Amos, Valerie 1954–
Valerie Amos 1954–
British cabinet minister
British government official Valerie Amos became Baroness Amos in 1997, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed her as a life peer. The honor gave the Guyana-born Labour Party member a seat in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of British Parliament, and she became the first black woman ever to serve there. In 2003 Amos achieved another historic British first: she became the first woman of color ever appointed to a cabinet post. As the new secretary of state for International Development, Amos would work with the British Foreign Office, international and domestic aid agencies, and foreign governments to help raise the standard of living in developing countries around the globe. Centuries of British colonial rule had left a legacy of suspicion in some parts of Africa and elsewhere toward foreign intervention, but Amos declared that her achievement was the harbinger of a new, twenty-first century era. She told a South African audience that the last vestige of colonialism had vanished. Guardian writers Nicholas Watt and Michael White quoted her as saying, “The fact that it is me standing here as a British minister, a descendant of those colonised, is surely demonstration of this.”
Amos, one of three children born to Edward and Eunice Amos, was born on March 13, 1954, in Guyana, a country on the northern coast of South America, just east of Venezuela. The area once was home to a large population of African slaves. Formerly known as British Guyana, it was a crown colony after 1928; however, when members of the country’s African- and East Indian-heritage majority gained political ground in the 1950s, the country won its independence from Britain in 1966. Prior to that, however, Amos enjoyed a pastoral childhood in Wakenaam, playing near the banks of the Essequibo River. Her parents were both teachers, and instilled a respect for education and achievement in their children from an early age. Amos also remembered her close-knit village as an important influence. “There was that community bond among residents,” an article in the Evening Standard by Nigel Rosser quoted her as saying. “Every adult looked after the children. I think one of the most important things is to understand who you are, the nature of your identity. Be proud of it and have confidence.”
When Amos was nine years old, she and her family moved to England, where her father was attending university. They settled in Belvedere, a town in the southeastern English county of Kent. Amos thrived at the Townley grammar school in Bexleyheath, where she was the first black student in her school, earning top grades and excelling in sports. Her parents hoped she would enter medicine or law, but Amos chose a sociology course at the University of Warwick in central England, and took a job as a researcher when she graduated. In the early 1980s she entered politics at the local level in London as a women’s-issues officer and race relations associate for the district councils in the Lambeth, Hackney, and Camden quarters of the city. Returning to school, Amos earned a graduate degree in cultural studies from Birmingham University,
At a Glance …
Born Valerie Ann Amos on March 13, 1954, in Guyana; daughter of Edward and Eunice (both teachers) Amos. Education: Warwick University, sociology degree; Birmingham University, MA in cultural studies; East Anglia University, graduate studies. Politics: Labour Party of Britain.
Career: Worked as researcher for local Labour Party councils in London; served as women’s-issues officer and race-relations officer, early 1980s; Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), London, chief executive, 1989–94; co-founded Amos Fraser Bernard, an international consultancy business; life peerage conferred by Prime Minister Tony Blair, 1997; seated in House of Lords; government whip for U.K. Dept. for International Development, 1998–2001, various other governmental posts, including spokesperson for social security, international development, and women’s issues; Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, 2001; secretary of state for International Development, 2003–.
Address: Office —Department for International Development, 1 Palace St., London SW1E 5HE, England.
and co-authored a thesis with filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, titled “Challenging Imperial Feminism.” Glasgow Herald journalist Allan Laing noted that in academic circles the paper was respected as “a seminal study. It argued that western feminism, then at the height of its influence, discriminated against women of ethnic minorities, effectively dismissing their cultural practices as ‘feudal residues.”’
The London councils for which Amos worked during the 1980s were known for their ardent left-wing political voices, and Amos was a member of the official British liberal political organization, the Labour Party. In 1989 she was named chief executive of Britain’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), where she served for the next five years. Amos’s “contribution to the commission,” wrote Herald journalist Laing, “was significant and long-lasting. Her intellectual approach to the study of discrimination in the workplace led to positive changes which affected the lives of millions.” While serving on the EOC, Amos came to know a rising Labour MP, or Member of Parliament, named Tony Blair. In the early 1990s Blair served as Labour’s spokesman for employment issues, and the pair worked together on a public-awareness campaign to promote fair treatment for women and minorities in the workplace. The campaign was a success, and served to raise Blair’s political profile and gain him crucial support from Britain’s powerful trade unions.
Blair became head of the Labour Party in 1994, around the time that Amos left her EOC job to enter the private sector. She co-founded a consulting business, Amos Fraser Bernard, that won contracts to advise Nelson Mandela’s new South African government. When the Labour Party swept the British national elections in 1997, Blair became prime minister. Not long afterward, he offered Amos an historic appointment to the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament. Traditionally the province of hereditary peers, the nearly 700-member body had lost much of its political power, but did retain the right to revise legislation and judge legal proceedings as Britain’s final court of appeals. Amos became the first black woman ever to sit in the House of Lords, joining Lord Taylor of Warwick, a Jamaican immigrant who had been created a life peer the year before by Blair’s predecessor.
In the House of Lords, Amos served on the Select Committee on European Communities sub-committee for social affairs, education, and home affairs. In 1998 she became a government whip for cabinet minister Clare Short, who oversaw international development issues. She was the first black woman ever to hold such a post in Britain, and in June of 2001 the newly re-elected Blair, in a cabinet re-shuffle, appointed Amos as Parliamentary under-secretary for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, with responsibility for Africa, Commonwealth, Caribbean, Overseas Territories, Consular Issues, and FCO Personnel. Informally, Amos served as the prime minister’s special envoy to Africa, and she worked diligently to resolve a crisis in Zimbabwe, one of Britain’s former colonies. The south central African nation had only recently emerged from years of civil strife over white minority rule, and in the late 1990s a crisis erupted over land seizures, in this nation where some one-third of the arable land was owned by 4,000 white farmers. In 2000 a referendum was defeated that would have allowed government seizure of such farms without compensation, but supporters of the bill began seizing land anyway. President Robert Mugabe supported the squatters, and much bloodshed ensued.
Amos met with leaders on both sides in Zimbabwe, as well as in neighboring countries. She also traveled to Brisbane, Australia, to serve as Blair’s representative on the matter at a conference of Commonwealth countries—a voluntary association of Great Britain and its former dependencies. She voiced strong criticism of Mugabe’s regime, along with the country’s human-rights record under his rule, and helped bring about a one-year suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Her Labour credentials and Guyanese background gave her some needed credibility, according to British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent David Loyn, on a BBC News website. “Baroness Amos has the huge asset of being black,” the journalist remarked. “It’s very significant in Africa because it completely takes all the defences away from countries like Zimbabwe who see Britain as a post-colonial country.”
In early 2003 Blair bucked public opinion in Britain and agreed to join the American campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. During the weeks of heated debate over the planned attack, Blair sent Amos to Africa with the hopes of persuading some leaders there—Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea, in particular—to support the joint American and British attempt to gain United Nations (U.N.) approval for the war. She was ultimately unsuccessful, yet her “calm handling of Britain’s greatest diplomatic crisis since Suez in 1956 marked her out for promotion,” noted Guardian journalists Watt and White. Nevertheless, Blair’s alliance with the Bush White House caused some political fallout, and Clare Short, the secretary of state for International Development, resigned in protest over a proposed U.N. resolution that did not provide the international peacekeeping agency with a more central role in helping rebuild a postwar Iraq. Blair named Amos to replace her. “The softly spoken baroness has conducted herself with such aplomb as Tony Blair’s Africa envoy that many leaders assumed she was already a member of the cabinet,” asserted the Guardian profile by Watt and White.
The cabinet post made Amos only the second black ever to serve at that level in Britain, and the first black woman in U.K. history. She joined Treasury Secretary Paul Boateng, appointed in 2002. Her portfolio, as the departments are called in Britain, has involved coordinating government foreign-aid efforts to reduce poverty and infant mortality rates in developing countries. The Department for International Development’s officially targeted goals include implementing universal primary education by the year 2015, and reducing mortality rates for children under five years of age by two-thirds; it also works to help countries put sustainable development strategies in place for the future. As the Glasgow Herald’s Laing noted, Amos’s predecessor, Short, had been “a turbulent, single-minded, outspoken politician with a fiercely independent streak. Baroness Amos could not be more different. Ice-cube cool, prone to neither emotional nor indiscreet outbursts, she thinks first, answers questions later.” Another historic first for Amos occurred in October of 2003, when she was appointed as head of the House of Lords. She is the first black woman appointed to this position.
Amos, who lives in north London, is single and has no children. She rarely gives interviews, but has earned high marks from fellow Labour politicians and analysts of the British political scene alike. Shortly after taking the post, Amos defended the Blair government as well as the disputed U.N. resolution on Iraq, noting that it allowed for a special coordinator chosen by the U.N., whose job would be “to help not just in the humanitarian situation but also in devising that political process that will lead us to having an Iraqi government,” a BBC report quoted Amos as saying. She also spoke of the department’s plan to work on the resolution of conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Angola through increased aid and trade.
Daily Mail (London, England), May 13, 2003, p. 6. Evening Standard (London, England), May 12, 2003, p. 5; May 16, 2003, p. 21.
Guardian (London, England), May 13, 2003, p. 2.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), May 17, 2003, p. 15.
Jet, June 2, 2003, p, 31; October 27, 2003, p. 34.
New Statesman, May 26, 2003, p. 12.
“Amos: UN Has ‘Clear’ Role in Iraq,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.Uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3037549.stm (May 18, 2003).
“Biography: Baroness Amos,” U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), www.dfid.gov.uk/AboutDFID/files/valerie_amos_biog.htm (June 23, 2003).
“Profile of Baroness Amos,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3020009.stm (June 25, 2003).
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