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Dr Halima Begum: Presentation for an honorary degree at Queen Mary University of London

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On Friday, 12th January we celebrated our students' achievements at our Winter Graduation. We also presented a graduate of our School with an honorary degree. For those not able to join us on the 12th, we wanted to share the news that Halima Begum (PhD 2004) was awarded this prestigious award.

Halima is currently Chief Executive at Action Aid UK and incoming Chief Executive at Oxfam UK. At the ceremony Halima spoke passionately about her work – particularly in relation to racial justice in her former role as Director of the Runnymede Trust – and warmly about Queen Mary.

We are sharing below the oration that was delivered by Professors Alastair Owens and Alison Blunt at the Winter Graduation:

Principal, graduands and guests, we present Dr Halima Begum for the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

Halima is currently the Chief Executive of Action Aid UK, an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty. And later this spring she will take up the position of Chief Executive of Oxfam UK, one of the world’s leading and most recognised international charities that seeks to overcome poverty by fighting the injustices and inequalities that fuel it. This is the latest role in a distinguished and impactful career that has spanned education, equality, racial justice, human rights, public health, the environment and post-conflict reconstruction. Halima is also a graduate of this university, completing her PhD in the School of Geography in 2004.

Halima was born in rural Bangladesh and moved with her parents and siblings to the UK when she was two. The family settled not far from here in east London, where there was a growing Bengali community. Like many who arrived in the period following the Bangladeshi Liberation War (in which Halima’s father had fought for the Bangladeshi resistance), the family experienced hostility and discrimination – both from the state (and especially its health and housing services), and from racist members of the far-right National Front, who were active on the streets of east London at that time. Halima’s family faced homelessness and were forced to squat in vacant accommodation. They became part of the Bangladeshi squatter movement which mobilised to campaign for, and eventually secure access to, housing which had been denied to so many.

Halima has spoken about how her childhood years in east London were formative in developing her understanding of racial injustice and inequality, and in nurturing her activism. As she recounted herself in a recent interview with the Shaw Trust:

“As a young child, to get to school I would have to pass the National Front bookstand outside the front door of the East End squat where my family lived. The way that my race, faith and disability were targeted each time I left the safety of my own home, sometimes in the most brutal fashion, gave me the courage and certainty to know that we must always stand up for the dignity and equality of others.”

In the early 1990s, Halima co-founded ‘Women Unite Against Racism’ to combat the rising incidence of racial and religious intolerance in the East End, that she, her family, friends and other minoritised populations were experiencing.

After attending Central Foundation Girls School, close to Queen Mary in Bow, Halima went to the London School of Economics where she graduated with a BSc in Government and History followed by an MSc in International Relations. This led to early roles with the Runnymede Trust in 1998 as a young researcher on the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, followed by positions with Action Aid and the LSE Centre for Civil Society.

In 2000 Halima decided to return to university and secured funding from the Economic and Social Research Council to pursue a PhD in the School of Geography at Queen Mary. She wrote a thesis titled ‘Commodifying multicultures: urban regeneration and the politics of space in Spitalfields’ supervised by Professor David Pinder – now at Roskilde University in Denmark – and Professor Alison Blunt. This work took her back to Bengali East London to explore how an area, increasingly celebrated as a site of British multiculturalism, was being transformed by gentrification and commercial regeneration. Reflective of Halima’s critical concern for injustice and inclusion, along with her insistence on the possibility of building a more progressive world, her research explored the unsettling processes of change experienced by younger East London Bengalis, and their hope for a cosmopolitan future based on a more positive urban politics.

In the final months of her PhD, Halima secured a job with the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and was sent on her first posting to Bangladesh. Over the following decade her work at DfID took her to Nepal, China, Pakistan and back to Bangladesh and her portfolio of responsibilities included leading the Sino-British Action Plan on food insecurity and the UK’s effort to promote girls’ education in Pakistan. In 2012 Halima was appointed Director of Education at the British Council. Based in Indonesia, she led the British Council’s educational strategies in the East Asia region. Five years later, Halima moved again, this time to Denmark where she became Vice President of the Lego Foundation – the charitable wing of the toy manufacturer which promotes child development through play across the world.

In 2017 east London again beckoned as Halima became the new director of the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, whose offices are in Bethnal Green. We know that this was a particularly formative and busy time for Halima. Under her leadership, in 2018 the Runnymede played a pivotal role in exposing the inequities of the Windrush Scandal. During the COVID-19 pandemic the Trust was a key voice in advocating for the needs of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations, who were disproportionately affected by the disease. Many of the campaigns led by Halima and her colleagues took place in the context of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in the United States in May 2020 which transformed Black Lives Matter into a global movement and positioned racial inequality and injustice at the heart of political agendas. While this gave the Runnymede Trust a platform to speak out with confidence in relation to its core mission of challenging structural racism and exposing its impacts, it also promoted a reaction from the right. Halima steered the Trust through hostile times, rebutting frequently contrived and deliberately divisive critique, as the organisation found itself in the crossfire of the so-called ‘culture wars’. It was, though, an impactful time for Runnymede; in 2022 it won a legal challenge under the Equalities Act against government appointments made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2023 Halima took up her current role as Chief Executive at Action Aid UK where she has overseen a range of gender equality, anti-poverty and humanitarian campaigns. This has included helping to manage Action Aid’s response to the crisis in Gaza, where the organisation has staff on the ground working with other aid agencies to support those whose lives have been devastated by the violence and conflict. As on so many occasions, Halima’s public voice in the context of the horrors of what has happened in Israel-Gaza has been one of compassion and good reason. Some of you may have watched BBC television’s Question Time broadcast on 12 October, the first after the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October. At the start of the debate, Halima spoke calmly and powerfully about the need to respond to the situation with ‘humanity at our hearts’. Since then, she has appeared regularly across broadcast and print media, insistent about the need to ‘side with humanity’, for there to be a ceasefire, and for all parties to establish a path to sustained peace.

Halima’s commitment to a more just world, and her qualities as a skilled communicator and passionate leader, are reasons why she has recently been appointed to lead Oxfam UK. These reasons are also why so many other organisations have invited her to support their work as a trustee and advocate, including the NHS Race and Health Observatory, Toynbee Hall, the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, and the Women’s Environmental Network.

Halima combines powerful vision with a strong ability to get things done and for the organisations she leads to make a long-term and significant impact. She is one of the UK’s most effective charity leaders and campaigners against injustice. An inspiration to all of us, we are very proud that she is part of our Queen Mary community.

Principal, it is therefore with great pleasure that we present Dr Halima Begum for the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

 

 

 

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