By Margaret Rooke
When BBC presenters announced their colleague George Alagiah had died, they explained why they struggled to say the words: ‘I’m sorry about the emotion in my voice’, said Naga Munchetty, ‘but he was so loved in our newsroom.’
Another group of people understood this completely: the staff and supporters of the Fairtrade Foundation. You see, in many ways, he was our colleague too.
George was the first official Patron of Fairtrade in the UK from 2002-9. He went on to support us for the rest of his life. He took on the role way before the Fairtrade Mark waved at us from packets of Maltesers. Indeed, almost no one had heard of Fairtrade beyond campaigners in scattered church halls and pioneering shoppers reaching for blink-and-you’d-miss-them hands of bananas in the Co-op or Sainsbury’s.
That’s the thing. Involvement in a charity for George was never about ego or public exposure.
‘Having been a foreign correspondent, George saw Fairtrade as a simple, effective way that people can work for a better future,’ says our CEO Mike Gidney, recalling the BBC man’s times witnessing the worst the world can deliver, including the persecution against the Kurds in Iraq and the Boxing Day tsunami. ‘George said, ‘For years, all I seemed to do was tell people back home about problems. Here was a chance to be a part of the solution.’ That’s why George worked tirelessly to help build the movement and spread the word.
Harriet Lamb, our former CEO, recalls how impressed she’d been when she had watched George chair a meeting held by an NGO and, seconds later, take a call from the BBC sending him to a warzone. After this, she invited him to join the Fairtrade fold.
‘He sounded super excited but wanted to think it over. Time ticked by with no answer from George. I couldn’t understand why. ‘Finally, I found out. By complete coincidence, his wife, the wonderful Fran Robathan, had been offered a job at the Fairtrade Foundation. They both wanted to be clear that her appointment was not muddled up with George’s role. We’d had no idea they were connected. We told them this, George confirmed that he’d love to become a patron, and we were off.’
The timing couldn’t have been better. ‘In those days, important people weren’t interested in tiny Fairtrade,’ remembers Harriet, ‘But when George knocked on doors, they opened them! We had meetings with the CEOs of major retailers, food and drinks companies, and Government Ministers. George would explain his involvement. He’d say that having reported on the Rwandan genocide; he knew that people had to have a stake in society and the economy so they were not prey to those inciting violence. Fairtrade offered that route out of poverty.’
This was just the beginning of George’s contribution. His greatest gift to Fairtrade was his readiness to get on a train after a full week’s work and arrive in a small, cold town hall, miles across the country, to inspire local campaigners.
Memories of these events poured in when news of George’s death was announced.
‘George’s appearance in Lichfield helped enormously in getting Lichfield to become a Fairtrade City,” wrote John Boyle. ‘George Alagiah presented our first South West Fairtrade Business Awards, remembered Fairtrade Bristol. ‘A great supporter of Fairtrade, a wonderful person,’ said supporter Anne McIntyre.
Simeon Greene, long-time Relationship Director for Windward Bananas in the UK, recalled getting to know ‘this wonderful man who had a love for the ‘wretched of the earth’, who told their story with a passion widely admired around the globe.’
Back at HQ, George was one of the team, never expecting special treatment, though he was careful never to cross the line set by his ‘proper job’ as an objective BBC journalist.
He helped us prepare for crucial meetings, showing how to bring alive the complexities of international trade in the simplest way. ‘That was his gift,’ says Harriet. ‘He communicated brilliantly with top corporate leaders in sparkly head offices and when visiting smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka or Nicaragua, always interested in everyone’s opinions and lives.’
At this difficult time, we have other feelings here in the Fairtrade family because we also love his wife, Fran, our Head of Fundraising, for so long. We’re thinking about what she is going through, the other half of this incredibly dedicated couple who were at our core.
But this tribute’s focus must be George; his ‘sharp eye for pointing out injustice, his empathetic passion for understanding and embracing cultures, his incredible acuity with language and journalistic curiosity,’ in the words of long-serving Public Affairs director Barbara Crowther.
Former Deputy Director Ian Bretman adds, ‘An inspiring figure, in so many ways and modest about his contributions and achievements.’
From Cat Rayner, Partner Marketing Manager: ‘He made everyone feel special with warmth and smile, which combined with his interest in what you had to say. He was fully involved with our Fairtrade parties. I personally appreciated his embracing of fancy dress. Among all his other talents, he was a cool dude.’
And Senior Media and PR Manager Martine Parry remembers how much support he gave a mutual friend with cancer, regardless of his own illness.
He gave of himself. He was a joy of a man.Harriet Lamb