Dr Caroline Harper, OBE

Doctor of Science Dr Caroline Harper

Wednesday 30 January 2013 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Dr Helen Lambert

Madam Chancellor,

For many of those who work with the written word, reading is one of our greatest pleasures as well as an indispensable aspect of our lives. Those of us who work in academia are, perhaps, exceptionally dependent on one particular sense, that of sight, to accomplish almost every aspect of our work; reading is an essential component of our ability to keep up with research in our field, mark student essays and review manuscripts, and our productivity is measured primarily in terms of written publications. So beyond the perhaps more immediately obvious limitations of restrictions on movement and visual appreciation of the world, we should have an especially acute appreciation of the burden that sight loss inflicts on those without access to specialist support and assistive technology such as screen readers and Braille displays.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are around 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired, of whom 39 million are blind. A significant proportion of these problems stem from infectious diseases, lack of readily available health care and poor living conditions and so the great majority of people with visual impairment live in developing countries. Most crucially for our honorary graduand’s work, 80% of blindness can be prevented or cured.

Today we celebrate the achievements of a remarkable contributor to the world of business in the energy sector and, moreover, to the health and wellbeing of tens of thousands of sight-disabled people across the globe. 

Dr. Caroline Harper is a daughter of this city; she grew up and went to school here and perhaps rather unusually in those days, she also chose to go to university in her home town. While we might like to think otherwise, it has to be admitted that this was not primarily because she felt that Bristol University was the best place in the country to study physics. In an interview with the Financial Times as part of its charitable appeal on behalf of Sightsavers, the charity she now leads, when asked what she would do differently were she to do it all again the first thing she said was, ‘I would not go to university in my home town just because I thought I was in love with my boyfriend.’

By the time she graduated in 1981 Caroline had presumably had a change of heart, for she moved to Cambridge to begin research for a PhD with the Energy Research Group at the Cavendish Physics Laboratory. This was to be the basis of her subsequent hugely successful career in the energy business. After obtaining her doctoral degree in Energy Studies in 1985 she joined British Gas, one of the organisations with which she had established relations during the course of her academic research.  She must have been something of a pathbreaker for women in what remains a heavily male-dominated industry.  She eventually became a commercial negotiator and when British Gas was privatised Caroline joined the team which set up Transco, one of the companies into which British Gas was divided. She became heavily involved in the provision of gas to industrial customers before moving in 1991 to another company, Amerada Hess. She was responsible for setting up a subsidiary, Amerada Hess Gas Ltd and as its Managing Director, built up the company from scratch as an energy supplier to homes and businesses and oversaw its expansion into the electricity market. Her career in the energy sector culminated in the award of an OBE in 2000 for services to the gas industry.

In 2002 Amerada Hess Gas Ltd was sold for around £120 million and Caroline left the business to spend some months travelling in Africa, China and South America.  On her return to the UK she and a friend set up a management business, Harper & Associates, to oversee the turnaround and sale of the failing UK retail arm of Fortum, a Finnish energy company. As interim General Manager she made the company fit for sale and despite it having made losses every year since inception, oversaw its successful disposal for £11 million. Caroline also acted as a consultant for other clients but didn’t greatly enjoy the role, preferring to have more ‘hands on’ involvement, and began to think about moving into the non-profit sector. Her experiences travelling during what she describes as a mid-life gap year, including visits to a number of developing countries, in which she saw poverty and its impact on people’s lives close up for the first time, drew her to the field of international development.  After some further travel and partially in order to gain experience of the voluntary sector, in 2004 she became a non-Executive Director of a famous not-for-profit organisation, the Notting Hill Housing Association. This large organisation has over 25,000 houses under management and Caroline took on a portfolio of roles for the Association over a six-year period until her term of service ended in 2010.

In 2005, she had noticed an advertisement for the position of Chief Executive at Sightsavers, an international charity that works to prevent blindness, restore sight and promote equality for those who are blind. The disabilities associated with visual impairment are ones of which she has close personal experience; her father had diabetic retinopathy and became sight impaired before his death. An uncle was completely blind and she recalls his struggles with obtaining adequate services and support.  This combination of personal empathy with the focus of Sightsavers’ work and her increasing desire to work in developing countries for the alleviation of suffering led her to apply for the post, but she says that given her lack of experience in international development, she was astonished to be hired.  Doubtless it was obvious to the appointments board that Caroline’s long business experience and her managerial expertise in steering complex private sector organisations would be invaluable for an organisation like theirs. 

Sightsavers has offices in over 20 countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean and works with the government of each nation as well as partnering with over 250 local non-governmental and community-based organisations. Their approach also entails close liaison with international agencies such as the World Health Organization in its initiative to combat a group of conditions known as Neglected Tropical Diseases or NTDs that affect the world’s poorest people. Sightsavers has long provided treatment for trachoma and onchoceriasis (river blindness), two NTDs that cause sight loss. Under Caroline’s leadership Sightsavers has moved beyond its focus purely on visual impairment to assist in the control of other NTDs. In one region of Nigeria it is now using the drug distribution systems it has already established to provide preventive treatment for five further NTDs: the debilitating conditions of schistosomiasis (bilharzia), a parasitic worm transmitted by water snails, three helminth or worm infections found in soil and lymphatic filiariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis. Beyond this and many other initiatives for the prevention and treatment of conditions causing visual impairment, Sightsavers also focuses on social inclusion to combat the isolation and neglect often experienced by those with sight-related disabilities, on education for the sight-impaired and more generally on community development.

Sightsavers also has a number of academic partners and Caroline regularly contributes to postgraduate courses in Eye Health and in Global Health at Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In this respect, her work in international health has brought her back into contact with academia, as a contributor to the education of future generations of health professionals who will take forward the vital and inspiring work of Sightsavers.

Caroline Harper is a scientist-turned-businesswoman-turned policy maker and charity leader whose expertise, skill and determination have led her in diverse directions during her distinguished career so far. She is a role model for women in business and a promoter of equality for those with disabilities. She provides a consummate example to our students of how much can be achieved in terms of both personal satisfaction and societal benefit by combining talent, intellect and ambition with a willingness to treat achievements as opportunities to take on new challenges and to harness personal interests and professional skills together flexibly for the public good.  

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Dr. Caroline Anne Harper as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


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