Supping With A Long Spoon?

My former organisation, Save the Children[i], is in hot water for bestowing a “Global Legacy Award” on former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for his contribution to relieving global poverty. According to The Guardian over 200 Save the Children staff have signed a letter questioning the charity’s decision, saying it is “morally reprehensible” and endangers Save the Children’s credibility globally; an online petition calling for Save the Children to revoke the award has so far attracted nearly 110,000 signatures. How could things go so horribly wrong for such a well-respected international charity?

Save the Children, founded in the UK in 1919 by Eglantyne Jebb in response to the starvation of children in Austria and Hungary even as a peaceful end to the First World War was being negotiated at Versailles, was for many decades a motley collection of independent national organisations founded by individuals who had been inspired by Jebb’s vision of The Rights of the Child. Her vision also extended to an international alliance of such organisations, taking primary responsibility for children in their own countries and supporting each other across national boundaries. Sadly she died before this vision was realised and instead the various members drifted apart, often adopting very different approaches to their work and failing to maximise the benefits of collaborating for a common purpose.

Fortunately the generation of leaders who inherited responsibility for Save the Children organisations as globalisation became a reality in the 1980s and 1990s had the wisdom to see that this neglect of Jebb’s vision was not helping children. Thus began a long, tortuous, and often very painful process to build an International Save the Children Alliance that shared common values, principles, and ways of working. Inevitably this meant a pooling of sovereignty that was hard, especially for those organisations such as the UK, US, Sweden, and Norway who were powerful and successful players in their own right. But the effort paid off, and while individual members remain sovereign in their own countries, the international programme is now governed by a separate charity, Save the Children International, which has its own Board including independent Directors as well as those from member organisations. This is a huge achievement and should be acknowledged as such.

However, Save the Children is by design not a monolithic organisation but rather a federal one and inevitably there are differences of ethos that flow from the different cultures in the different member countries. In my time at the helm of Save the Children UK the most significant such fault lines were, ironically, between the two biggest and most powerful members of the international family: the UK and the US. Often these differences would be most acute when they concerned the delicate balance that faces every charity that believes in both direct and indirect means of fulfilling its mission: i.e. both through programmes on the ground that depend on successful fundraising, and advocacy – the targets of which are sometimes the very same organisations from which funding is sought, be they governments or private corporations. On the whole the UK – with its strong, independent, fundraising base –  was much more feisty in its approach to advocacy; the US – with an eye to protecting fundraising from the US government and major corporations – much more conservative. As a consequence each of us always had to be very careful not to undertake activities that were harmful to the other, without compromising our own principles. But this is a cultural difference that goes much wider than a single organisation.

Understanding this context is essential to making sense of the current controversy surrounding Tony Blair’s award. Much has been made in the media of the fact that the current CEO of Save the Children UK is a former adviser to Tony Blair at Number 10, and that his former Chief of Staff is a Board member of Save the Children International (not Save the Children UK as erroneously reported by both The Independent and The Telegraph). But the award to Mr Blair was made by Save the Children US at its own gala fundraising event in New York, attended by a host of celebrities and ‘presented’ by US corporate giant Johnson & Johnson – who also announced a $10 million global partnership with Save the Children at the same time. Did the Save the Children International or UK Boards know that Mr Blair was going to be honoured in this way? If they did, and didn’t like the idea, could they have done anything about it? I don’t know the answers to these questions in today’s context, but I do know that in my day they would have given rise to the most agonised soul-searching and that – whatever the outcome – there would have been great unhappiness in one quarter or another. Sometimes the give-and-take necessary to make a success of an INGO family is as tough as that found in the EU or the UN.

As for Mr Blair himself, whatever his (considerable) achievements he is undeniably, as the Guardian put it, “a controversial and divisive figure”, at least in a UK context. That alone could be considered a sufficient reason to maintain a safe distance from him, without necessarily passing judgement on the (often wildly exaggerated) claims that are made about his culpability for the consequences of the intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the way in which he has earned a living since leaving office. Most people would accept, I think, that there is a difference between, on the one hand, engaging positively with politicians and companies even if one does not approve of their policies and, on the other, bestowing recognition on them by means of an award. Nevertheless it should be acknowledged that not everyone judges Mr Blair so harshly, and there will be many who genuinely believe – as Save the Children US has maintained – that his achievements in combating poverty do make him worthy of such recognition.

Sadly this episode will have done harm to Save the Children, an organisation I feel as passionately about now as when I first worked for it in 1969. No doubt the harm could – and should – have been avoided. But life is not simple, risks often have to be taken, and sometimes mistakes are made. Perhaps the only person who can put this one right is Mr Blair himself. He might also help his ‘legacy’ if he did so.

[i] The author stepped down as chief executive of Save the Children UK in 2005. He has not consulted his successors about the issues covered in this piece, and they were not aware of it prior to publication. The views expressed are in no way meant to represent those of Save the Children and are entirely the author’s own.