James Biggs on how Action on Poverty began

Posted on April 6, 2018

L-R: Stan Hosie and Jim Biggs - Action on Poverty

James Biggs was Chair of Action on Poverty from 1981 – 2000. In this guest blog post, he discusses how Action on Poverty was born, and pays tribute to the many people who first helped make our vision a reality. 

Meeting Stan

I met Father Stan Hosie, AOP’s founder, in 1955 at Woodlawn College in Lismore, NSW. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Over the years we met frequently at home and abroad and enjoyed conversations with all sorts of people about the issues of the day.

Jim Biggs, Betty Bryant, Jock Harkness, Kevin Vang and PT Sherpa - Action on Poverty

Poverty in the Pacific

In the early 1960s, Stan travelled through the Pacific, becoming aware of the role of the Marist Missions. He realised that effective work was being done to meet spiritual and schooling needs, but much more was needed to alleviate poverty, and improve the lifestyle and health of these people.

This insight led Stan to ask the Marist Council in Rome if they would support the creation of a secular organisation to provide this kind of aid. Unfortunately, the older conservative members of the Council did not support this idea.

Therefore, Stan allied with an ex-Australian actress named Betty Silverstein, whom he had impressed with his stories. And thus, the Foundation for the South Pacific (FSP) launched in New York in 1965.

Fundraising event - Action on Poverty

Starting in Sydney

In 1968, an office was opened in Sydney. Betty’s friend, Lurline Price, was put in charge, and next came the establishment of a fundraising committee led by Lady Vi Braddon. Their very first fundraising event was a premiere of a film called Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy’s book and produced by MGM, of which Betty’s husband, Maurice, was President.

The next decade was spent on institution building in various Pacific countries, as well as befriending politicians, bureaucrats and church leaders to raise awareness of FSP and spread its mission: to help people help themselves.

In 1980, Stan asked me to take over and expand FSP. Ian Benecke drew up articles of association and the company was registered in New South Wales with a name change of Australian Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific (AFSP). Soon afterwards, we received tax deductibility status. Our office began in Leichhardt Street, Darlinghurst, and later moved to St Leonards to accommodate our small board and group of volunteers.

James Biggs and scientists in Vietnam looking for mesocyclops to fight dengue

From Sydney to Hanoi

During the first decade, the leg work was done by my wife, Margaret; an actor known by Betty, Georgie Sterling-Saul; Chantal Farmer; Trevor Garland; Stan’s brother, Bernard Hosie; David Vosseler; and Harold Webber.

Harold Webber, our Executive Director, came to us for help in transporting medical equipment collected by the Samaritans in Newcastle to the sister city of Haiphong in Vietnam. In 1990, Jock Harkness, Chantal Farmer, John D’Arcy, Alan Davis and myself went to Vietnam. We had a great interlude with the Mayor of Haiphong, made a short documentary for Channel 7, and did some groundwork with government officials to set up an office in Hanoi. The office became reality in 1996, making it the first Australian non-governmental organisation in Vietnam, where it continues to work today.

James Biggs - Action on Poverty

Our people

We had a great band of volunteers and board members during those two decades and I would like to express my gratitude to those I have already mentioned and to Peter Bowden, Norma Eaton, Sophie Nelson, Susan Biggs, Bernie Hudson, Brian Kay Sally Irwin, Gillian Deakin, Kevin Vang, Ahmet Bektas and Christine Carberry. Our last board meeting was in 2001, when a number of us stood down and John Rock became chairman for the next 15 years. During this time the organisation moved to better quarters, increased staff, and widened its activities in Asia and Africa. My good friend Jock Harkness remains on the Board after 20 years.

Action on Poverty in the Pacific

Reflections

If Betty and Stan were standing here today, they would be smiling and saying thank you to all those in the Pacific, Asia and Africa for keeping their vision alive as advocates for people in difficult circumstances.

As I see the world today, organisations like Action on Poverty will be needed even more in the future.