Lives Remembered: Michael Harris
Monday 08 June 2009
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.
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