"I used to think that if I campaigned hard enough, we could change the world"

Sensemaking / "I used to think that if I campaigned hard enough, we could change the world"

Stephen Hale, Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director at Oxfam International, reflects on the challenges of creating change.

By Katie Shaw / 25 Feb 2013

Stephen Hale, Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director at Oxfam International, reflects on the challenges of creating change. 

Class of: 1996 – 1997 
Currently: Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director, Oxfam International

Why I chose the Masters
I’d studied politics and development at university, and been a very active campaigner on third-world debt and development issues. I could have gone into campaigning, but I wanted to get an understanding of how the world really works. I wanted to know how powerful people saw the world, and why they do what they do. The Forum course attracted me because of the insider understanding it offered.

What I learnt
When I was an activist, I used to think that if I got up early enough and campaigned hard enough, we could change the world. The Masters made me realise – somewhat depressingly – that change is rather more complicated than that. Going through the work placements helped me understand the linkages and connections between sectors. For me, the recurring theme in all my work has been the constant struggle to figure out where the levers are, and how to make the greatest contribution and the greatest difference.

Career to date
After the Masters, I worked for four years as a consultant on social and environmental issues. I enjoyed that time hugely, and worked in Azerbaijan, Georgia and elsewhere, which gave me an understanding of how things play out on the ground. I’d also been working as chair of SERA [the environmental group affiliated to the Labour Party] during this time and, through that, was asked to be an advisor in Government. I did that for four years, before becoming Director of the Green Alliance, an environmental think tank. After eight years of being an ‘insider’, I was able to speak my mind there, and to develop strategies, coalitions and proposals of a scale of ambition that I couldn’t articulate in my previous roles. The beauty of being an outsider is that you can develop plans that are radically outside the boundaries of what’s currently negotiable. I’m proud of the fabulous team we built there, which was recognised when we were named think tank of the year for 2009, and when I received an OBE. From there, I was keen to move abroad, return to development issues, and work for a large organisation, which brought me to Oxfam International, where I manage their global campaigns.

What I plan to do next
I enjoy my current role in Oxfam hugely, as well as life in Geneva. But one day the family and I will return to the UK, if they’ll let me back in!

Advice for future leaders
There’s nothing more important than holding onto the bigger picture. There’s a danger you can become preoccupied by the internal logic of an organisation, rather than the overall, external context. But if you do that, you become less effective both internally and externally in terms of the impact you can make. Remember your values, and your organisation’s mission, and that will enable you to ask the hard questions about what your organisation needs to do.

Stephen Hale was in conversation with Katie Shaw.

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