THE MT INTERVIEW: Barbara Stocking

Oxfam's first female director runs on a warm whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm for getting things done and listening to what others have to say - lessons she learnt from years in the NHS and which she is now applying to the complexities of heading a 'super-charity'.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The woman who could have run the National Health Service sits atop a shabby parade of shops down the wrong end of the Banbury Road in Oxford.

Short, smiling, unmade-up, Barbara Stocking has the look of a senior librarian and the warmth of an experienced personnel manager. She also carries weighty ambition: she wants to change things. She has run Oxfam, the world-famous international charity that campaigns to end poverty, for nearly two years since she failed to get the top slot at the NHS.

Sitting in her spartan third-floor offices, posters on the wall, grey drizzle on the windows, she says she has no regrets about leaving the state's employ. 'I can't believe my luck, actually,' she smiles. 'I've always wanted to be in international development, and now ...' she gestures around with a hand.

And now she is paid a lot less than she previously earned to take on one of the tougher management tasks around, leading a 'super-charity' that operates in 75 countries worldwide, packed with a committed, passionate workforce, who all believe it should be doing different things, and backed by a rainbow coalition of old, young, crusty, liberal and establishment devotees, who all see it in a slightly different way. Still, no-one said the NHS was easy, either.

The real challenge for Oxfam, she continues, is channelling that passion, setting priorities from the wealth of choices in front of it, making sure people don't go off at tangents, getting the right messages out. 'And because the people here are passionate and good lobbyists, because we are a campaigning organisation, they all come and lobby me. Right? And they're very good at it. It's really interesting.'

She grins. Stocking, 52, Oxfam's first female director, runs on a high-revving engine of constant enthusiasm, continually chugging things along with an interjected 'yeah' or a 'right'. She is very bright, but has developed the knack of communicating simply and unthreateningly that comes from working decades in big people organisations. And all the time, she's pushing on, often before you've had a chance to speak.

You wouldn't think she started as an academic, although watching her bustle round juggling meetings and disguising orders as requests, you might just guess that long ago she was head girl of her grammar school.

An only child, born to working-class parents in Rugby, whom she surprised by going first to Cambridge and then to America, Stocking has that easy facility for being all things to all people and a can-do spirit that sweeps much in front of it.

She is certainly better-humoured than might be expected when I walk in 45 minutes late, the result of 95% of Oxford's taxi drivers taking the day off to celebrate Ramadan (believe me, the buses down Banbury Road are painfully slow). Never a good start, but Stocking laughs it off with a gust of friendliness, sits me down, orders tea and takes control of the interview in the nicest possible way before I have even noticed.

Her constant refrain is 'Shall I tell you about this?' or 'Do you want me to keep talking about that?'. Most interviewees wait to be asked, but Stocking blows through. When time's up, she immediately thinks of two issues she hasn't covered and wants me to phone in for more. Working with her, I suspect, you need stamina.

Ex-colleagues confirm it, describing her as a warm whirlwind of energy whose only weakness is that in moving so fast, she often doesn't have time to sort out what she's started. One ex-colleague described working with Stocking as being 'a bit of dustpan-and-brush job, following on behind'.

But no-one dislikes her. Where she's remarkable is that she combines considerable ambition with a complete lack of arrogance.

She will have plenty of scope for spreading herself at Oxfam, one of the world's best-known NGOs (non governmental organisations). The charity, now part of a confederation of 12 national Oxfams amalgamated in Oxfam International, campaigns on everything from fair trade and arms sales to gender rights. Started 60-odd years ago as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, Oxfam GB, which Stocking heads, takes a lead role in the amalgamated group, providing much of the secretariat services for Oxfam International, based just round the corner from the UK's Banbury Road office.

Oxfam GB (2002 income: £190 million) has 2,800 employees out of the Oxfam worldwide total of 4,500. About 800 work in Oxford; many of the rest are in the field, running projects across the globe. Because of these, the charity has key links to global leaders ranging from Kofi Annan at the UN to Tony Blair in Downing Street. The clout of the organisation - getting people to listen, getting things done, getting into areas other can't - can't be underestimated.

The projects are chosen to fit in with Oxfam's principle objectives 'to relieve poverty, distress and suffering in any part of the world' and 'to educate the public concerning the nature, causes and effects of poverty'.

Those objectives were updated in 1998 with five key 'aims' determined before Stocking joined: sustainable livelihoods; quality education and healthcare; protection from disasters and violence; right to be heard; right to equity.

Can the director shift the focus? Only, says Stocking, if there's good reason. 'We are not moving off the five key aims. I am committed to the implementation of them. But while we are trying to do that, the world may have moved on, so we now do a stock-take every year: what issues are missing, what is relevant. For instance, the issue of world security and fear of terror.'

Hence she can set the priorities within the framework. She is pushing Oxfam to highlight the arms trade, and she was not shy of bringing Oxfam out against the war in Iraq, a stance that was popular with the organisation's staff at all levels. 'We said we didn't think the war was justified because of the humanitarian consequences.'

But was that good for relations with government, essential in the co-ordination of much of its aid work? She purses her lips. 'Um, I don't think they liked it, but there you are.'

Nor, she says, did Oxfam play any part in advising Clare Short, Minister for International Development, to stay in the Cabinet before the war, at a time when many thought she would resign. 'No, she certainly didn't ring us up before she decided to stay,' says Stocking. 'But I think it's fair to say that aid agencies generally thought she was better in than out.'

None of which means, however, that Oxfam has become a pacifist organisation.

'On occasion, we have said it is better to send the military in, as in the Rwanda genocide, but we had been in Iraq before in 1991 and listened to what had happened then, particularly in terms of sanitation, the absolute horror of it, and we had to ask: had all the other means been exhausted? And it wasn't obvious they had at the time.'

Was she worried her stance would alienate some of Oxfam's donor audience?

'No,' she says confidently. 'Oxfam has been through so many of these situations that in terms of its moral position, I felt I was standing on a real rock.'

Some Oxfam supporters wrote to complain, others to thank it for taking a brave position. 'One person even sent us a cheque for £100,000 because we refused to take money from the Department for International Development. So you win some, you lose some. And we don't always go with what the staff here want.'

Others inside the organisation say she has instigated a change of style at the top. 'She is very good at listening,' says one, 'and that's important, because a lot of people doing the work don't get paid as much as they would in the private sector and need to feel involved. She has thought a lot about how we value and listen to staff, especially those doing the work on the front line, and involved them in discussing strategy. But she's also more of a serious manager than we've had before, quite tough.'

Another issue Stocking is committed to is gender, and not just externally.

'It needs an extra kick and we are doing that. One of the regional directors said it was good I was appointed as director as it showed women could get to the top within Oxfam, and it really does help having more women in senior positions, as you can spot things more readily.

'Seventy per cent of the world's poor are women or girls, and poverty is about women a lot; we have to understand that being female affects women in poverty, but it is also no good putting men off working on that.'

As if the aims weren't tough enough, the nature of Oxfam's organisation - operating in an amalgamation of different national entities that supply money to each other and work on co-ordinated projects - must be testing too. When I ask Stocking whether Oxfam GB has special status as founding member, she looks awkward.

'This,' she says after a pause, 'is probably the most challenging management task. We have provided a lot of work to get Oxfam International to where it is and we do 75% of the humanitarian work around the world. But it's one affiliate, one vote, and I spend a lot of time thinking: when do I stand back? When do I let others in?

'It's something that's owned by everybody and mostly that's all right - just sometimes, because we do most of the work, I think: wait a minute, we mustn't lose the principle here. But you have to work out when to throw your weight around.'

She grins, a flop of unkempt hair falling over her eyes. In her check suit and white shirt, she looks smart but not expensively dressed. Heading a not-for-profit group must, you suspect, make its own demands in terms of the do's and don'ts of lifestyle choices. Stocking took a pay cut of about a third to accept the Oxfam job, advertised at a salary of £75,000, but says it was hardly a tough call.

'This is my dream job. I wanted it,' she shrugs. Friends say she'll be too busy to spend it, anyway.

She's always been like that, getting out, getting things done, having a hundred things to do. In that, she says, she takes after her father, who worked as a postman but also poured himself into community work. 'He did a lot through the Methodist church and was also chair of the local Post Office Veterans Association; he'd help widows with their wills and stuff like that. My parents thought it was their moral duty to do all that and I think that's what they taught me.'

Stocking ascribes many of her characteristics to the nature of her upbringing.

'My parents had a lot of trouble having children, 10 years of miscarriages. I was a girl, but there was no sense that girls did one thing and boys another. They thought it was possible for me to do anything, but they were never protective of me; that was part of the working-class background.'

So, like some only children, she learned young how to get out and make friends quickly, and was unburdened by the self-consciousness that siblings can squash into you. She was also organised and good at fitting in. 'I lived in other people's houses no end. I knew how to become part of things.'

She applied to Cambridge only because other girls in her class were going.

When she got in, her parents were shocked, she says. 'It was beyond their level of aspiration, I was the first in the family to go to university. My father had worked at St John's Oxford as a trainee chef and was worried I would work myself to death. But they were incredibly supportive.'

She went to New Hall, an all-women's college, to read Natural Sciences - 'I thought women could do anything, I didn't realise there was discrimination till I left' - then went straight into scientific research work in America, but hated the labs. America was, however, a formative experience. 'What I did get was the can-do attitude, which was terrific at that age; none of the British restrictive stuff.'

She was offered work on a study of American hospitals, which she loved, and could have made her life there, but eventually decided she didn't want to be American. 'I didn't like the lack of community and lack of concern for others.' But isn't that part of the can-do culture? 'Yeah, I was looking for the Third Way, probably.'

She took a job with the World Health Organisation in west Africa, then came back to the UK to join the King's Fund, a research group that provides training for much of the NHS's top management. By then she had met her future husband, a GP, on a skiing trip. 'He said he was only interested in me because I knew the name of the president of the World Bank. Ha!'

At the King's Fund, she plunged into NHS management issues and eventually decided she wanted to try it for herself. In 1993 she was made general manager of the Oxford regional health authority, despite no line experience of the NHS. 'It was Sir Alan Langlands (then NHS chief executive) who saw what I could do. I have come from a background where people have said: "She cannot possibly do this, she cannot know this." They said that when I went from the King's Fund to a regional health authority, but Alan said: "Well, it looks all right to me."'

That lack of experience never dented her confidence, though it may have worked against her eventually. Some who worked with her felt that, with her ball-of-energy style, she was occasionally not good at reading the signals from others less able than herself, especially as she had not worked her way up. But she was ahead of her time in her commitment to patient-centric care, and very good at coaching and mentoring junior staff, particularly women.

She ran Oxford, then Anglia and Oxford, and the south-east NHS executive, which, she says, was a nightmare, with 75 trusts and health authorities reporting to her. 'It was difficult even just knowing who they were. In Anglia and Oxford, you could get a feel for what's going on; in the south-east you never could. You just had to discriminate about who you gave attention to.'

It is the only job she has ever left 'unsatisfied'. She put her name in to be NHS chief executive, but was not disappointed when Sir Nigel Crisp, who had worked under her in Oxford, pipped her to it. 'I wanted to be leader of the NHS,' she says, 'but now it is a combined job of chief executive and permanent secretary, I just wouldn't have enjoyed the PS bit.'

Too much 'yes, Mr Milburn' (the former Health Secretary) required? 'That's the trouble, I wouldn't have said 'yes, Mr Milburn', and they probably recognised that.'

The biggest problem in the NHS, she adds, is the lack of trust in the staff themselves. 'There's tremendous support for Labour's health plan, but instead of building on that, we got a really heavy blame culture. There is so much goodwill to provide really good healthcare, and you've got to motivate that and work with that, instead of blaming and punishing people.'

Too many managers? 'No, not enough. Look at big hospitals and the thinness from the CEO down. But I wouldn't encourage lots of poor managers either. And it's become so politicised that the priorities move all the time. You cannot lead and manage an organisation when there is so much movement; you have to be firm and steadfast about what you are trying to do. If you are always responding to the latest scandal, then nothing is a priority and you can't lead the people on the ground and say, move on this, see it through, if you're always putting out fires.'

Others suggest that her patient-centric view of how the NHS should operate could make her a likely successor to Crisp. Would she go back? 'I doubt it,' she says, 'I am having too much fun here.'

She hopes she will stay at least five years at Oxfam - she's signed a five-year contract with a five-year extension. 'It takes between five and 10 years to get things done,' she says. Soon, the organisation will be moving to new offices on an Oxford business park, which will give her a better chance to bring everyone together.

But one of the things she really loves about her new job is the opportunity to travel, and particularly the chance to learn about new peoples and new cultures. 'All the visits I do produce a whole new load of interests for me. I start reading up about everything and about what the places are like, just wonderful!'

Old friends say she's lucky in having a husband, now a prison doctor, who's always backed her to the hilt, running the family - they have two boys - from their Oxford home when she's up to her eyeballs in work or away on trips.

Right now, she's occupied with disentangling Oxfam's work from the growing East-West religious divide that is splitting the world. Many places have become much more difficult for it to operate in. 'It's very worrying, as we try so hard to be impartial,' she says. 'In Iraq, we distanced ourselves from the coalition - we didn't come in with them, we didn't take the money. That did us proud with some communities, but it is hard, as we are still seen as western.'

She frowns as she wrestles with a difficulty that clearly isn't going to go away. Then she smiles. Knotty problems are what she came into the job to help sort out.


1. Channelling the passion within the Oxfam organisation.

2. Ensuring that staff uphold the values of the organisation in places that are remote and difficult to work in, and making sure that they understand what Oxfam is trying to do, and in turn feel that their views are being heard.

3. Protecting staff in an increasingly violent world.

4. Finding a way of continuing Oxfam's work in countries where it is now associated with western or anti-Moslem interests.

5. Getting a message across to people outside Oxfam that will make them think hard about how the world works, and how that might be changed to help eradicate poverty.


1951: Born 28 July in Rugby. Educated Rugby grammar school and New Hall,


1974: Staff associate, National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC

1976: Research fellow, Nuffield Trust

1979: Commission secretary, World Health Organisation

1981: Senior fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

1983: Fellow, King's Fund

1987: Director, King's Fund Centre for health service development

1993: Regional general manager, Oxford regional health authority

1994: Regional director, Anglia and Oxford region, NHS executive

1999: Regional director, south-east region, NHS executive

2000: Interim director, NHS modernisation agency

2001: Director, Oxfam GB

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