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Tigger Stack

Tigger Stack

Tigger Stack - more recently Tigger Ramsay-Brown but in her Oxfam life, incomparably Tigger Stack - died peacefully on 3rd December at the age of 95. She had been wrestling with an invader in her throat for over a year, fending it off with her usual aplomb. But as she commented wryly, the diagnosis was irredeemable, even if on some days she was able to imagine it was not. She will be much missed by family, Oxfam associates, and by friends all over the world accumulated at all sorts of moments in a very full life, including in her native country, India.

Tigger was born in Darjeeling in June 1921, daughter of a Circuit Judge in the then Indian Civil Service - the uppermost echelon of British India. Although she was sent away to boarding school in Britain, she was primarily raised in that world of liberal Anglo-Indian hierarchy which endowed her with a capacity to mix with many kinds of people, and an air of charming but incontestable authority. It was at school that the nickname 'Tigger' became so affixed to her that to all intents and purposes she abandoned her given name of Margaret. Returning to Calcutta (now Kolkata), she lived with her father, and later with her first husband, during the war-time Raj and on into post-Raj independence, and had a daughter, Gael.

Tigger's first association with Oxfam was in 1966. She was then married to her second husband Cecil Stack, Managing Director of Dunlop Rubber in India. His standing provided her with easy entry into high-level business, military and political circles. The Stacks were asked to host a well-known war artist visiting India under Oxfam's wing. Strange as it now seems, the idea was for this artist to draw starvation victims to help raise the profile of the Bihar famine in the UK. The Indian government was reluctant to acknowledge the severity of the hunger crisis and accept large-scale international assistance. Tigger then offered Jim Howard, Oxfam's India Field Director, her support for Oxfam's relief effort. The quintessential networker, Tigger used her intelligence, her Ingrid Bergman looks, her Dunlop connections and her dogged persistence to unblock port restrictions, get relief supplies loaded onto trains, organise manufacture of protein-rich foodstuffs for children, and generally 'work' a system substantially dependent on influence and contacts. Like every other Oxfam person who spent time with her in India, Jim Howard could not believe his eyes at the doors that opened and the diffusion of logistical and communications obstacles she miraculously achieved.

Tigger worked as a virtual assistant director of the Bihar relief programme for a year. She raised a great deal of money for the programme, and many of her Indian contacts in Gandhian organisations, and in trusts related to businesses such as Tata, became involved. They expressed a desire to have a longer-term relationship of support for Oxfam's India programme. On leave in Britain in 1967, she visited Oxfam in Oxford, and proposed that an 'Oxfam India' be set up through which Indian money and expertise could be channelled. The Oxfam culture of those days with its non-conformist, Quakerly sense of itself, did not sit easily with Tigger's ideas of alliance with Indian business interests and the idea was rejected: she was ahead of her time. Later on in 1978, she was asked to look again at the prospects of an 'Oxfam India', and although her ideas on what it might look like were not fully accepted, such an organisation did eventually emerge. It later ran into very difficult waters with Oxfam UK, and Tigger tried to bite her tongue - not entirely successfully - about the way the situation was handled at the UK end.

In 1969, Tigger returned permanently to the UK. Now single again, she asked Oxfam if they had any openings. After various options were considered, she was taken on by Phillip Jackson as Public Relations Officer in the Information and Communications Division. At that time, according to her own account, there were two powerhouses in Oxfam: Information/Communications and Overseas Aid. These were often at loggerheads, the Overseas Aid people being anxious to avoid controversy, and the Communications people always trying to push the boundaries of 'information' into active campaigning. Oxfam was still almost entirely associated in the public's mind with relief for the victims of starvation in ex-colonial, third world countries, and the Communications Division was trying to pitch Oxfam's vision of 'development' as the way to address the underlying poverty which war or disaster plunged into mass distress. Overseas Aid desk officers tended to guard their ramparts defensively as if from dangerous assault, against those keen to make Oxfam's case publically. This particularly applied to Tigger, who was more tenacious than the average Oxfam information person.

In November 1970, came an opportunity for Tigger to use her Indian experience in the field. A massive tidal wave had inundated swathes of densely-populated coastal land in the Bay of Bengal. Leslie Kirkley, Oxfam's Director, called Tigger late one night to say that Oxfam HQ had lost contact with Richard Taylor, the Field Director covering what was then East Pakistan. She was to fly to Dacca (now Dhaka), find Richard - he was in fact already there - and get information flowing back to Oxford. Having lived in Calcutta for many years, she knew Bengal well and could find a way through the most obdurate bureaucracy. She flew down to the Sunderbans, the area worst-hit by the cyclone, on a government helicopter. "It was a terrible sight, bodies scattered everywhere, huge concrete sluice-gates uprooted and overturned". Phone communications were down, but Tigger borrowed a business contact's telex to send reports to Oxford. Richard remembers her hotel room as "a hive of industry"; it became a communications centre where media and NGO people gathered. One television reporter to turn up was Alan Hart, then of ITV. Tigger remembers telling him that "This is a huge disaster, but by far the biggest disaster is the ongoing poverty. That's what you should really focus on."

In the wake of the cyclone came political turmoil, war between the West and East wings of Pakistan, the flight towards Calcutta of 10 million refugees, invasion by India in late 1971, and finally the birth of Bangladesh. Tigger, summoned back to Oxford, and 'reined in' as she saw it, became so frustrated with Overseas Aid's refusal to let her participate in Oxfam's relief programme that at one point she used her leave to go and work with Mother Teresa in the Bengal refugee camps. Later on when the Indian Army invaded in December 1971, she went out to Calcutta with Leslie Kirkley, got hold of Army passes and borrowed a jeep to go with him across the border into war-torn East Bengal. The most daunting obstacles never fazed her if she was determined to do something. Nor did they faze Kirkley. Thankfully because at the end of their day's excursion to a war-zone they had to abandon the jeep in a ditch and walk back across the border into India in the dark.

A year or so later, Alan Hart telephoned Tigger and said he had been thinking about what she had said to him in Dhaka. He wanted to set up a company to make a film about poverty around the world, and how the process of technological advance in the richer countries was deepening poverty in poor countries. Tigger persuaded Phillip Jackson, still her Oxfam boss and a person who had great faith in her, that this was just the kind of film that both of them had long believed needed to be made. As a result Oxfam provided Alan Hart with some seed money. Tigger herself was persuaded by Hart to leave Oxfam and join his team, to use her operational abilities to make the film happen. It was not entirely a happy experience, as these two strong personalities from very different backgrounds quickly clashed. But the film, 'Five Minutes to Midnight', including interviews with many world figures of the day, was successfully completed. It was shown at the UN in 1974, and was the longest documentary ever to be broadcast on BBC2 up to that time.

Although Tigger's formal employment with Oxfam did not, therefore, last for many years, she continued to work in various capacities for Oxfam over the next decade and a half. Her assignments included the Oxfam India study in the late 1970s, a review of the potential for programmes in Pakistan, a trip to Canada to assist Oxfam-Quebec with fund-raising and some emergency report work, in the days when 'consultants' were still an embryonic species. Her most significant task was to undertake in 1983 an evaluation of the immensely complex and unprecedentedly large 1979-81 Kampuchea (ex-Pol Pot Cambodia) relief operation. She found the task virtually impossible, and was still mulling over her shortcomings in failing to produce a truly comprehensive and organisationally acceptable report in the days before her death. To conduct a wide-ranging evaluation of that kind was novel at the time, and her findings of organisational over-reach and over-strain, together with major flaws in too ambitious a relief effort - one of which Oxfam was immensely proud - were hard to set down and painful for the organisation to hear.

In a way, the Kampuchea relief programme with its brave but naïve determination to go out on an NGO limb, not walk in step with donor governments and the international community, marked a watershed between the old Oxfam and the new, corporate, professionalised Oxfam, that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. For all her criticisms of that programme, Tigger definitely preferred the old Oxfam. She thought the new Oxfam lacked heart.

Tigger belonged to a generation of Oxfam people for whom the organisation and its mission represented, often unexpectedly, a vocation. To adopt its creed was a life-shaping assertion of values previously unknown or only glimpsed through a glass darkly. She said in a recent interview: "Oxfam was enormously important in my life. It changed my perspectives on all sorts of issues. I think I was very naïve beforehand, I had a different set of values. Suddenly, I felt I had found a job in which I could do something really worthwhile. I look back on my time at Oxfam as one of the best times in my life." She knew she would never have had that opportunity today. As a long-time trustee of Afghan Aid, she saw how today's applicants to development NGOs need extensive credentials and academic degrees - none of which she had. "They are working much more according to theory, and much more at a distance, often with bigger schemes. They have been moving more into development, moving further towards changing politics, changing ideas, and away from the simple and straightforward." she said. One thing she regretted was the attenuated links between theory and practical action, wondering how well familiarity with concepts and objectives actually translates into antidotes to suffering on the ground.

As her Oxfam life wound down, Tigger re-married (her third husband Donald Ramsay-Brown died a few years ago) and lived happily in Woodstock. Her daughter Gael gave a wonderful 90th birthday party for her in the India Room at Blenheim Palace. Her nephew Gavin has a professional career in development, serving in DfID, which pleased her greatly. She last travelled to India just a few years ago, visiting her frontline-against-poverty Oxfam friends Stan and Mari Thekaekara, among many other close, long-term associates. She had many friends and relations who were somehow connected into a very large web in which the Indian sub-continent and support for humanity were interwoven.

Tigger remained until the last an Oxfam stalwart of the old school. Her always elegant and good-looking self, poised, hospitable, delighted to see old friends and talk about Oxfam past and present, never lost its touch of impish determination, its frisson of steel, when the organisation she most cherished on earth did not come up to her version of scratch. Those of us who worked with her, and knew her through and beyond her Oxfam days, will miss that extraordinarily demanding and enriching personality, that sense of fun, energy and commitment, and that concern for those in poverty that informed her outlook until the end.

Maggie Black, Oxford 8 December 2016.