fig­ured he could meet that or­der, by cre­at­ing a set of web­sites and so­cial me­dia sites so Ira­ni­ans could have on­line con­ver­sa­tions about their coun­try. He over­saw the cre­ations of what was the in­ter­net-based Global Di­a­logue on the Fu­ture of Iran, even if at the time, Rowswell says “the in­ter­net was not taken se­ri­ously as a tool for for­eign pol­icy.”

When Rowswell was asked how many Ira­ni­ans the project might en­gage, it pulled the num­ber 40,000 out of his head, but even­tu­ally the project drew five mil­lion unique users.

“At no point does this ever com­pete with the in­flu­ence that Canada could have in hav­ing a bricks and mor­tar em­bassy, and hav­ing diplo­mats on the ground,” Rowswell says. But on the other hand, the ef­fort, he says, did end up “be­ing a much more di­rect and tan­gi­ble con­tri­bu­tion to hu­man rights than a lot of what the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is able to ac­com­plish.”

Rowswell brought his ad­vo­cacy for what he calls “di­rect diplo­macy” to Venezuela, when he be­came am­bas­sador to that coun­try in 2014.

“We es­tab­lished quite a sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­net pres­ence in­side Venezuela, so that we could then en­gage tens of thou­sands of Venezue­lan cit­i­zens in a con­ver­sa­tion on hu­man rights,” Rowswell says. “We be­came one of the most vo­cal em­bassies in speak­ing out on hu­man rights is­sues and en­cour­ag­ing Venezue­lans to speak out.”

But even as Rowswell was us­ing so­cial me­dia and the in­ter­net for outreach to Venezue­lans, the Venezue­lan govern­ment, he says, was coun­ter­ing him in cy­berspace.

“Au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes like Venezuela are now quite so­phis­ti­cated in their use of dig­i­tal tools to main­tain them­selves in power,” he says. “As part of that, they have a 21stcen­tury ap­proach to pro­pa­ganda through the plant­ing of sto­ries that ap­pear to be in­de­pen­dent, but then are pro­moted by bots.

“As Canada’s be­come more and more ef­fec­tive at us­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy to pro­mote hu­man rights, those that feel threat­ened by the de­fence of hu­man rights have also be­come more and more adept at us­ing those tools to dis­credit Canada and dis­credit Cana­dian diplo­mats. That’s all part of the learn­ing process as we dis­cover what for­eign pol­icy is all about in the 21st cen­tury.”

Just as so many things have, for­eign pol­icy is mov­ing on­line, Rowswell says.

“This is go­ing to be the story of 21st-cen­tury in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions — how val­ues get pro­jected and de­bated and dis­cussed on­line, and how var­i­ous ac­tors, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens all the way up to na­tion states, ad­vance their in­ter­ests and their views of the world through dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy.”

On July 27, Rowswell tweeted, in Span­ish: “Yes­ter­day I fin­ished my as­sign­ment as Am­bas­sador of #Canada to #Venezuela. It was an hon­our to de­fend the val­ues shared by our two peo­ples.” His tweet re­ceived more than 8,200 retweets, mostly from sup­port­ers in Venezuela, he says.

The coun­try re­mains in cri­sis. There are nearly daily demon­stra­tions. Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro has been widely ac­cused of mov­ing to­ward a full-blown dic­ta­tor­ship, while his govern­ment has charged that op­po­si­tion fig­ures are con­spir­ing with the United States and other for­eign in­flu­ences.

“I think that some of them were sort of anx­ious that it (the em­bassy’s support for hu­man rights and democ­racy in Venezuela) might not con­tinue after I left,” Rowswell said. “I don’t think they have any­thing to worry about be­cause Min­is­ter (of For­eign Af­fairs Chrys­tia) Free­land has Venezuela way at the top of her pri­or­ity list.”

Rowswell de­scribes leav­ing the se­cu­rity of his pub­lic ser­vice job with typ­i­cal sang-froid and hu­mour. “With three small chil­dren in tow, do­ing that with­out a salary, it’s cer­tainly some­thing that fo­cuses the mind,” he says.

“It was now or never ba­si­cally,” his wife, Kate, says. “The time to do this is when you’re un­der the age of 50. It was some­thing he had to try be­cause it’s his pas­sion. You can’t sup­press that sort of in­stinct if you have it. You have to fol­low your heart and give it try.”

Peren­nial, which has a staff of eight, moves into its of­fice in Septem­ber. Al­ready, its first cre­ation, the mo­bile-only web­site udara. on­line, en­ables Toron­to­ni­ans to take part in lo­cal civic ac­tions, such as as­sist­ing with the set­tle­ment of Syr­ian refugees.

“If you’re in­ter­ested in an is­sue or a cause, but don’t know what to do about it, the soft­ware rec­om­mends a spe­cific task you could do in an hour or two that is suited to your own par­tic­u­lar skills and in­ter­ests,” Rowswell says.

With Udara, the cre­ation of Peren­nial Soft­ware, Rowswell hopes there will be an app to one day em­power peo­ple around the world who are striv­ing as the Iraqis were.

His goal is to grow the com­pany, slowly ex­pand­ing the num­ber of causes that are avail­able for cit­i­zens to take ac­tion on, and the num­ber of coun­tries, and even­tu­ally the num­ber of lan­guages. Nat­u­rally, he would like to see Udara ac­tive in the Mid­dle East in Ara­bic, and in Latin Amer­ica in Span­ish. “We want be be­come the global plat­form for civic ac­tion,” he says.

Rowswell feels that he’s on the right track with Peren­nial, hav­ing seen, as close-up as any­one has, the last decade’s rise of tech­nol­ogy en­hanced peo­ple power.

“There are many peo­ple that could be ef­fec­tive Cana­dian am­bas­sadors abroad,” Rowswell says. “But not many peo­ple that had enough ex­po­sure to tech­nol­ogy and hu­man rights ac­tivism in the field that could com­bine those two and could cre­ate some dra­matic new out­comes in global af­fairs.”


Ben Rowswell, for­mer Cana­dian am­bas­sador to Venezuela, sought out dan­ger­ous diplo­matic post­ings in Iraq and Afghanista­n.


The Na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee build­ing in Bagh­dad stands ablaze be­hind a statue of Sad­dam Hus­sein in April 2003.


The body of Sgt. Kirk Tay­lor is taken to a hearse dur­ing a repa­tri­a­tion cer­e­mony at CFB Trenton, Ont., in Jan­uary 2010. Tay­lor, Sgt. Ge­orge Miok, Pte. Gar­rett Chi­d­ley, Cpl. Zach­ery McCor­mack and Cal­gary Her­ald jour­nal­ist Michelle Lang were killed in an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice blast in Afghanista­n. Ben Rowswell was Canada’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Kan­da­har at the time.


Tens of thou­sands of Egyp­tians protest in Cairo’s land­mark Tahrir Square in Novem­ber 2011 with the aim of push­ing Egypt’s rul­ing mil­i­tary to cede power, 10 months after an up­ris­ing that top­pled Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Rowswell trav­elled to Cairo three times that year to work on im­prov­ing demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion.


Ben Rowswell’s brother Mark also took a path less trav­elled and has be­come one of China’s big­gest celebri­ties as a hu­morist per­form­ing un­der the stage name Dashan.

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