Some of my family asked what I thought about the bad news at my former employer Save the Children, so here is what I think. The recent news is that Save the Children has stood down from applying for DFID funds, as I understand it, to earn back trust following the disgrace of the sexual harassment scandal involving Save’s former CEO and his former Deputy. To me, that’s like standing down every doctor and midwife in a busy hospital because of what happened in the CEO’s office. Different punishments would have been possible. However this is the one that is happening and it’s not for me to say whether it is right. But all the press talks about is the loss of £100 million a year, and not what it does – so I want to add a little drawing in the margins to show what it meant to me.
I ran a team that worked with country and technical expert teams at Save the Children, and cutting the jargon, we pulled together bids for large and complex programmes and helped them start up. So I feel very sad that Save will have to sit on its hands next time it sees an opportunity to save children with DFID funds. For some, this seems a peripheral issue, what are a few bids here or there, that’s just money. But the programmes that we got funded really did matter and I wonder who will really pay the price for the transgressions of the men at the top.
The UK public often has a perception that there are a lot of development NGOs and that the market could probably be culled without too much damage. I think that perception arises because public fundraising in the UK is indeed frenetically competitive – however the globe is big and the distribution of NGO activity across some parts of the world can be pretty thinly spread out, especially in conflict affected or very remote areas. Save had made strategic decisions about focusing more on exactly those fragile regions. Not every organisation could make that decision, as if you don’t have the networks, legitimacy, and security systems to work there then you are taking risks, at worst with peoples’ lives. But those that can, like Save and Oxfam, felt that they needed to support people in those places. So if Save and Oxfam cannot be funded to do work, there are certain districts or provinces where it is extremely unlikely that any other organisation can step in, certainly not with any speed or scale.
There were times that we at Save were really uniquely well-placed and I have no doubt that lives were saved by our work because we were there. I won’t identify specific programmes as I do not speak for Save, but just one example I know well. In Country X, we were one of only three organisations present in the region where most child deaths were happening, and where an opportunity arose that would enable us to treat 100,000 child patients a year for acute malnutrition. One of the other organisations was smaller than us but we worked closely with their excellent experts to harmonise technical protocols and agree how to coordinate our work. In the acute malnutrition programme Save had worked on jointly with them, we had a 90% cure rate. The third organisation in the region had a 50-60% cure rate, and although they had other important strengths that we wanted to see deployed, you can imagine how strongly we felt that the approach with the higher cure rate had to be the one delivered – you can do the math yourself on what that means with 100,000 seriously ill children.
The nutrition advisor told me how she used to go up and down the queue outside the clinic, among women queuing with skeletally thin children in their arms in hot, dry air; and she would look for the children who were hours rather than days from death and get them to the front of the queue for therapeutic food treatment. Oh fuck, I thought. We wrote in sophisticated technical language but it was oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck that drove the work.
Actually, we brought all three organisations together, and got over the tensions to become partners. The overall programme we were part of was worth about £45m and we helped shape the whole, it ran on a plan that we sat and bashed out with some aggression and fierce honesty. It would have been easier to ‘know our place’ and ‘stick to our knitting’, implementing what someone else told us to, but it was right to speak out for children. Those were our values.
A lot of money? Yes, it needed money. But the bit that momentarily floored myself and my colleague Joe, walking down the steps after it was signed off, was saying that it was likely that 100,000 children’s lives would be saved over 4 years. And if the world had another 80 programmes at that scale, mass child mortality would be at an end. Of course it doesn’t really scale like that but never before had I worked for an NGO and seen the resolution of a global challenge within that achievable order of scale. That country changed me, it made me profoundly optimistic about the future for a while. Over the next few years I was privileged to watch my growing team work with our colleagues on education, livelihoods and health programmes that would reach many tens of thousands of children more.
I wish people in NGOs talked about impact targets instead of fundraising targets. We did talk about results and quality but in NGO-world if you are successful in securing large amounts of money, people assume you are driven by money. But, no, not really. It was never about the money. It was only ever about what it did. And that’s why I believe that it’s a tragedy that Save is not going to be turning DFID funds into therapeutic food, science equipment for schools, making orphanages safer, helping refugee families to survive, and all the other very many things it does for children. I hope that this period is short, and that it can get back to its job of transforming children’s lives very soon.