Volunteer: Sandy Stephens

Sandy is a driver/host for AgeConnect. She has had an amazing life. See the article below to learn more. We are so lucky to have her as part of our team. 


Sandy Stephens had an amazing career spanning 35 years working in developing countries, implementing programmes to create sustainable food production within local rural communities. She hopes she has made a positive difference to the lives of those she worked with by empowering communities to achieve a sustainable and nourishing food supply.

Sandy was born in Nelson and grew up on ‘Woodstock’ orchard in Stoke and attended Nelson College for Girls where she developed an innate interest in developing countries. Whilst at College during the widespread famines in India she wrote to then Minister of Interior Mrs Indira Ghandi asking how she could help. She did get a reply ‘probably not from Mrs Ghandi’ which suggested she ‘get an education’ first.  Sandy describes the response as ‘a little patronising’ but it did not deter her and her interest remained.  While in her final year at Otago University she saw articles about the newly established Volunteer Service Abroad and thought that was something she’d like to do.

After graduating she taught for two years at Waimea College as part of her studentship agreement. To her surprise she discovered she greatly enjoyed teaching so decided to go to Auckland and obtain a Diploma in Secondary Teaching. For one of her teaching sections she asked to go to Fiji, which was then administered by New Zealand. Sandy was the first person to have their placement in Fiji and she greatly enjoyed her 6 weeks there. During this time she met the Head of Nutrition at the Fiji Medical School and she asked her to come back as a tutor in nutrition education under New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad.

Fiji proved an important stepping stone to Sandy’s career and from there she went to Malaysia for four years where she worked under New Zealand’s Colombo Plan in community development, resettling landless people.  She managed a staff of 30 people who she trained in community development, nutrition and food production in home gardens. At this point Sandy felt she needed higher level qualifications so she completed her Masters in Rural Sociology at the University of Reading in Berkshire, UK in 1974.

Following that Sandy was offered a job with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. The FAO was established in 1945 and aimed to secure food security for all to make sure people had regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. Sandy’s first assignment, in 1975, was in Papua New Guinea. She stayed there for four years as Team Leader of a programme to introduce female students and food and nutrition courses into the three agricultural colleges in Rabaul, Popondetta and Mt Hagen. Under Australian rule the focus was on cash crops for export and local food production inevitably declined. Until then, expatriate staff had not seen a need to have women, the major food producers of the nation, educated in agriculture!

From PNG, Sandy worked at the Headquarters of the FAO in Rome in policy, programme and project planning. During  the following two years she travelled to many developing countries all over the globe to identify needs and help design projects to meet food needs of the poorest rural communities. One of these was Liberia where she worked with the then Minister of Agriculture to design a programme for the poorest communities in Eastern Liberia. Liberia had an unusual history. Following the abolition of slavery in the United States of America, Liberia was settled by formerly enslaved African-Americans. These people settled on the Coast and the indigenous population was pushed inland. The Americo-Liberians, or Congo or Congau people as they are now called, ruled Liberia as a dominant minority from 1847 until 1980 when there was a violent military coup d’état and the indigenous population took over. Sandy arrived in 1979 and had created a sound reputation for herself and her work when the coup occurred. The President, William Tolbert was immediately executed along with 27 others. Subsequently 13 members of cabinet were also executed, Sandy’s Minister of Agriculture among them.  At this point, most foreigners were evacuated but Sandy was not, initially because she did not meet the criteria but also because she was told to stay by the incoming military government because ‘you do good work Missy’.  As Chief Technical Adviser she eventually established and grew the programme in over 100 village communities throughout the area. She was the only remaining white woman in Eastern Liberia, although two French priests and a Dutch doctor also remained. The years Sandy spent in Liberia were incredibly turbulent politically and Sandy witnessed and experienced many violent acts, yet she always felt safe and at home. She had the soldiers to protect her. Following the coup food was a real issue in Liberia and during her time there, Sandy was able to introduce development programmes that made an enormous difference in terms of creating sustainable food production for indigenous communities.

In 1983, Sandy returned to Rome for a further two years before a transfer to FAO’s regional office in Bangkok where she spent 12 years as the Senior Regional Rural Sociologist. From this office she visited all developing countries across Asia and the Pacific developing food production programmes as well as assessing the social consequences of agricultural change on poor rural people’s lives. She spent a lot of time in the poorer countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, post-war Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Tibet and other parts of China and Mongolia, making sure that agricultural change did not disadvantage the poorest, especially rural women.

After all this time working abroad Sandy realised she would like to come back to New Zealand. She took early retirement from FAO at the age of 57 and returned to live in Nelson in 2000 to work as a free-lance consultant. Returning after so many years and all Sandy had seen and achieved was a huge adjustment but she did this gradually by continuing to work overseas on shorter assignments, coming home to write reports and to prepare for the next trip.

She travelled extensively in Asia, Africa and the South Pacific, continuing a substantial amount of the work for her previous employer FAO, as well as for the New Zealand and Australian Foreign Aid Departments and other bilateral and international aid agencies.  She was appointed to the Oxfam New Zealand Board of Trustees for a decade and then elected to the Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) Council.  Sandy aimed to fully retire by the time she was 68 but this did not quite happen and it was not until she was 70 that Sandy decided to stop all paid work. Even then she still kept some projects going, but over the last five years Sandy has managed to fully retire.

Sandy has fond memories of all the countries she has worked in and none really stands out. She did find some easier than others and also felt being a woman was both helpful in some situations and limiting in others. Overall she felt respected despite working in male dominated environments. Sandy did experience more than her fair share of harassment and judgement but she seemed to manage this skilfully and her outstanding reputation and skill set was a great leveller. She was fortunate that apart from cases of dengue fever and lassa fever she remained very healthy.  For her international work for the rural poor Sandy was made Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International in 1997 and a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2000.

Sandy credits her rural upbringing with tramping and camping holidays for giving her the values and skills to undertake this work. Her rural background meant she could cope with being in the jungle or desert, living without electricity, cooking on a fire or drawing water from a well. She was familiar with farm machinery and basic mechanics. She feels there is something familiar globally about people who farm and her time in Liberia sitting under a tree having conversations with indigenous people reminded her of the way her father talked with their neighbours when she was growing up.

As she gradually retired, Sandy volunteered as a driver for the Red Cross Meals on Wheels programme, became a trustee of the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust and continued support to both Oxfam NZ and VSA.  For the last two years Sandy has been involved with Age Concern as a Volunteer Driver on our Van Trips as part of AgeConnect. She has kindly made her bach available during van trips to Stephens Bay near Kaiteriteri.

Thank You Sandy!




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