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Sir Robert Gillman Jackson (1911–1991)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published:

Sir Robert Jackson, 1970

Sir Robert Jackson, 1970

photo from United Nations Library, 370396

Sir Robert Gillman Allen Jackson (1911-1991), naval officer and international civil servant, was born on 8 November 1911 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, and baptised as Wilbur Kenneth, younger son of Archibald Jackson, a Scottish-born engineer, journalist, and company chairman, and his Irish-born second wife Kathleen Crooke, née Williams. Known as Rob, he was educated at Cheltenham State (1918-20) and the original (1922) and successor (1923-28) Mentone Grammar schools—where, at the latter, his father was a prominent council member—he excelled at both study and sport. Having to forgo university because of his father’s death in 1928, he applied for a paymaster cadetship in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN); he was selected from a large field of candidates and appointed on 1 May 1929.

While serving in HMA ships Australia (1929-31), Canberra (1931-36), and Sydney (1936-38), Jackson impressed successive Royal Navy (RN) flag officers commanding the Australian Squadron, including Rear Admiral (Sir) Wilbraham Ford. Jackson was promoted to paymaster lieutenant in 1933. He changed his given names to Robert Gillman Allen by deed poll in 1937 but was universally known as ‘Jacko’. On 18 October that year at St David’s Anglican Cathedral, Hobart, he married Una Margaret (Peggy) Dick; they were later divorced.

In 1938 Ford, by then vice admiral, Malta, arranged for Jackson to be loaned to the RN and appointed in June as secretary to his chief staff officer. The threat of war prompted a revision of the Malta Command Defence Scheme. Ford reported that Jackson ‘worked almost without cessation’ on the document’s naval section and was responsible for its ‘rapid issue’, emphasising that his ‘energy, initiative and ability were outstanding’ (NAA A3978). Following the Munich crisis in September, Jackson wrote a paper that Ford believed was influential in persuading the British government that the island could and should be defended.

With Malta under siege by Axis forces, in August 1940 Jackson was promoted to acting paymaster lieutenant commander (substantive 1941) and temporary paymaster commander, and appointed officer-in-charge of the coordination of supplies to the fortress. In late 1941 Ford and Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie, the governor and commander-in-chief, Malta, credited Jackson with having played a significant part in the successful British defence of the island. He was appointed OBE (1941).

 Jackson’s proficiency in military and civilian logistics came to the attention of Oliver Lyttelton (Viscount Chandos), the minister of state for the Middle East. On 1 November 1941 he was appointed to the British Civil Service as a Treasury officer on Lyttelton’s staff; he was placed on the RAN Retired List the same day. From 1942 to 1944 Jackson served as director-general of the Anglo-American Middle East Supply Centre, a Cairo-based organisation that controlled the economies of the countries in the region to ensure that civilian and military needs for food and materials were met. He travelled widely, using his diplomatic skills to gain the cooperation of governments in restricting imports, increasing production, sharing surpluses, and accepting austerity. For his work, he was appointed CMG (1944).

Recognising Jackson’s aptitude for managing a large humanitarian-aid project, the British government lent him in February 1945 to the struggling United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration; on 7 May he became senior deputy director. He was simultaneously director of UNRRA’s European regional office, which was responsible for more than 80 percent of the administration’s total expenditure. His characteristic vigour was ‘combined with a truly global wisdom to make UNRRA an effective instrument for economic reconstruction’ (Cleveland 1959, 17). He realised that failure of the United Nations’s first operational body would shake international confidence in the UN concept itself. By the time he left in October 1947, the administration had saved countless lives, his efforts earning widespread praise. In May 1948 he assumed office as assistant secretary-general for coordination, but his forceful personality upset the secretary-general, Trygve Lie, and other assistant secretaries-general, and he was removed about four months later. He returned to the British Treasury.

In 1950 Jackson was lent to the Australian government to head the new Department of National Development, his appointment becoming effective on 17 March. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June, increasing the momentum of the Cold War, he advocated measures to improve Australia’s national security through immigration and the exploitation of natural resources. In particular, he strongly supported the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. On 1 October he was relieved of his duties to allow him to return to England. Having converted to Catholicism, on 16 November 1950 at St Felix Church, Felixstowe, East Suffolk, he married (Dame) Barbara Mary Ward (Baroness Jackson), then assistant editor of the Economist; they would later separate. Jackson resumed his post on 11 May 1951.

Jackson’s Australian secondment having ended, he left for England in January 1952 but the Commonwealth government paid for him to visit India and Pakistan that year to advise those countries’ governments on development planning. In 1953 the British government appointed him to be the special commissioner of the Preparatory Commission of the Volta River Project, a massive hydro-electric power and aluminium-smelting scheme in the colony of the Gold Coast (Ghana). He moved to Accra. Between 1957 and 1962 he was chairman of independent Ghana’s Commission for Development. He had been knighted in 1956 and he was appointed KCVO in 1962 for assisting with a visit to the country by Queen Elizabeth II.

Based mainly in New York, Jackson undertook consultancies and assignments for the UN. From 1963 he also worked part time as an adviser to the Liberian government. A member (1962-75) of the Mekong Committee’s advisory board, in 1963 he became a consultant to the UN Special Fund, which was later subsumed in the United Nations Development Programme. In 1968 he was appointed to review the entire UN organisation for assisting developing countries. A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System (1969)—which he prepared in collaboration with his British chief of staff, (Dame) Margaret Anstee—emphasised technical cooperation, the need for a central UN coordinating body, and synchronisation with recipient countries’ national development strategies. Although never fully implemented, the report came to be seen ‘as a seminal work’ (Gibson 2006, 235).

Jackson’s leadership qualities, operational skills, and political finesse continued to be in demand for humanitarian work. Between 1972 and 1974 he was under-secretary-general-in-charge of the UN relief operations in Bangladesh, the mission serving as a model of how to orchestrate close interaction between competing agencies. He coordinated UN assistance to Zambia (1973-77), Indochina (1975-77), and Cape Verde (1976-77). As the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Kampuchean (Cambodian) relief from 1979 to 1984, he oversaw the humanitarian mission for refugees along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Although Jackson could be abrupt and intolerant of inefficiency, colleagues found him to be fair as well as firm, and to have a pleasant disposition overall. Gibson described him as ‘a commanding figure: very tall and slim, with wavy auburn hair and smiling blue eyes’ (2006, vii). Completely committed to whatever task was at hand, he possessed a ‘remarkable capacity for absorbing the technical details and procedures of specialist work’ (Gibson 2006, 32). He was an international ‘logistical genius’ (Karetny and Weiss 2015, 102), who displayed exceptional ability in dealing with large-scale, multi-dimensional emergencies. In 1986 he was appointed AC.

Sir Robert died on 12 January 1991 at Roehampton, Wandsworth, London, and was cremated. He was survived by Margaret Anstee, his close personal companion for more than twenty years, and by the son of his second marriage. His portrait, by Judy Cassab, was commissioned for the Palais des Nations in Geneva. When unveiling it in 1997, the UN secretary–general, Kofi Annan, asked: ‘Jacko, where are you now when we need you?’ (Gibson 2006, xi). Annan based his strategy for improving the coherence and coordination of UN programs to a considerable degree on Jackson’s still-relevant capacity study.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MSS Eng c. 4676-4678, 4733, Papers relating to Robert Jackson’s service with the UN, Western Manuscripts, Private Collection, United Nations Career Records Project
  • Cleveland, Harlan. `Introduction: History of an Idea 1959.’ In The Case for an International Development Authority, by Robert G. A. Jackson, edited by Harlan Cleveland, 5-18. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1959
  • Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library. MS 0659, Papers of Sir Robert G. A. Jackson
  • Gibson, James. Jacko, Where Are You Now?: A Life of Robert Jackson, Master of Humanitarian Relief, the Man who Saved Malta. Richmond, UK: Parsons Publishing, 2006
  • Jackson, Robert G. A., The Case for an International Development Authority, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1959
  • Jackson, R. G. A. Interview by Richard Symonds, March-April 1978. Transcript. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University Libraries
  • Jackson, R. G. A. Interview by William Powell, 29 November 1985 and 21 February 1986. Transcript. United Nations Archives, New York
  • Jackson, R. G. A. A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System. 2 vols. Geneva: United Nations, 1969
  • Karetny, Eli, and Thomas G. Weiss. ‘UNRRA’s Operational Genius and Institutional Design.’ In Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations, edited by Dan Plesch and Thomas G. Weiss, 99-120. London: Routledge, 2015
  • Mitcham, Chad J. ‘Australia and Development Cooperation at the United Nations: Towards Poverty Reduction.’ In Australia and the United Nations, edited by James Cotton and David Lee, 191-221. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Sydney: Longueville Books, 2013
  • National Archives of Australia. A3497, JACKSON R G A
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, JACKSON R G A
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, JACKSON R G A
  • National Archives (UK). CAB 2/9 and FO 371/72645

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Jackson, Sir Robert Gillman (1911–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir Robert Jackson, 1970

Sir Robert Jackson, 1970

photo from United Nations Library, 370396

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jackson, Wilbur Kenneth

8 November, 1911
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 January, 1991 (aged 79)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


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