Barbara Stocking Q&A: “Anything is possible if you are educated”

The former Oxfam CEO talks Michelle Obama, Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls and life lessons from her father. 

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Barbara Stocking was born in Rugby in 1951 and has worked as an NHS director and as Oxfam’s CEO. She was given a damehood in 2008 and is currently president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being allowed to go on a rocking horse at the primary school I was due to join the following year. 

Who are your heroes?

I didn’t have a hero as a child but I was obsessed with the Beatles. My hero now is Michelle Obama, who has dealt with such personal attacks with grace. Her inner strength and ability to learn about herself is very inspiring. 

What book last changed your thinking?

Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls by Tim Marshall gave me a greater understanding of conflict situations around the world and helped me clarify my own thoughts on migration and immigration. 

Which political figure do you look up to?

I’ll have to pick two: Kofi Annan and Madeleine Albright. Kofi for his humanity, his willingness to face up to difficult issues and his bravery when challenging those in power; Madeleine for her global leadership, and for showing the way for women.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A future one where we have cracked climate change and live in peace with the Earth and with each other.

What TV show could you not live without?

Boringly, the news, but I also love Andrew Graham-Dixon’s shows on art history.

Who would paint your portrait?

Daphne Todd will be painting my portrait this year for Murray Edwards College.

What’s your theme tune?

“The Girl from Ipanema”, a Brazilian song about a girl who is completely her own person – and she’s tall, which I wish I was! 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

From my dad: anything is possible if you are educated. He gave me the ambition to do all sorts of things, even if I came from a working-class background. That gave me the confidence to try hard and to take risks. As a result, I have had a wonderful life.

What’s currently bugging you?

I’d like to find more ways to encourage disadvantaged students to apply to study at Cambridge. I would like the young women of today to have the opportunities I had as a student.

What single thing would make your life better?

Longer and sunnier days during the  British winter.

When were you happiest?

When I worked for Oxfam. It was incredibly rewarding to be somewhere where I could really make a difference,  and an enormous privilege to meet ordinary people from across the world and to talk with them, just as one human being to another. That was especially possible as a woman – I was able to sit and talk to other women to find out what was really happening.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

UN secretary-general – but it still seems to be only for men.

Are we all doomed?

No, I think we’ll get there in terms of climate-change control – but only after many people, especially in developing countries, have suffered. 

Dame Barbara Stocking will deliver a lecture on “Hope in Society” at the Westminster Abbey Institute on 25 February 

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This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics