Travelling the world fighting for girls' right to education
Barry Johnston is associate director for advocacy with The Malala Fund in London
Barry Johnston: working to secure the right to education for girls all over the world, and cooking up a storm in London
Barry Johnston works at The Malala Fund in London, where he is associate director of advocacy. The Malala Fund was set up by Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin after she survived an attack by the Taliban. The organisation campaigns for all girls around the world to get a full primary and secondary education – particularly girls in places affected by war and conflict.
What does your job at The Malala Fund involve?
I’m in charge of advocacy, meaning I’m responsible for our relationships with governments and international bodies such as the UN. This takes me around the world, meeting government ministers and officials to convince them of the importance of educating girls.
All the evidence is there that educating girls is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do, and generally people are supportive. The problem is prioritisation and funding. Often in poorer countries girls’ education, especially secondary education, is just not seen as a pressing issue. It’s my job to try and convince decision makers that it does matter.
The issues of education for girls is a lightning rod for wider cultural and religious divisions. Malala was shot, and continues to receive threats, for her vocal support for the right of girls to go to school. It is a rare privilege to work with someone of that moral courage and integrity. But there are literally millions more girls every day carrying out their own small acts of bravery by putting on a uniform, picking up their bag and going to school. Our job is to tell their story and make it easier and safer for those girls to learn.
Where you are working and living?
We have offices in the US and London, as well as a presence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, India, Kenya and in the countries around Syria. I’m based in our London office, in Holborn in central London, but travel often.
I live in Peckham, which most people have heard about as the setting for Only Fools and Horses. It’s not much like in the sitcom anymore, although Del Boy’s old Robin Reliant van is parked at the end of my road.
It was a popular spot for Irish to settle in at one stage, but the largest immigrant communities now are West African. Most recently, the place has had its fair share of gentrification. The fried chicken shops and the weave salons are still there on the high street, but there are micro-breweries and sourdough bakeries mushrooming up in the railway arches and carparks.
How long have you lived there?
I celebrated my six-year anniversary in London on June 8th – the same day as the election. A lot has changed in that time.
Why did you leave Ireland?
I left Ireland by choice. I had a job I loved at Amnesty International in Dublin, but I wanted to see what other opportunities were out there. I left for a short-term contract working in the Houses of Parliament, and have rolled on through three more jobs in London since then. I regret not properly learning another language, so my choice of destinations was limited.
It is my third time living in London. I did a summer here after my first year in college, working in a bar in Twickenham. And I did a year in the University of London after finishing my undergrad in NUIG. I think that’s becoming a more common pattern now for the Irish. We’re not just doing one big move away from Ireland anymore – people are going and coming back or living between different places. It’s all much more fluid and from a policy perspective I don’t think the Irish Government has got a handle on how to deal with that yet.
That’s one of the reasons last year I decided set up EmigrantManifesto and to run for the Seanad. I never expected to win – and I lived up to those expectations – but I’m proud that for the first time, the Irish abroad were actually represented in an election. It’s the difference between being talked to and talked about.
What do you like/dislike about living in London?
Outside of work, my big love is for food, and London is one of the best cities on earth to eat in. It’s what I spend most of my time and too much of my money doing. I’ve done a bit of cooking too, running a couple of pop-up restaurant nights with a friend – and an ill-fated appearance on a Channel 4 cooking competition.
The proximity to home is great and my love-hate relationship with Ryanair is going strong. It means I get to be home for the important stuff and it’s not too far to pop back on a whim as well.
Has living and working in London offered you any particular insights?
In my previous job I worked in UK public affairs, so I spent a lot of time around Westminster and Whitehall. I was at the Remain party on the night of the Brexit referendum. It was like getting a front row seat to a show you didn’t want to watch. Once the results from the north of England started to come in, the room got pretty empty pretty quick. Some of us stuck it out all night – there was a free bar at least – and I remember as the sun rose, looking across at Westminster and thinking the country had been changed overnight.
It has been a rocky road since then, though London is still a bit of a bubble. It’s astonishing how fixated on immigration the country is. I don’t feel personally unwelcome – in fact a lot of Brits still think even “Southern Ireland” is part of the UK in some way. But if I spoke a different language or had different coloured skin, I’m not sure how friendly a place the UK would be right now. And I know it wasn’t always that easy for the Irish in London.
Is there anything you miss about living in Ireland?
I miss being able to just hop in the car and drive home to see my family. And I miss Irish bar staff.
If you work in an interesting job overseas and would like to share your experiences, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.