Save the Children

Last year, Save the Children’s dynamic international programme reached 15.4m children – but plugging the humanitarian gaps is no longer enough. Nina Caplan reports on the charity’s ambitions to wipe out child suffering once and for all

Supporters gather in Myanmar to make up a human Save the Children “Charlie Brown” logo in 2008
Supporters gather in Myanmar to make up a human Save the Children “Charlie Brown” logo in 2008 | Image: Save the Children

There was nothing unusual, in 1919, in a woman from the English landed gentry doing a little something for charity – sixpence in the church plate, or perhaps a stint on a committee to feed poor orphans – but Eglantyne Jebb interpreted the pious notion that charity begins at home rather differently. She was outraged by the British government’s post-first world war blockade of Europe’s defeated nations. Children should not be permitted to die of starvation – even children whose parents had until recently been our enemies. “All wars, just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child,” she pointed out.

Her arrest under the Defence of the Realm Act, for leafleting in Trafalgar Square, didn’t deter her in the slightest. “It has never occurred to me,” she remarked tartly at her trial, “that a purely humanitarian plea… had anything to do with the defence of the realm.” She lost the trial but won the argument. She was fined £5, but afterwards the prosecuting counsel, Sir Archibald Bodkin, donated a symbolic £5 that became one of the first contributions to her brand-new charity: the Save the Children Fund (SCF).

Abdifatah Adow, the charity's hygiene promoter, watches a student testing the new clean drinking water facility in Habaswein, Kenya
Abdifatah Adow, the charity's hygiene promoter, watches a student testing the new clean drinking water facility in Habaswein, Kenya | Image: Save the Children

It was a rousing start – 95 years later, SCF is one of the world’s foremost independent children’s charities; these days, the name is simply Save the Children, and that’s not all that has changed. The food parcels that sustained hungry German and Austrian children in 1919 have become an international network of programmes, creating long-term, sustainable change for children all over the world; the local fundraising drives have branched out into event sponsorship and high-street retail, government funding, long-term associations with philanthropists and corporate partnerships that, last year, raised £343m. Eglantyne’s little Soho office has bloomed into operations in 120 countries. And the outrage at children’s suffering in 1919 is now a humanitarian response that, in 2013, dealt with 88 emergencies in 43 countries, reaching 3.4m people, including 2.1m children.

There are still food-distribution programmes in places where natural disaster, conflict or simply generations of grinding poverty mean that children are undernourished in the womb, underfed as babies (often resulting in stunting, a permanent condition in which neither the child’s body nor brain develop properly), hungry as children – and grow up to be adults unable to alter this grim cycle in time to improve their own children’s lives. But after the stopgap come seed-distribution and nutrition-education programmes, which enable people to grow what they need to eat or sell: sustainable solutions to health and nutrition problems that last year helped 9.7m children. And this far-sighted approach is being employed more and more, from midwife and teacher training to preparation in countries vulnerable to natural disaster – whatever it takes, in fact, to solve current problems and prevent future ones.

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Last year, Save the Children reached 15.4m children – that’s almost double the 8m of three years earlier. Some of this work is very visible to the public: in a high-profile emergency such as Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines last November, providing shelter, reuniting families and vaccinating children raises money and garners attention. Save the Children is currently supporting over 3m Syrian children and families who have been forced to leave their tattered homeland, and are subsisting in refugee camps or host communities that are buckling under the strain of so many new arrivals. Cash-for-work programmes give parents a chance to earn money and improve relations with host communities by providing infrastructure. Education and psychosocial programmes help children recover their equilibrium and regain their fractured childhoods. The Philippines and Syria are on most people’s radar, but of the 88 emergencies Save the Children responded to last year, many will have barely made the news.

All these actions on the ground, acknowledged or unseen, are essential. However, plugging the humanitarian gaps is no longer enough: the ambition is much, much bigger. Save the Children wants to solve these problems, once and for all. “The world is at a tipping point,” says Justin Forsyth, Save the Children’s CEO. “We could be the generation to end young people dying preventable deaths and ensure they all get a good education. But business as usual can’t achieve this. We have made tremendous progress: the number of children dying of hunger has nearly halved since 1990 and the number of children getting vaccinated or educated has risen exponentially. But unless we are vigilant, there is a risk the hardest-to-reach children will get left behind.”

A candelit vigil held by Save the Children in Jordan, 2013
A candelit vigil held by Save the Children in Jordan, 2013 | Image: Chris De Bode/Save the Children

All the money raised by this special 20th anniversary issue of How To Spend It will go into Save the Children’s unrestricted funds. This means that the money can be assigned to wherever the need is most urgent. If you give to a specific appeal, your money must go where you expect, whether it’s providing shelter to refugees in Iraq, setting up centres to treat malnourished children in South Sudan or building clinics where women can give birth safely in remote parts of Liberia. If a philanthropist pays for a school in Sierra Leone, that money cannot be spent feeding children in Jordan. This makes unrestricted funding absolutely crucial. It allows the agency to react instantly in emergencies, in a situation where every minute gained means lives saved. It funds essential programmes where the need is forgotten or ignored. It gives independence, so Save the Children can lobby governments and powerful institutions without compromise. And it funds the initial research that any effective programme requires.

So, unrestricted funding kickstarts every signature programme. These are Save the Children’s flagship innovations: sophisticated programmes, carefully designed to provide radical solutions to specific problems affecting the hardest-to-reach children in the world’s toughest places. They are undertaken with local and global partners and brought to a point where they can be replicated, scaled-up and eventually taken over entirely by the country’s government or other local stakeholders. “We will know when a signature programme is truly successful,” says Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi, Save the Children’s director of programme policy and quality, “when national governments are delivering those services or products so effectively that we are able to walk away.”

Children in the Philippines' Dulag, Leyte Province, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013
Children in the Philippines' Dulag, Leyte Province, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 | Image: Jonathan Hyams/Save the Children

The governments who were once the target of Eglantyne’s wrath are now key partners – that’s surely progress. But there’s no question of handing over responsibility. “Teachers, parents, the broader public, all have a critical role to play,” says Brendan Cox, director of policy and advocacy. “Changing policy is important but it can’t just be all about the government.”

Bringing the public into the conversation is simply taking Eglantyne’s faith in the importance of dialogue – with children, with supporters, with those in power – to its logical conclusion. And, while her observation that “the world is not ungenerous but unimaginative and very busy” is truer than ever, Save the Children is finding all sorts of creative ways to amplify that conversation in the service of saving children’s lives and fighting for their rights.

The Kishuru Sachetana Child Club in Chhinchu, mid-western Nepal in 2012- which is supported by Save the Children
The Kishuru Sachetana Child Club in Chhinchu, mid-western Nepal in 2012- which is supported by Save the Children | Image: Suzanne Lee/Save the Children

“We have to be where our audience is,” says Tanya Steele, the organisation’s director of fundraising. “They’re out shopping, so we’re revolutionising charity retail with Mary’s Living & Giving stores; they’re having fun, and we are enabling them to help children at the same time by wearing a festive jumper and raising money on Christmas Jumper Day, which is December 12.” They’re also on social media, so Save the Children has a vocal presence there, with over 320,000 Facebook “likes” and nearly 90,000 Twitter followers. Their YouTube film on Syria has so far received over 34.8m hits. “The world moves faster now,” says Steele, “and so does giving, with text to donate or one-click online donation. We don’t section off our lives the way we used to.”

In other words, Save the Children, like its supporters, is trying to balance modern living with old-fashioned ideals: saving lives within a 21st-century lifestyle. The numbers suggest it’s working. “But there’s so much more to do,” says Forsyth. “As long as children are dying of preventable causes, or failing to fulfil their potential due to malnutrition or for lack of education, we aren’t there yet. But we will be.”

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