• Born on June 18, 1957 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
  • Passed away on May 25, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

John Graham, humanitarian and advocate, passed away on May 25th after a fierce but short battle with cancer. Many called John a 'lion of a man' whose lifetime commitment to avoiding famine and its impact - particularly in Ethiopia - inspired many across the globe. He was a thought leader who led international dialogue on pastoralism, resilience and the importance of political and organizational collaboration.

As one colleague and close friend said (people in John's life were never just colleagues):  "He was a tireless worker and had a strong sense of justice for the poor. He played a lead role in galvanizing the international response to the El Nino drought of 2015-2016 that could have resulted in famine in Ethiopia. He worked the embassies, the media, he traveled to foreign capitals - he was an inspiration to many. I think what drove him was simply the idea that this was his watch and this drought was not going to become a famine in which lots of people die on his watch."

John's love for Ethiopia led his to write two wonderful books "Ethiopia: Off the Beaten Trail" and "Discovery in Ethiopia".

After 25 years in Africa - Namibia and Ethiopia - John and his wife of 35 years, Gillian Brewin, returned to Canada to join their two grown children, both of whom have settled in Toronto. Despite plans to reflect, write and continue his relationship with Save the Children in advancing a resilience agenda, John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2017, succumbing to the disease in May.

The John Graham Memorial Fund page: https://www.gofundme.com/john-graham-memorial-fund


We are using your tributes to formulate John's obituary. Please use the questions below as a guide.

  1. In your experience of John, what would you say were his biggest passions?
  2. What drove John, because he was a remarkably driven man?
  3. What were the relationships in Ethiopia and beyond that defined him and why?
  4. How would you say John intertwined his family with his deep compassion for Ethiopia? How were those two things connected in his mind and heart?
  5. His vision of the world was, according to his last paper on post-capitalism (and my conversations with him over the years) was profoundly optimistic, despite observing some of the worst human behaviours and the most horrific impacts of that behaviour. How is that possible? What kept him so optimistic right to the end?
  6. What did you love about him?
  7. In your interactions with him, what impressions did you form about John’s defining life moments? What do you think made him the man he was?
  8.  And finally, what was lost on May 25th? More than John the person, the brother-in-law, friend, husband, father, the planet lost something - what would you say that was
  9.  Anything else to add?
Posted by Zack F on 22nd June 2018
Although I don’t know John, I would like to express my deepest condolences for your loss. Something that may bring true comfort is knowing that soon everything that causes us pain including death will be gone forever, as promised in Revelation 21:4 Also, Acts 24:15 mentions that our love ones will be resurrected here on earth, which we can be sure of from what Psalms 37:29 promises. I’m sure you will agree how beautiful this hope from God truly is.
Posted by Jeremy Armon on 16th June 2018
Dear Gillian, You and I only met a couple of times, but I spent a bit more time with John. I first met him at the Rift Valley Institute training course on Lamu in 2011. My fondest memories, however, are from the two field trips we undertook together to Afar, in 2012-13. John was with USAID at the time, and I with DFID in Addis Ababa. John was such wonderful company on those trips - curious, knowledgeable, disarmingly open yet challenging - with me and with everybody we met, indefatigable in the sand and the heat, ready and eager to smile and to joke, with a deep fount of great stories over beer and goat meat in the evenings. It was such a pleasure and privilege to spend that time with John, and hugely energising. I can only imagine the hole he’s left in your life and the life of your family. I wish you strength, courage and love to carry you through the coming weeks and months without him.
Posted by Adam Keehn on 14th June 2018
What a sad shock to hear of John's far-too-early passing! As others have noted John's energy, laughter and commitment to good work gave the impression that he'd always be among us. He could be intimidating no doubt, but always for a good cause. I wish Gillian, Danielle and Iain peace and love as you mourn this very painful loss.
Posted by Gillian Brewin on 12th June 2018
The following was printed, June 3, in the Fortune magazine, Addis Ababa, written by his dear friend Tamrat: In his own admission, one needs to be “nuts enough” to take the kind of job he was doing in Ethiopia, saving lives of millions of children. For 30 years that was what he did, first arriving in Africa in the mid-1980s. It was a time of youthful enthusiasm and idealism in social justice. He was admittedly leftist when he first came to Mozambique. He was not a naive backpacker but well-meaning in his determination to fix Africa`s problems. As a student of history at the University of Calgary, Canada, his thesis on Africa and its economic history had earned him honour in his class when he graduated in 1979. No less recognised was his paper on Kenya`s economic development in the 50 years beginning 1913, under the British colonial rule. If these were not enough, his time studying media coverage of third world topics, for his post-graduate studies at the University of Victoria, Canada, ought to have prepared him for what to expect while working as a development specialist. His particular focus was on humanitarian responses to crises of both natural and those inflicted upon people, by people. Multilingual in English, French and Portuguese as well as with modest skill in conversations in Afrikaans and Amharic, John had traversed south and north of Africa for over three decades. Early on, he was a passionate activist against apartheid in South Africa, organising civil society groups to oppose the regime. He was delighted to take a role as an election observer when South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994. Little did he expect the African National Congress (ANC), which has been winning elections in a landslide since then, to turn out to be what it is today, a disappointment. His leftist idealism has not stayed with him during his adulthood. He had evolved to see that despite all its flaws, liberalism is perhaps unmatched in helping society move forward and prosper. Working for Oxfam Canada, he had seen a lot of sufferings and pain in Africa – partly orchestrated in the name of Marxism – making him grow sceptical of the claim on the equality of all. He saw the rise to power of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe where he was active in the planning for and response to the massive drought in 1992, which had also affected Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Malawi. Once a celebrated anti-colonialist Marxist revolutionary, Mugabe too turned out to be a regret for clinging to power until he was forced out by the military, but at the age of 94. In Sudan, he saw in the 1980s how the country`s oldest political party, the Communist Party of Sudan, was brutally repressed by the very person it had helped rise to power, Jafaar Nimeri (Col.). Nonetheless, his work in Sudan was very much linked to Ethiopia, supporting drought victims in the areas under the control of the insurgents in Tigray and Eritrea. It was during this period of national tragedy, where close to a million people were believed to have perished of famine in the years 1984 and 1985, John came to acquaint with many of the leaders of the TPLF and the EPLF. Their success in defeating the military Marxist regime and take control of Ethiopia and Eritrea had given him hope to the dawn of a new era. Later on, though, he was not as generous in his views of their obsession with power as their idealism and determination had captivated him during their years of insurgencies. Despite his reservations about what they came out to be, he was determined to stay on and help Ethiopians overcome their recurrent challenges in battling against nature. His years in the late 1990s as an aid worker with Save the Children UK, and subsequently the amalgamated international office, had given him practical experience valuable in helping him see the indispensability of realism. “That gave me both the ability as well as the responsibility to speak out more and to even go out on a limb in order to make sure the right message was heard,” John said of his long years of experience in the aid community in Ethiopia, right before his early retirement in June last year. Speaking truth to power, he did well. He was deeply affected by the average response from both of the international community and Ethiopian authorities to the drought in 2013, where close to 14 million people had been affected. Only a decade ago, the BandAid inspired world had promised “Never Again,” after the biblical drought of the mid-1980s. It was a moment of reckoning to those in the humanitarian world to see handouts were no longer sufficient to help society overcome recurrent droughts whose cycle was getting shorter with the passing of time. It was a time of awakening to the fact that famine is a consequence of failed politics; hence policies are all that matter most. John was one of the very few to not only realise this early on but forceful in his voice that the politics need to get fixed and programs to resilience should be developed, tested and deployed. With USAID, an American aid organisation dispensing close to a billion dollars worth of humanitarian and development support to Ethiopia, John found a place to nest. For nearly a decade, he stayed with the USAID Ethiopia Mission, advising successive directors of the organisation on programs from humanitarian assistance to the protection of social services and from policy formulations to economic development and governance. Nothing paralleled his passion in debating the subject of social resilience and its impact on youth, debates held in boardrooms as much as among aid workers congregating at the Greek Club, every Wednesdays. His wit matched his intellect and used to quip these evenings as “humanitarian beer nights.” His extensive travel in the Somali Regional State, where a clan adopted him around Fik Zone, and profound knowledge of the region`s history, culture and politics helped the US government execute a successful program of 200 million dollars, in 2007. Implemented at the height of the Ogaden crisis in the mid-2000s, ensuring the provisions of humanitarian assistance to a population caught between government and rebel forces was nothing but nerve-racking. A massive drought hit again in 2015, this time with more force and covering a large area, and affecting one-third of the entire population. It was a time for John to show a battle-hardened experience in practice and realistic policymaking can pay of. Despite the enormity of the drought, the size of the population affected and the race for ever-dwindling resources across the world, Ethiopia overcame the drought with hardly any casualty to human life, perhaps for the first time in 500 years. In his own words, “the proudest moments we will end up with are the ones where you can look back and say the lives of many children were saved or dramatically improved because of the efforts we have made.” He continued his efforts of helping Ethiopia`s children moving on to Save the Children, in 2013. This time though, Save the Children was a much larger and consolidated international aid agency. Its programs in Ethiopia involved a 160 million dollars annual budget and 50 offices across the country employing 2,500 people. On his departure, his staff threw him a going-away party at the Hilton. A brief documentary was projected, showing staff members use one word to describe John; the word “engaging” stood out. John loved to debate and in as much as he liked to bet on electoral outcomes. He was deep into the American politics, accurately foretelling the results of elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012. He saw Brexit was inevitable. He would have mastered the art of election forecasting had it not been for his disappointment with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He had lost a bet to a friend; he was for Hillary Clinton. John was an avid reader of history and current affairs as he was a prolific writer, authoring numerous essays on humanitarian responses, agricultural productivity, poverty and healthcare as well as destitution. His two books – Ethiopia: Off the Beaten Trail (2001) and Exploring Ethiopia (2010) – are instructive for visitors to a country he described as “a big part of my life.” Although too young to retire (Canada has retirement age at 65), John retired last year, for he was away for too long from his native land, where his two children reside. “My wife and I feel it is time for us to go back to Canada,” he told his staff writer for a newsletter published under Save the Children. “Our family in Canada has complained for a long time.” He had plans to return in October though, to attend events here in Addis Abeba. John was not a man to “get bored easily.” In his final years, he was busy working on academic papers on drought resilience, after spending some time at the University of Manchester. He was deep in thoughts, reflecting on a post-capitalist order for developed economies, worried so much about the growing inequality in the prosperous societies. But he was stubborn in his optimism that capitalism has the innate capacity to redress itself. He firmly believed the West needs a little dose of statism in as much as the developing world needs more of capitalism. Such would have been the thesis of his next book. He died too soon on May 25, 2018.
Posted by Katy Webley on 9th June 2018
John did everything at scale and at volume. He lived and worked intensely, there wasn't really a line between his life and his work in Ethiopia. John took his role and his contribution seriously and owned each decision. John was a force, with strong and informed views, and his commitment to resuts drove him on. Even with or after differing views, John remained open, listening and thinking. John leaves a legacy at Save the Children Ethiopia, unrivalled in its presence and impact. On a personal level, John and Gillian were kind, welcoming and generous - even hosting my family's leaving party in their home. John's laugh, jokes and big farewell hugs will be remembered by many who passed through Ethiopia. Rest in Peace.
Posted by John Melaku on 6th June 2018
Dear ,Family , Gillian, Daniel and Iain. John Graham is a father for many. 20 years before when i met him i was a shoe shine boy. he made all those things that words and sentence couldn't explain. No matter where he is from what language and nationality but its very special with his kindness and wonderful advises he offered. i missed his touch on my hair real dad. i have got all i need because of him. its still hard to believe is gone. its sward of sadness in my heart . i couldn't pay him back for those all things he did for drove me to school in morning take me back home , all those trips we had together all around the country pay all my fees in every where i went, all those i haven't got words again. what do say if you lost one father that cares for you?? how do feel if you hear john is Passed?? John has done many amazing jobs in the country but for my family is special for ever my line on genes all we take his name as i have changed my to John Melaku from Yimer Melaku. Dear family i have lost all my every things. I wish tears can bring him back i would like to cry for ever.
Posted by Daniel Yimer on 5th June 2018
Dear Gillian, Danielle and Ian, John Graham was a good father for our family. I knew him since I was 11. His grace and smile couldn't leave away from my eyes. My brother (Yimer) changed his name to 'John' after him. He met him when we were at rurals of Ethiopia, he had to take a road trip to see my brother in Shewa-robit. He didn't wait to get off from his car to ask where Yimer is. Then I should rush to his school, knock the class and call my elder "John Graham, your father is here, come out let's go". How can I express the feeling when I saw him hugging and touching his hair. Jonh's grace, enthusiasm and greatness will always remain in our family. He paid his life for this country, thousands assisted and millions inspired. My heartfelt condolences for families, friends and all touched by his deeds.
Posted by John Jackson on 4th June 2018
John was widely recognized as among the absolute best in his field. Even the Americans recognized that for their program in Ethiopia they could not find a better avisor than the burly Canadian from Save the Children. His knowledge and expertise were truly second to none and his work helped gratly to improve the lives of millions of the world’s poorest peoiple. Fortunately, John’s wisdom does not die with him. He always sought time to reflect and write, to commit his learning, thoughts and ideas to paper. In the 3rd century BC a chap named Callimachus wrote an elegy for his friend Heraclitus, a poet. Referring to Heraclitus’ verses as ‘nightingales,’ Callimachus wrote: “...But your nightingales live on; Death who takes all things cannot lay a hand on them. “ It pleases me to know that our friend John Graham’s nightingales will continue to take flight, and that millions more will benefit. Few will leave a finer or more meaningful legacy.
Posted by Nigel Nicholson on 3rd June 2018
John was a huge character whose presence could fill any room immediately. He just had the art of making everyone feel he was their friend and his humour so infectious. A great networker and mobiliser which he used to good advantage whatever his cause at the time. John was passionate about humanitarian and development issues especially when it related to his beloved Ethiopia. A top priority for John was always ensuring that projects were well informed, grounded in good analysis and strategic. It was always so important to John that the approach he adopted really made a difference, changed lives and left no-one behind. We all learned so much from his leadership and his intelligent approach to development issues which undoubtedly had a huge impact wherever he worked. We fondly remember the trip Gillian and John made through France not so long ago and having them both to stay in our corner of Périgord. We will miss John enormously, our love and thoughts are with Gillian and the family. Nigel and Judith
Posted by Barbara Jackson on 3rd June 2018
Dear Gillian, Danielle and Ian, Brendan and I are very saddened to learn of the loss of John to this world, to you and your family and to his so many friends answered loved ones. We have so many wonderful memories of time spent with you and John in Ethiopia and are ever grateful to John and Gillian for sharing their love and curiosity of Ethiopia with us. Precious and treasured memories of laughter over campfires (an inquisitive lion roaring in the background causing us to build the fire higher and higher), of endless hospitality and graciousness, and of such tangible love of family and of the people for whom he worked so relentlessly. The world will feel the absence of this larger than life man. Gillian, our thoughts and prayers are with you all. Love, Barbara and Brendan
Posted by Willet Weeks on 2nd June 2018
This will hardly be an original thought, as it's surely shared by everyone whose lives John touched, but it is so hard to imagine someone with such energy and charisma leaving us so soon. I will always remember, and be moved by, John's tremendous affection for, and enthusiasm about, Ethiopia in all its aspects, a passion I and many others share. My warmest concerned thoughts to Gillian and their family - libawi hazen.
Posted by Emnet Dereje on 31st May 2018
Dear Gillian, Danielle and Iain, May our Lord bless and comfort you and your family during this time of grief. Prayers and fond memories are what we have to remember John Graham. My most heartfelt condolences.
Posted by Suzanne Poland on 30th May 2018
Dear Gillian, Danielle and Iain - I posted a photo of John at the Obama-Mia Inaugural Ball in Addis Ababa in January 2009 – smiling, convivial, no doubt telling a fun story to Sharif or maybe teasing him about his hat. John was the Master of Ceremonies for the event and he did a grand job as MC dressed for the job in his tux. John always epitomized the type of warm hearted hospitality that is also such a wonderful characteristic of the Ethiopian people. He was just innately hospitable and welcoming and he made so many of us feel immediately at home – not just in the Brewin-Graham home, but wherever he joined you - in the office, on a field trip, in a meeting at a ministry, visiting an emergency nutrition center, talking to farmers or herders, bargaining in a rural market - he was so very much at home wherever he went in Ethiopia. John wrote several extraordinary tourism guides about the country that was his second home and he always seemed to fit right in as a kindred spirit anywhere in Ethiopia. The slogan that the Ethiopian tourist industry promotes is:”thirteen months of sunshine”. John himself was like that thirteenth month of sunshine – bringing with him an extra bonus of friendliness, congeniality and bonhomie. Three other photos I found of John are from a field trip to the Gurage area of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations Region with a high level visitor from USAID/Washington, D.C. These photos reminded me that he was an enthusiastic, life-long teacher and learner. John was always eager to hear new things, quick to grasp new ideas, yet reverent of tradition, and fascinated by history. He was thoughtful and purposeful about learning and teaching - passionate to advocate for change when needed. Thinking about John and his tireless efforts to help Ethiopians forge better lives for themselves and their children, reminds me of the George Bernard Shaw quotation: “You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?” “ In these photos you can see him teaching and learning - Learning from the women how they were changing their lives and their children’ lives by participating in the Productive Safety Net Program and the complimentary Market-led Livelihoods for Vulnerable People – raising goats or silk worms or peppers or carrots. Learning from farmers and project personnel how a rope and washer lifting device was being used for irrigation of a profitable vegetable plot. As usual, he was listening to what was working well – what didn’t work for them, gaining insights on basic program operations, policy issues or simple logistic problems that he would invariably try to improve. And then, after a long day of showing the visitor around project sites and farmsteads and explaining food security, resilience, technicalities of silk worm production as cottage industry, the economics of goat production, he wanted to also expose the visitor to more of Ethiopia’s fascinating culture. So in spite of impending rain we stopped at the Tiya Monolith site and John regaled us all with stories of the Tiya stones and the markings, the theories of who might have made these monoliths and their significance in the history of Ethiopia. To me it seemed inevitable - whenever you interacted with John – you were going to learn something and he was going to be interested in anything he could learn from you on any topic. With love, Suzanne
Posted by Gillian Brewin on 30th May 2018
Dear Gillian, I’m writing on behalf of all the DFID colleagues who knew John to say how saddened we were to hear that he passed away last week. John was in all senses a giant in the development and humanitarian community in Ethiopia.  His commitment to make life better for all Ethiopians, particularly children, was unrivalled. He was also a great friend to DFID Ethiopia over many years in his work on livelihoods and the Productive Safety Net Programme, humanitarian response and the Peace and Development programme to name but a few areas. We will remember John for many things, but three memories to mention here in particular. First, we will remember John as an innovator. He was always working on the next big idea for tackling poverty head on. It was a privilege to be able to turn some of those big ideas into big programmes, the benefits of which will last into the years to come. Second, we remember John’s foresight and challenge. He was often challenging, but it was constructive challenge that drove change and helped Ethiopia through some of its worst droughts in living memory. There are thousands of people alive today because of the work John did to raise the alarm on the very severe drought in 2015/16. Third, we will remember John for his generosity of spirit, his bonhomie and his friendship. As someone else has said, people in John’s life were never just colleagues. We are grateful to have known him personally and we can’t quite believe he has gone. John was and will remain an inspiration to all of us. With our deepest sympathies to you and all the family. Thinking about you Gillian and your family at this most difficult of times, George George Turkington On behalf of DFID and particularly the Ethiopia team past and present including Juliette Prodhan, Charlie Mason, Louisa Medhurst, Toby Sexton, Emebet Kebede, Sam Yates, John Primrose and Jo Moir.
Posted by Dennis Walto on 30th May 2018
John and Gillian were as much a part of our families Ethiopia experience as the ground we walked on... True, tested and vested friends they were always there - literally. John was up for anything - a drink, a round of golf, or a venture to the Somali Region to explore ways to head off the potential impact next inevitable poor rains. He was champion - not just of the poor - but of living a purpose filled and mission driven life. His hearty laugh will ring through the tears and be his lasting legacy. With Love - Donnette & Dennis

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