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.”