Maggie Black reckons many will remember "the way Elizabeth ran her team, and how she brought with her the mores and discipline of the Economist Intelligence Unit and how no detail escaped her eagle eye. First thing in the morning was the newspapers, and everyone in her section was off limits while they read the newspapers, marked any relevant story, and cut them out. Then the summary would be typed up, and carbon copies sent to all divisions."
In A Cause for Our Times Maggie notes that Elizabeth "played a very important role in positioning Oxfam intellectually between the simplest response to world hunger - 'I am 79, I can't spare much but here is 6s I saved on fuel' - from what was fast becoming a subject of significance and complexity, spawning new disciplines and professions. It was not easy to straddle almost single-handedly an exhortation to ladies knitting blankets, and a background briefing on the implications of GATT negotiations for developing economies, which would pass muster with
Maggie adds "I remember in 1973 - I think it was that year but it might have been 1974 - that Elizabeth worked out, almost uniquely in the country as far as I could see, that the Russians had bought up almost the entire US wheat grain surplus, because they had such a huge deficit of their own. She must have worked it out from grain prices, ships sailing here and there, and truly it was something of major significance. We were still in the middle of the Cold War and why would the USSR nuke America if it depended on US wheat in a crisis to provide food for its people? Elizabeth was
like a terrier when it came to information, but sometimes she found it hard to convince us all of the importance of her extraordinary encyclopaedic grasp. Not on that occasion!"
David Browning remembers her generosity in having him stay in her house when he first came from Northumberland to work in Oxfam, while he looked for accommodation for his family: (Sally Vaux recalls that she did the same for her). David is another to have encapsulated the importance of the output of the Information Office: it "was critical", he says, to building "a wider and deeper understanding of the issues and processes of third world economic and community development. We were able, successfully, to marry the resources provided by Elizabeth and her team with the
growing need to explain and understand what we now call social and economic development - to the tens of thousands of local volunteers raising the funds. Over the following years, it became possible to see that flourish through a range of learning opportunities for staff and local supporters, through a widening range of learning opportunities - starting with staff conferences - then large national supporter conferences - and eventually regional opportunities - all working through small groups and with the resources that the Information team provided."
It is also worth mentioning that, representing Oxfam, Elizabeth was in on early discussions of the possibilities of an Oxfam International; and the early days of the Disasters Emergency Committee, on which all of us now count to mount major joint appeals in the wake of catastrophe - witness currently the famine in eastern Africa.
"One of Oxfam's 'characters' and a lovely woman unless you worked for her" is how Hazel Douglas describes Elizabeth. Without doubt she was a hard taskmaster, reducing some to tears and not universally popular among her staff. This toughness may well have been influenced by that terrible family tragedy: after her father and grandparents died, one of her uncles told her that she had to stand on her own two feet and not depend on any man. But Tony Vaux suggests that "her bark was deceptive. She was a deeply kind person - I often suspected that she worked very
hard to keep her deeply sensitive side hidden", he says. But she did indeed guard fiercely the vital information about Oxfam and its work, insisting stringently on accuracy. And, whatever about her style, she was right to do so, since sound data was key to the organization's good reputation, all the more so at a time when its pushful advertising and PR were the exception rather than the rule among British charities, and consequently readily exposed it to public scrutiny. Yes, she shot straight from the hip: Hazel also recalls her passing a newspaper article round a Directors'
Meeting, telling of how women around the world managed for sanitary protection: moss, rags, and the like. "All the guys started to read it, hesitated, coughed and passed it on hastily."
She retired in 1991. In retirement she was a founding Trustee and very active Deputy Chair of the Oxford-based International Training and Research Centre for NGOs, serving from 1991 until 2003. INTRAC's founding director Brian Pratt relates that among other things she ensured that it set up a pension fund for its employees. She was actively interested in ethical economics and had close links with such initiatives as Ethical Investment Research Services Limited and its EIRIS Foundation; and with the Triodos Bank, which specialises in socially responsible and sustainable investment.
When in 1989 the Abbey National Building Society was the first such society to seek to demutualise, she resolutely opposed the move. She was a great supporter of, and from 2003 to 2008 Joint Chairman of the Central and North Oxford Area Committee, of the Oxford Preservation Trust, fighting to protect the city's architectural and other heritage. Of a piece with that was her early championing of recycling, and being one of the first to have solar panels installed on her house. Many will also recall that for some years she was the prime mover in bringing former colleagues together in the
once regular 'Exfam' lunches in Oxford.
In her last years, Libby suffered severe, although mainly peaceful, dementia and lived in several homes for the elderly on giving up what had been her own house for decades in 11 Harpes Road, Summertown. The house had been close to Oxfam's then HQ: the state of it - it was something of a 'tip' if truth be told - suggests that she gave her all to Oxfam and largely ignored her own wellbeing. But it was a sad shock for former colleagues to visit her in those retirement homes and eventually not even be recognised by her: the contrast with the amazing organizational memory we
had all known was painful to us, but we can be thankful that she seemed largely unaware of it. To their enormous credit, she was much and regularly helped during these last years by her indefatigable cousin, Marian Dawkins, and constant befriender Annie Allsebrook.
Libby was pivotal: colleagues have called her a doughty old soldier, an unsung heroine of the early Oxfam. For those of us of the Oxfam family, her passing - like that of Kirkley, Jackson-Cole, Llewellyn, Howard or Stringer - is something of an end to an era. But it was surely also a merciful release from what had become a half-life after the fullest of lives, in the course of which she had helped individuals, her adopted community and the wider world. In finishing, let me express my warmest thanks to the many, including the Oxfam archivists, who have helped me piece these thoughts
How better to end than with Frank Judd's superbly succinct summary? He writes: "she was brilliant, obstinate as hell, formidable, indispensable and one of Oxfam's best. Her unyielding commitment to publishing every year a complete list of every project in which we were involved throughout the world was vivid evidence of the disciplined integrity which kept Oxfam on the rails. It was invaluable balance to the rationalised, theoretical vocabulary of which there was no shortage! What a woman - and how I used to tremble when I saw her bearing down upon my office!"