100 years of Save the Children UK: what have we learned?

INGO leaders must strike a balance between vision and pragmatism to be effective, but values still come first.

Mike Aaronson
22 April 2019, 9.24pm
Famine in Russia, 1921 - 1923.
Save the Children. All rights reserved.

“I reject both an overly romantic and an overly cynical reading of humanitarianism. Instead I treat humanitarianism as a morally complicated creature, a flawed hero defined by the passions, politics, and power of its times even as it tries to rise above them.” Michael Barnett

A recent conference examined the interplay between politics, humanitarianism, and children’s rights through the lens of the 100 year history of Save the Children UK (SCUK). It was a joint effort between the SCUK Humanitarian Affairs team and members of the wider family of ex-staff and supporters; we sat outside the structure of the organisation and were given the freedom to shape the conference as we saw fit. Our aim was to help the present generation understand the factors that had shaped SCUK’s history, so as to have a stronger sense of its present purpose and possible future directions.

This process was as much about promoting the value of critical historical reflection in its own right as about looking at particular moments, trends, and themes. We wanted participants to learn the value of historicising humanitarian practice as well as acquiring specific knowledge about the past. What might people looking back in 50 or 100 years time say about the Save the Children of 2019, and how could looking now at the last 100 years help us anticipate that question?

To help with this task, and building on the newly established SCUK alumni network, we invited Save the Children workers from the 1960s onwards to tell their stories of dealing with humanitarian crises in Biafra, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Iraq, among others. We put them in dialogue with academic historians in a series of panels designed to explore how the relationship between politics, humanitarianism, and human rights had played out in practice. A series of thematic workshops completed the programme.

In doing this we were clear as organisers that we wanted not only to celebrate the organisation’s successes but also look critically at its shortcomings. This would inevitably be challenging; what in a previous age had appeared normal might now appear unacceptable. In her forthcoming book, historian (and fellow conference organiser) Emily Baughan shows that, for its first half century at least, Save the Children saw itself as being part of an imperial project. Looking back on my own experience as a young relief worker in the Biafran conflict I can appreciate things that I could not see at the time; it was a decidedly ‘post-colonial’ moment.

How would all this be judged? Academics try to make sense of things they are not close to and can therefore never fully understand; practitioners’ very closeness to events restricts their view. Where would the two perspectives meet? As David Lowenthal puts it, “Informed tolerance toward our total legacy is a necessary condition of enhancing the present and enabling the future.” Would ‘informed tolerance’ prevail?

Sure enough, there were moments when I myself felt defensive as aspects of the narrative were developed: why were there so few national staff as opposed to expatriates to tell the story; why were there not more young people at the table; why had Save the Children not put more distance between itself and governments at key moments - during the resettlement crisis in Ethiopia in 1984, for example, or over the invasion of Iraq in 2003? But we were there, after all, to address precisely these questions.

Among other things the conference helped to show that the role of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) like Save the Children at any one time is very much shaped by the wider geopolitical context. For example, the massive logistical food aid operations carried out by the organisation in Ethiopia and Sudan in the 1980s were essentially the result of a lack of agility at the time in the UN system and a lack of trust by donor governments.

If comments on social media are anything to go by our audience appreciated the organisation’s openness and willingness to be judged ‘warts and all.’ The authenticity and honesty of reflection throughout the conference really mattered. This included acknowledging the damage done by poor handling of sexual harassment claims in 2012 and 2015, which resurfaced in 2018. To address those issues we devoted a workshop to interrogate present-day gender relations at Save the Children in the light of the past and explore the legacies of patriarchy in humanitarianism.

Another challenge, raised more provocatively at the evening event that bisected the two days of the conference, questioned the responsibilities of organisations that call themselves ‘humanitarian.’ How ambitious should they be, and what exactly are their obligations?

In the run-up to the conference I wrote a blog piece that tried to portray the inter-relationship between politics, humanitarianism, and children’s rights in SCUK’s history. Emily Baughan’s work has shown that Save the Children was a humanitarian organisation inspired by an essentially political cause; it came into being in 1919 because its founder Dorothy Buxton believed that the plight of suffering children could help make the case for international peace and security that was so much needed at the end of the First World War.

This was indeed an ambitious mission, and it has definitely been moderated over time, but is this for better or for worse? I am rather with Henry Dunant that politics (with a small ‘p’) should be at the service of humanitarianism, not the other way round as Buxton saw it. Understanding how political processes work, and where to apply leverage, is at the core of effective humanitarian advocacy and campaigning.

Neither Buxton’s nor Dunant’s approach is necessarily right; there is space for both in trying to make the world a better place. Either way, a key role of INGOs like Save the Children is to mobilise civil society behind the cause and to put pressure on governments to do more. Humanitarians can only achieve so much by their own efforts, but their voice carries authority, and they need to use it. That was the challenge 100 years ago and it remains so today.

Politics, said Otto von Bismarck, “is the art of the possible.” So too, I believe, is humanitarian action – although my fellow organiser Juliano Fiori has argued that it is also “the art of the necessary.” The Save the Children experience certainly shows that humanitarianism has to be politically astute if it is to be effective. The stories my colleagues and I told in our historical panels were stories of trade-offs and compromises, of trying to find solutions that worked in an often unforgiving environment for children’s rights.

I explained how we negotiated access to people who had fled into the bush as the Nigerian Army advanced into what had been Biafra and who, after months of being cut off from any relief, were in a desperate state. To reach them we needed to persuade the (sometimes suspicious) local Army commanders. This invariably involved many hours of socialising in the officers’ mess - not exactly a preferred method of demonstrating neutrality in armed conflict, but the only practical way of delivering on the humanitarian imperative in this particular case.

So INGO leaders must strike a balance between vision and pragmatism to be effective, but values still come first. For Save the Children the Rights of the Child, as proclaimed by Dorothy Buxton’s sister Eglantyne Jebb, provide a clear moral compass. When I was at SCUK I was sometimes asked whether we were politically neutral, to which I would answer that neutrality is essentially a political choice, and that because of our values we could never be neutral about abuses of children’s rights. But we had to find a way of refusing to accept such abuses while being subject to the requirements of UK charity law. To some that might seem tame, but it is part of the reality that must be faced at each point in time.

In addition, recognising the need for pragmatism is not the same as claiming that INGOs like SCUK can be complacent about their role and purpose. Indeed many in the sector feel that the combined demands of globalisation, institutional ambition, changing donor agendas, and the emergence of other players and new technologies have reached the point where a serious reappraisal of the role of large INGOs is needed if they are to play a meaningful role while remaining true to their values.

I agree, and in particular I believe that the days of the large corporate multinational NGO are numbered; the world needs something closer to Eglantyne Jebb’s original vision of a family of organisations taking responsibility for children in their own domain and collaborating internationally.

The present generation, not alumni like me, have to make this change happen. From this point of view the most positive feature of the conference was the inspiration that those who now work at SCUK took from the interaction with staff from earlier generations, drawing confidence from the fact that that the organisation has faced challenges before but has had the courage to confront them. This felt like a ‘moment’ which could provide a trigger to support the cultural changes that the leadership has pledged to deliver.

Joining Save the Children changed my life definitively, and helped me to make a difference. For me the conference showed that the organisation can still have this transformative effect – in both senses.

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