Lives Remembered: Tim Brierly

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The Independent Online

Tim Brierly, a founding member of Oxfam's African aid team, has died at the age of 84. An inveterate traveller, an efficient administrator, a helpful and appreciative boss, Tim epitomised the kind of solid, colonial professionalism Oxfam's aid programme enjoyed in the pioneering days of the 1960s.He belonged to that special cadrewho – thanks to Britain's then rolein the world – did and saw extraordinary things at a very young age.Entering the colonial service atthe last gasp of Empire, their careers were cut short by the "winds of change" in Africa, and Oxfam was lucky to recruit them.

Timothy Graham Brierly was born on 26 August 1926. After serving in the Coldstream Guards from 1944-48, in Palestine and Egypt and the King's African Rifles in Uganda, he joined the British Overseas Civil Service. From 1951 to 1965, he worked mostly in Northern Nigeria, with a three-year spell based in Dakar, Senegal, during which he travelled throughout French-speaking West Africa.

Tim was therefore an ideal candidate to set up Oxfam's first West and Equatorial African field office. He established himself in Lagos early in 1966. Soon afterwards Leslie Kirkley, Oxfam's Director, arrived for a nine-country, four-week tour, with the modest request that Tim arrange meetings "with as many Heads of State as possible". He was expected to cover – alone – the area from Dakar in the West, through all the coastal and sub-Saharan countries, down to Lake Kivu on the border of Congo with Rwanda. He brought on young African staff and organisations in many countries, forming collaborations important for Oxfam's future. Meanwhile, his office and domestic arrangements were of the simplest, in an era incomparable to the sophisticated overseas NGO establishments of today.

In May 1967, the Nigerian civil war broke out with the declaration of a breakaway eastern state, Biafra. This was to prove a political baptism of fire for international humanitarian relief generally, for Oxfam, and for Tim in particular. Sensitive to political niceties, and to the principle whereby aid should be given solely according to human need, Tim was careful to ensure that Oxfam relief was given on both sides of the advancing Federal line.

But in mid-1968, when the foodsituation in Biafra worsened, Oxfam publicly abandoned its policy of even-handedness, in the mistaken belief that this would help get aid into the enclave. This put Tim in great difficulty. He received a carpeting from President Gowon for Oxfam's partisanship, and was subject to diplomatic opprobrium and Nigerian press harassment. He thereupon resigned.

Tim then spent some years in North Africa. But in 1973, when political zeal at Oxfam had modified, Tim returned to the overseas staff as Field Director in the Far East, based in Saigon. Yet another Civil War overtook him, and the office was closed shortly before Saigon fell. From 1975-80, he was Field Director for East Africa, based first in Ethiopia, and later in Kenya, where he also covered Sudan and Somalia. In his final years, up to 1987, Tim was based in Oxford and undertook trouble-shooting relief missions, including to Vietnam, Congo (then Zaire), and Uganda.

In retirement, Tim had many interests, including walking, travelling, photography, and bridge, which he often pursued with old Oxfam friends. An avuncular figure, shy but convivial, Tim was especially happy swapping stories about Africa and other far-flung corners of the world. Although a bachelor, he was notoriously undomesticated, and unquestionably the worst driver most of his passengers ever had the joy of travelling with, either in Africa or Oxford.

He hated any form of limelight or public speaking, and was adept at diversionary tactics which left others standing on platforms or giving press interviews that should have been his – much to their amusement.

Tim was held in great affection and his passing, on 24 December 2010, will be regretted by his many Oxfam friends.

Maggie Black