Lives Remembered: Michael Harris

In her book A Cause for our Times: Oxfam, the first 50 years, Maggie Black wrote of my father: “[Michael] Harris was a Quaker who detested conflict and injustice, a person of deep convictions which he carefully hid behind an idiosyncratic style modelled somewhere between George Bernard Shaw and Bertie Wooster.”



His Quaker convictions heavily influenced Michael Harris’s career and his life. He was from a well-established Quaker family in Plymouth and joined the Friends Ambulance Unit as a nurse at 17, first in the Finnish-Russian war, escaping via Norway on a French destroyer in the spring of 1940 to join the Blitz work in London. He then volunteered to go to join the China Convoy keeping the Burma Road open after the Japanese invasion. In 1942 he was working in a surgical unit in China. He then became General Secretary to the British United Aid to China, sitting on the committee with Madame Chiang Kai-shek. He had a wonderful tale of being asked to play table tennis with Mao Tse Tung, and having diplomatically to let him win.

Harris returned home to work in the civil service for the then chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps. He then joined the colonial service and spent 15 years in Malawi as a district commissioner; there he met his wife, a surgeon from South Africa. When Malawi became independent he returned to the UK and joined Oxfam in 1964 as one of two overseas officers.

In his 20 years with Oxfam he visited 73 countries, was present at 12 major disasters and was involved in five wars. He was fiercely proud of his staff at Oxfam, and preferred action to bureaucracy. He obtained food supplies for the famine in Sudan by visiting the Emperor Haile Selassie, and fed his lions, and often quoted the UN Secretary General at the time of the second Ethiopian famine “The worst thing about famine in Africa in the end is that it is not an act of God, it is a political failure to counter the acts of God”.

Lord Joel Joffe, who was a trustee of Oxfam when Harris was overseas director, noted that he will always be remembered as one of the key individuals who made Oxfam what it is, combining a passion for justice with the ability to make a real difference to the lives of people living in poverty.

He retired from Oxfam in 1974, but continued his work for justice and poverty, becoming the chair of the African Medical Research Foundation, and then chair of the Anti-Slavery Society as well as advising the Oxford Refugee Studies programme.

After retiring from the Anti-Slavery Society he continued to help organise their award ceremonies and fund-raising balls, as he always loved a good party. He is survived by two daughters.

Janet Harris

If you would like to contribute an obituary of a friend, family member or colleague, please send a piece of no more than 500 words to Obituaries, ‘The Independent’, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF, by fax to 020 7005 2399 or by email to obituaries@independent.co.uk. We reserve the right to edit copy for length and style.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links