Issue 60 September 2009
Talking politics in Afghanistan, meetings with the UN, and sharing iftar in a London mosque are just part of the job description for Barbara Stocking, CEO of Oxfam. Ifrah Rais hears how she is determined to be humankind.
As I take in the impressive headquarters of Oxfam based in Oxford, I am kindly informed that ‘Barbara’ will be with me shortly. I seat myself outside her office, prepared for a long wait based solely on the assumption that the CEO of Oxfam must be a very busy woman with little time for interviews. So when I vaguely notice a door opening, a flash of someone rushing past me and turn my head to find a friendly face beaming inches from my own, I am slightly taken aback. Before I can respond, this pleasant-faced lady begins talking to me as if we were already in conversation. “…Sorry about that, how should we do this? Do you need me to cover my hair? It’s not a problem, I have a shawl somewhere round here…” she trails off while fumbling through some desk drawers in the outer office.
By the time I realise this is Barbara Stocking Chief Executive of Oxfam, and manage to explain that there is no need for her to do this on my account, she has stopped searching and is standing in front of me smiling again. “Are you sure? It’s really no problem.” This is said while I am ushered into a small office and fussed over in a motherly fashion, to make sure I am comfortable.
In these unexpectedly informal surroundings I awkwardly thrust out my hand to introduce myself, at which Barbara bursts out laughing and apologises for her skipping past the formalities. This frank and friendly patter of conversation never ceases as she proceeds to tell me about Oxfam and her work.
Born to a working class family in Rugby, Barbara tells me how her childhood exposed her to some of the injustices she would later become aware of on an international scale, both when studying at university and during her career in healthcare.
“My father was a postman and my mother stayed at home. In Rugby we had a boys’ public school where all the wealthy boys went – it had so many more facilities than we had in my state school. I never understood why some people should be allowed one thing and others not. And yet, the people I knew in the community in Rugby seemed to me just as intelligent and perfectly sensible as these wealthy boys. I think that was my first engagement with inequality.”
Since joining Oxfam as CEO in 2001, Barbara has had her hands full with leading the NGO’s responses to some of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises in recent history, from Afghanistan to the Tsunami, via Sudan to the current world food crisis. I begin by asking her about challenges – ones that she has faced since becoming CEO. “There are two sorts of challenges,” she explains. “Firstly, there are the ones about the sort of work we do. The Afghan invasion and the Iraq war were very difficult decision-making times for Oxfam. It was not so much about what individuals believed, but more about ‘what is the right thing for Oxfam to be doing in these circumstances?’”
“Secondly, this is an organisation full of really passionate people, who are all trying to make a difference in the world and getting them to actually agree to objectives and priorities is quite a challenge. And the thing is,” she adds cautiously, “you don’t want people to be too controlled, because it’s the passion and commitment that has got Oxfam where it is today. Though sometimes I feel that if we could be a bit more organised, we could do even more!”
On 14th September 2008, Oxfam teamed up with Muslim Aid to host ‘Sunset Walk’, a sponsored event during Ramadan that saw Muslims and non- Muslims walk across London from Victoria Gardens to Regents Park Mosque in time for iftar. The money raised by both charities was used to fund programmes that are helping some of the poorest nations cope with the food crisis. I ask Barbara about Oxfam’s thinking behind this collaboration with a well respected Muslim charity.
“Oxfam has a set of values about all people being equal, and we really do work to that, both with the people we’re working alongside, as well as our own staff,” she explains. “As a matter of fact, I always say there are more Muslim staff members at Oxfam than any other faith.” At my surprise, Barbara elaborates, “We had 7,000 members of staff at the time of the Tsunami, with 700 staff in Aceh, 650 of which were Indonesian. There is also a huge number of Muslim staff in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan and so on. We’re a very mixed organisation,” she assures me, before going on. “Now that brings me back to the UK. Here we’re often seen as a white organisation and that is really depressing given that we’re working in all these different countries, amongst different cultures and people.
We’ve got to make it very clear in the UK that Oxfam is for everybody. This isn’t a white organisation, it’s not full of white people. It’s a set of beliefs. Therefore, it is really important for Oxfam to make the effort to actually get out into different communities of all backgrounds, including different faith backgrounds in the UK,” Barbara concludes determinedly.
So, did Oxfam approach Muslim Aid about the idea for the Sunset Walk or were they approached by Musli Aid? “Well we’ve been working with Muslim Aid for quite a long time now. We worked in the field with them before, especially during the Tsunami. Within the last year or so, some of the teams have been discussing how to continue working together. We wanted to be more visible in the UK, and share the work we’re doing in countries that people here are concerned about. Muslim Aid was interested in working with a large mainstream organisation, so there were interests on both sides. There were about 400 people on the Sunset Walk.
For me, what was really nice was when people broke their fast at Central London Mosque in Regents Park and we all shared the meal together. It goes back to that idea that we are all part of one community trying to change things for the better, together.”
With Barbara’s question about whether to cover her hair for the photoshoot still fresh in mind, I ask the CEO to tell me of her experiences both as a woman and non-Muslim while working in Muslim countries. Has she experienced much prejudice? “It is quite an interesting experience because as the Chief Executive, I always get treated like an honorary man,” Barbara informs me as I start to laugh. “In provinces in Afghanistan, like Badakhshan, you have to be received by the district administrator, the imam of the district and all those things, so I was allowed, as an honorary man, to sit with the men and discuss the politics of the area. And as a woman, I can of course go to the women’s group as well.”
And did Barbara’s sitting with the men affect the women’s attitude to her? “No, I think they just regarded me as an honorary man as well!” This time we both laugh, before she continues, “I hope that by seeing me be in this position, they realise that it’s possible for women to do these things; it is possible for a woman to be the head of a big organisation like Oxfam. But of course, with the women treating me like an honorary man, it doesn’t relate to them,” she tells me, her smile slipping a little. “But it is fantastic talking with women as they know what’s happening on the ground. It’s usually with the women I find out what’s really going on in a village.”
“I always say there are more Muslim staff members at Oxfam than any other faith.”
Barbara’s friendly and calm manner makes me wonder how she would cope when dealing with less helpful people in situations that would try the patience of most. Does she find it challenging knowing she may be speaking to individuals who are instigating the oppression of the very people she is trying to help? “You have to try and understand where people are coming from before you can do anything to shift them,” she explains. “If somebody was physically hurting a woman, that would be quite different, but if I’m having a debate about girls’ education, I have to try and understand where say, a man is coming from, what he thinks, before you can start challenging him. A lot of these are very deep, long traditions in some places, and as I’m only there for a short time, I’m not necessarily the right person to challenge them.”
Barbara’s ability to identify when and how Oxfam can best use its influence in different situations has certainly proved effective. “In Afghanistan, amongst our staff for example, the men are very clear about what to say if they’re challenged about what we’re doing with women’s rights. They will actually give the verses in the Qur’an that say what you can do. They are Muslim themselves, they know how to persuade people.”
The passion in Barbara’s voice never leaves, but she becomes even more animated when she describes any of Oxfam’s successes. “In Yemen, for example, we were doing a huge amount of work with young girls who only had primary school education, but our two- year programme turned them into community midwives. At first, none of the fathers in those communities were not keen for their girls to go away to training in the regional city and we had to work really carefully with them. In fact, we had one of the most senior fathers come and actually stay with the girls for the first month to make sure that the way they were living was really appropriate for them.
Now, that father and other fathers think it’s fantastic. They are so proud of their daughters and actually encourage other girls to do the same,” she tells me proudly. As a parent herself, Barbara has managed to juggle raising two sons with having a successful and demanding career. So how does she do it? “My husband has always been incredibly positive, not just about me working, but about him wanting to help look after the children. I have tried very hard to balance out the difficult stages, trying to contain my work life so that it doesn’t completely take over. There are moments when it gets overwhelming, but that’s when I try harder.”
I ask Barbara if being a mother has helped her communicate with other communities. “Yes, motherhood brings that humanness out of everybody. I had a lovely conversation quite early on when I was in Oxfam with a group of women weavers in Rajasthan in India. Whenever I have conversations with women I ask them about their lives, but I also always ask them, ‘What do you want to know about me? In this meeting, one woman asked, ‘How did you get to be head of Oxfam?’ I thought for a minute and then I said, ‘Well, basically two reasons. One is I’ve got a husband who’s prepared to do at least as much as I do in looking after the children, and secondly, we have very good contraception so I only had two children.’
When I said that all the women got really interested, and even though we were about to close the meeting, we had another hour-long discussion about how men behaved and whether they liked their wives to work! I talked about the normal life problems I had that everyone faces. That session was wonderful – we all connected as women, as human beings.”
Barbara’s impressive career has been dedicated to the welfare of those in need. I wonder if her caring nature and sense of responsibility for the less fortunate are the result of any religious or moral values instilled in her by others? “It goes back to my childhood as my parents were Methodist in the Christian tradition, and the Methodist way is very community based. Certainly my sense of community and caring comes from both my parents and the people around them. I’m not a practising Christian now but all that happened to me as a child is deeply rooted in me. Personally, I don’t know what God is, but I believe in some thing, some purpose for being here and I’m working in order to make the world a better place because there is a purpose in it.”
Here, my interview with Barbara comes to an abrupt end as her secretary rushes in to say that she has an important phone call. Barbara apologies for the interruption and hurriedly mentions something about meeting with the UN and IMF or World Bank the following week. She speaks of this meeting as casually as if she is catching a film tonight. With a final shake of my hand, I look up from my notes just in time to catch a glimpse of the back of Oxfam’s CEO bounding off down the corridor to take her phone call.