Charles Skinner

Diplomat turned Oxfam director


Charles Robert Skinner, diplomat and charity worker: born London 16 July 1928; staff, Shell International Petroleum 1955-61; First Secretary, British Embassy, Brasilia 1962-66; First Secretary, British Embassy, Lima, 1967-69; Field Director, West and South America, Oxfam 1970-72, Area Co-ordinator for Latin America 1972-74, Deputy Overseas Director 1972-79, 1980-90, Representative and Field Director, India, Nepal and Kashmir 1979-80, Area Co-ordinator for Asia 1983-88; married 1962 Jane Page (one son, two daughters); died Islip, Oxfordshire 13 December 2005.

Charles Skinner gave up a promising career as a diplomat to become a worker for the British relief and development charity Oxfam. In 1970 he resigned his position as First Secretary in the British Embassy in Lima to become Oxfam's Field Director in the Andes. Within weeks of starting, he was to oversee Oxfam's relief operations in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Peru on 31 May that year, killing 70,000 people. The town of Huaraz was almost obliterated by mudslides, with the loss of some 15,000 lives. Only one street survived; of the rest, only a few roofs were left protruding above the mud.

In Drops in the Ocean, his 1970 book about Oxfam, Peter Gill described how Skinner immediately bought 10,000 chlorine tablets, assembled 10 field kitchens and bought picks and shovels for a Peruvian relief team. Later, planes arrived at Skinner's request with more chlorine, along with penicillin, vaccines, blankets and clothing.

While he mounted assessments in the mountains, his wife Jane ran the office, buying supplies and keeping in contact by telex and cable with the Oxfam headquarters in Oxford. Charles Skinner's unflappable manner and calm efficiency, and his considerable knowledge of Peru, were invaluable in enabling Oxfam to mount an effective response. As Gill says: "With Skinner on the spot to do battle with Peruvian bureaucracy, there was a good chance that Oxfam's aid would reach its destination."

Charles Robert Skinner was born in London in 1928. His father, Robert, worked for the Admiralty but retired early, when he and his wife devoted themselves to public service in Bedfordshire. After Eton and military service, Charles went to New College, Oxford, where he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He first went to South America when he took a job with the Bank of London and South America, and then became an internal auditor for the Cerro de Pasco Mining Corporation in the high Andes. He learned fluent Spanish and fell in love with South America, travelling widely in Peru.

Upon the death of his father, he returned to London to work for Shell International Petroleum. After his mother died, he felt able to go abroad again and applied to the Foreign Office. At the time, the Foreign Office was looking both for people with commercial experience and for Latin America experts in particular. Skinner was interviewed in Spanish and was therefore amused that his first posting was to Brazil, where he had to learn Portuguese.

In 1962 Charles and his new wife, Jane, found themselves Her Majesty's representatives in the new Brazilian capital of Brasilia. It had only just been built and the Skinners lived in a little staging post that, Jane recalled, looked like a Foreign Legion fort. They had numerous pets, including monkeys, marmosets, toucans, parrots, lovebirds and macaws, and an enormous Brazilian mastiff dog, which became the official embassy guard. They also owned two horses, Hengist and Horsa. The animals all roamed free and the Skinners' garden became part of the local tourist route.

They became friends of the famous Villas Boas brothers, who worked for the Indian protection service and who invited the Skinners to come with them to attend a festival in the newly established Xingu Indian reserve in Matto Grosso. It was extremely remote and took days to reach. After the festival Charles had to return to work, but the only plane to arrive was a two-seater, with one seat occupied by the pilot. The pregnant Jane had to remain in the forest among the Iwalipiti Indians, most of whom wore little but toucan-feather earrings. The Skinners were reunited in Brasilia and their daughter Harriet was to be the first British citizen born in the new capital.

Charles Skinner's next Foreign Office posting was to Lima, where they served for three years and where their son Rupert was born. Upon joining Oxfam, Skinner became responsible for running the charity's anti-poverty programmes in the Andean countries of Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia. Oxfam's first office in Latin America had been opened in Brazil in 1969; the office in Lima was the second.

Oxfam "Field Directors", as they were known, were then almost always white expatriates, but they were passionate about Oxfam's mission to relieve poverty, distress and suffering, and they knew and loved the countries in which they worked. Wherever possible, Oxfam worked by funding local organisations and with the philosophy of trying to work with the poorest and most marginalised communities.

This work was therefore generally in remote rural areas, and in urban slums. Jane, who was also employed by Oxfam as the office secretary, frequently accompanied Charles. They drove on rough roads, carrying oxygen cylinders to use when going over the highest passes, or went by canoe or simply walked, and stayed with isolated communities in the mountains or jungles.

The Skinners also first encountered a classic tension in Oxfam's work: who was in control, the worker in the field or headquarters in Oxford? When he was told that every public health project that Oxfam funded had to have an overt birth control component, because that was Oxfam policy at the time, Charles Skinner responded that this was not possible in Catholic countries. He was not against birth control, but programmes had to be conducted quietly and with great care. Oxfam worked through others, and had to respect their sensitivities.

On another occasion he was upbraided for not spending money raised to help the earthquake victims more quickly. He criticised "the apparent assumption that Oxford knows best and can take decisions without even consulting the people Oxfam keeps on the spot"; work being funded had to be good, and, anyway, charities should not do what government should do, and let government off the hook on its responsibilities for reconstruction. Skinner believed that, generally speaking, it was the man or woman on the ground that knew best. It was a belief that was to stand him in good stead when he went to run Oxfam's programme in India.

Upon returning to Oxford in 1972 he became Area Co-ordinator responsible for running Oxfam's work throughout Latin America. For most of the 1980s he was Area Co-ordinator for Asia and also Field Director for the Philippines.

Perhaps Skinner's greatest contribution came in his role as Deputy International Director, which he fulfilled from 1972 until 1979, and then again from 1980 until 1988. The International Director in the first period, Michael Harris, was innovative and enthusiastic, but not terribly methodical. Skinner was the perfect foil. He was imperturbable and systematic. His judgements were concise and to the point, delivered in a courteous and gentle tone, or written in a highly distinctive, beautiful, minute hand.

In 1979 the Skinners - now with another daughter, Emmy - went to live in India, where Charles was Oxfam's Representative in India and Field Director for Northern India, Nepal and Kashmir. They felt a particular affinity for India; Jane had been born there, and Charles was delighted to meet several distant relatives who were descended from the Anglo-Indian soldier Colonel James Skinner, who founded the cavalry regiment Skinner's Horse.

No visit to the countryside was complete without a detour to the nearest temple, cave or fort, and Charles Skinner's considered advice was: "Never set up a conference without taking a day off in the middle for visiting the local archaeological site." This approach did not always go down well with some who took Oxfam's Quaker-inspired work ethos very seriously, but Skinner's belief was that it was essential to know as much about the history and culture in which you were working as possible, and that time spent in this way was invaluable.

Oxfam's programme was then, as now, assisting the marginalised, including the Harijans, the so-called "Untouchable" castes and the disabled. It was an occasionally difficult programme to manage. Oxfam Indian staff from different regions sometimes had different views and a wide range of strongly held opinions about what should be done. Furthermore, they were becoming more assertive that they should run their own programmes in their own country without "neo- colonialist" supervision from an office in north Oxford.

Skinner won the respect of all as a fair-minded peacemaker. He believed that the skills of Indian staff were such that they could benefit Oxfam's programmes anywhere in the world. It was partly due to him that Oxfam appointed Pushpanath Krishnamurthy, a grassroots development worker and one of the most trenchant critics, as its Regional Representative for Zambia and Malawi. This was the first of many and regular cross-country appointments of staff that changed the entire landscape of Oxfam's human resources policies.

Among the Indian staff, Skinner was affectionately known as "Kumbakarna". At first sight it was a strange compliment. Kumbakarna is Ravana's brother in the Ramayana cycle, a savage giant with a ravenous appetite who sleeps for six months of the year. Kumbakarna was also a hero who fought and died out of loyalty to his brother, but did not believe him to be in the right. In the same way, Indian staff felt that Skinner would defend Oxfam to the hilt, but not every decision by management in England.

He left Oxfam in 1990, by which time he knew that he had Parkinson's disease. He never complained and, with Jane's help, continued to travel. This was mainly to visit his daughters who had followed him into development work. Many Oxfam visitors came and stayed with them in their residence in the Old Rectory in Islip near Oxford, and many Oxfam social and fund-raising events were held in the tithe barn there.

It was only after Charles Skinner's death that his family learnt that, on his return to England, he had refused to take a salary for his work with Oxfam and had accepted only a token £1 a month.

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