Susanna Smith

Iconoclastic Oxfam campaigner


Susanna Smith, charity worker: born London 28 May 1951; Field Director for Zambia and Malawi, Oxfam 1979-84, Public Affairs Officer 1985-92, Assistant to the Director 1992-96, Asia Director 1996-98, Deputy International Director 1998-2006; OBE 2000; (one daughter by Charles Lane); died Oxford 23 June 2006.

Oxfam has attracted many extraordinary people in its 64 years, but none more so than Susanna Smith. Over a 30-year career, working first as a field director in Africa, then in research and in senior management, she helped to make Oxfam a more professional and accountable organisation, and to change traditional thinking about the role of politics in development work.

In 1979, aged just 28, Susie Smith was appointed Oxfam's Field Director for Zambia and Malawi, based in Lusaka. For her to be in southern Africa was something of a return; her mother, Prudence Pryce, a BBC producer and distance educator, had been born and brought up in South Africa and there met Michael Smith, Susie's beloved father, an architect who died when Susie was 19.

But southern Africa at the beginning of the 1980s was a different place from the one that Prue had left in 1945; when Susie Smith arrived, the apartheid system in South Africa was at its most ruthless, and the frontline states, including Zambia, were feeling the effects of its malign proximity. Zambia was also suffering from the dramatic fall in copper prices and a massive debt crisis. What part could a charity like Oxfam play in relieving poverty amid the mayhem?

Among Smith's qualities was intense curiosity in people, an unusual ability to listen, and an iconoclasm that could never understand why the status quo was necessarily for the best. She liked nothing better than to sit for hours with women in remote villages, out-of-work miners in the towns of the Copperbelt, or with neighbours in Lusaka. Over the beer, and amid much laughter, she began to understand that what was keeping people, and particularly women, poor was intensely political; that continuing to fund small initiatives, however good, was simply to be ineffective in the worsening social and economic conditions of Africa in the 1980s.

This became ever more clear to her when she rented a small house in a compound on the edge of Lusaka. The compound - 250 Zambezi Road - became something of an Oxfam institution. Smith's neighbours were the exiled South Africans Ray Simons, founder of the Food and Canning Union, and her husband Jack, a distinguished academic. The cottage at the end of the garden was home to Cecilia Masondo, PA to Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC. It was here that Smith met a cross-section of those who were to build a new South Africa, one of the most frequent visitors being Thabo Mbeki.

One of Smith's great strengths was her capacity to learn from people. In a recent memoir on her time in Zambia, Smith described the evening walks she took with the Simons from 250 Zambezi Road:

We would enjoy frequent conversations with the Ngombe residents we met on our way, and were normally invited in for discussion, or to see how people were extending their homes wall by wall, as income allowed; how their vegetables were doing, and any problems encountered. We discussed the prices of basic commodities, transport problems, births and deaths, people's health matters and, of course, politics. The point of importance is that they, we, were quite genuinely fascinated by the minutiae of people's lives - it was understood between us that the granularity of "how people stay" formed the basis for any bigger view of the world and, most centrally, of political understanding.

And so, not only in Zambia, but throughout southern Africa, Oxfam began to create programmes which, while firmly based in the minute particulars of poor people's lives, were linked to serious campaigning for real structural change at local, national or international level.

In 1984 Smith returned to England, first to give birth to her daughter, Sarah, then to begin a fruitful period building on her understanding of southern Africa. The two books she wrote, Namibia: a violation of trust, (1986) and Front Line Africa: the right to a future (1990), remain among the clearest analyses of the situation as it then was. Rigorously researched, passionately argued, they were also compelling arguments for the international community to take action.

So compelling indeed that in 1990 the Charity Commission launched a year-long inquiry into whether Oxfam's trustees had acted in breach of trust in calling for sanctions against apartheid South Africa to be maintained. Their finding was that, though Oxfam had acted in good faith, the link between maintenance of sanctions and relieving poverty had not been shown. But, in fact, this difficult period for Oxfam also marked the beginning of a totally new approach by the Charity Commission - possibly helped by a change of prime minister - which fully recognised the political nature of development, and the need for charities to be able to engage in relevant political debate. Many campaigners today owe a debt to Susie Smith for her challenges 16 years ago.

In the Nineties, moving into the senior management of Oxfam (she was appointed Deputy International Director in 1998), she used her abilities to think laterally, to test received wisdom, to look dispassionately and without sentimentality, but always with compassion and a deep sense of justice concerning the issues confronting Oxfam. Impatient of the view that greater professionalism would mean Oxfam losing its humanity, Smith was instrumental in making the agency more effective, more accountable and more inclusive.

Smith was equally impatient of the view that some development problems were just too sensitive to tackle. Issues that others were bypassing - for example, the effects of caste on development in India - were not just faced head on, but done so in a way that allowed others to join her. More recently, already gravely ill, she helped Oxfam look again at its approach to HIV/Aids, and to build a much more comprehensive response. She was a brilliant mentor to new staff or those moving into new or difficult jobs, the perfect colleague to those who had the good fortune to work with her.

While Oxfam was the base from which she was able to make an impact on the wider world, Susie Smith was no workaholic. Like her mother Prue, she loved gardens and gardening, and was a great adviser to friends on what would or wouldn't work. She loved travel and was planning a trip to Sicily. She had mixed feelings about her education - a progressive day school in Hampstead, then boarding at Dartington Hall - followed by a philosophy degree at Newcastle. But it certainly produced a most enquiring brain and a deep sense of what is best and most worthwhile in life.

She was first diagnosed with cancer in 1997, but this appeared to be cured. At the end of 1999 her mother died and in the New Years Honours in 2000 Smith was appointed OBE. The cancer reappeared in 2003 but, despite great pain, she lived life to the full: working, travelling, spending time with her family and wide circle of friends. She was determined to see her daughter through to the end of her university course; Sarah heard that she had been awarded a first class degree the day that Susie died.

David Bryer

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