Barbara Stocking: opera lover who turned Oxfam into a £300m business

Under the ambitous Barbara Stocking, Oxfam has taken on a more 'businesslike' role and pursued partnerships with big corporations and the City. But not everyone is happy with the charity's new direction.

Even The Wall Street Journal has caught the happiness bug. "Adults who frequently feel gratitude [and translate that into good deeds themselves] have more energy, more optimism and more happiness than those who do not," it proclaims. Doubtless the goats will be flying out of the door of Oxfam's ethical gift department this Christmas. At £25 a pop, "our goats aren't just cute They produce milk to drink and sell, fertiliser for crops, and kids to take to market", notes the charity's all bells-and-whistles retail website. "Not baa-d."

Most of the credit for this informal and friendly, yet eminently business-like, approach goes to Dame Barbara Stocking. A former NHS administrator, she has taken Oxfam "on a whirlwind journey" since she took the top job a decade ago, says The Independent on Sunday. The charity founded in 1942 to help Greek civilian victims of war is now the largest second-hand bookseller in Europe (there are 700 shops in Britain alone). Under Stocking's guidance it's been pushing for partnerships with big business and the City "a major departure from the days when campaigners saw the giant multinationals as the enemy". Her latest venture is "a spin on microfinance". She's in talks with several financial services outfits to form a "fund of funds" to raise private capital for direct investment in chosen projects and businesses.

Stocking studied natural sciences at Cambridge. There she discovered a passion for opera. She then took a masters degree in America and joined the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. After a stint working in west Africa, she returned to Britain and joined the National Health Service. Prior to joining Oxfam, she lead its Modernisation Agency. Stocking still packs her bags several times a year to visit disaster zones.

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But not everyone's happy with her slick corporate outfit. "What Barbara Stocking has created in Oxfam is the cult of the celebrity executive director borrowed shamelessly from the private sector, which she courts with unseemly haste," noted one blogger in 2007. Critics have homed in on her apparent enjoyment of the trappings of power the trips to Davos and the glitzy dinners with worthies as well as her love of "management cant", says Nick Cohen in The New Statesman.

"But it would be a mistake to see her as another empty suit. The charitable world is notoriously uncharitable, but I could not find a director of a rival charity with a bad word to say about her." Above all, she is a success: on her watch sales hit £300m.

Stocking has never concealed her ambition, says the Daily Mail: she'd like a big job at the UN next. This year she takes over as vice-president of former-president Kofi Annan's Global Humanitarian Forum. "Ever since I was 18, I have wanted to save the world as you do," she laughs.

Is Oxfam now a "hybrid with incompatible aims"?

Although Stocking says the most rewarding part of her job is engaging with developing communities, she's had to take some tough decisions to see Oxfam through the recession, says the Daily Mail. It has pulled out of some countries completely.

But the situation, she believes, is looking up. "You can tell a recession is over because a woman says to her husband, 'I want a new bag as I'm sick of this one'." That type of remark may not be appreciated by non-governmental organisations' feminists, but that's nothing compared to the stick Oxfam gets for its supposedly "neo-colonial" and condescending ways.

Even the provision of "poverty-fighting pressies" gets many people's goats. Why is Oxfam, with its "cheesy marketing speak", so reluctant to acknowledge that "the developing world is not a giant HIV-infested countryside, and the people who live there aspire to more than animal rearing, sex education and subsistence farming", asks Nathalie Rothschild on

The charity has also been criticised for its work with corporations looking to burnish their corporate social responsibility credentials and shore up supply chains. Most recently, its drive to embrace microfinance to fight poverty has come under scrutiny from those who fear the imminent implosion of a microcredit bubble, especially in India. "Times have changed and Oxfam is moving with them," says Dame Barbara firmly.

But the conflicts of interest in a corrupt world haven't changed, says Nick Cohen in The New Statesman. Oxfam is a "hybrid with incompatible aims". It's there to "provide relief regardless of political consequences", yet to "lobby for political change". At its birth, when it angered the war-time coalition by breaking the blockade against the Nazis to feed refuges, it had to decide "whether destroying tyranny was more important than relieving immediate suffering". "It seems no closer to an answer."