Jo Cox, brilliance, and kindness.

by | Jun 17, 2016


Many are, undertandably, asking what are the lessons of Jo’s death. But those who had the privilege of working with Jo feel too raw to answer that. Instead, we are reflecting on the lessons of Jo’s life.

Five memories keep recurring in my mind.

One. In a mountain tent village of displaced people in Pakistani Kashmir after the awful earthquake, Jo and I go in to hear their concerns. Immediately, it is announced that we will go to meet separate groups. I will hear from the leaders – all men – and Jo will go sit with the women. I looked apologetically at Jo. Half an hour later I was released from a berating by the elders about the water supply, relieved to be leaving a meeting in which I had failed to win over anyone. As I walked past the women’s tent I heard raucous laughter. I asked someone to call for Jo. “Oh that was so much fun, do we have to go?” she asked. “What were you talking about?” “Well I told them I wasn’t married, and so they’ve been making jokes about what happens on the first night. We couldn’t stop laughing. How was your meeting?” “Great. Sure. Great.”

Two. Discussing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, when I said how determined I was to help the campaign to end it. “Well to do that and win,” said Jo, “we have to understand the fears felt by Israelis on the border.”

Three. When Jo became a Labour MP, her first move of reaching across the aisle, and befriending key Conservative MPs with whom she worked together on to advocate for refugee rights and to defend aid.

Four. Whenever she saw any of us other NGOers do anything half-decent, how effusive she was in her praise. “Brilliant, just brilliant.”

Five. The childlike smile that beamed out and made you smile back.

Jo was awesomely clever, and always saw the policy, the politics, the challenge, and the way through, quicker than others. But she was also really kind.

Outside of NGOs people might wonder if we’re all really kind. “You work for an NGO, everyone must be so lovely!” But the truth is we’re not. We can be vain and arrogant and mean – all supercharged by our righteousness. Not Jo. Not just did everyone like Jo. More impressively, Jo liked everyone.

Inside NGOs people wondered how this was possible. Surely niceness is a weakness? Surely, we’ll get eaten if we make the mistake of being nice. We’re fighting big bad enemies, we have to steel ourselves to be bad back. But Jo was nice back. She was smart about it, determined about it, ferocious even. But always nice. She didn’t just defeat opponents, she won them over.

For many of us in NGOs, our aspirations to be kind to human beings and be brilliant at helping humanity can seem in conflict. We want to show that we are serious, that we take no prisoners, that we are strong. And we are so angry at the injustices we see that really we often do quite frankly hate the oppressors. Jo wasn’t like that. She was furious at injustice, but saw no one as a permanent enemy, and everyone as a potential ally.

Many of us wondered how she managed to be both brilliant and kind. But maybe she was brilliant in part because she was kind. Maybe a lesson of her life is that hating is a millstone that holds you down, that anger weakens you, the meanness diminishes you. Maybe the right thing is the smart thing. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, as Dr King taught us.

I don’t know what the lesson of Jo’s death is. But one lesson from her life seems to be that if we want to help humanity we will do better if we are kind to our fellow humans.

Author

  • Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of ActionAid. Previously, he worked for Oxfam in the UK. He has lived and worked in four continents and 10 cities including New Delhi and Washington DC, as well as with children in poverty in East London. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid.


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