Speech: Kevin Watkins at the Bond Annual Conference

The UK’s vision for international development
Kevin Watkins, CEO Save the Children UK

This is our ‘2018 moment’ – let’s not waste it.

Let me start by thanking Bond for inviting me to be part of this panel – and by thanking Tamsyn Barton for the role she has played in bringing agencies together to address current challenges.

This session is on the theme of ‘The UK’s vision for international development’. My starting point is that we cannot credibly plan ahead without an honest assessment of where we stand today, which is in turn shaped by our past.

Our challenges hardly need spelling out. We live in troubled times. The rules-based multilateral order is under stress, raising concerns that go beyond trade and finance to climate change and international cooperation on poverty reduction. Trust in institutions is weakening – and that obviously includes non-government organisations.

Meanwhile, the world is woefully off-track for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To take just one example, we are on a trajectory that will leave around 3 million children dying from preventable illnesses before their fifth birthdays by 2030. The target is zero.

Measuring current progress against the SDG ambitions that have been set for maternal health, education, and extreme poverty, the outcomes are similarly bleak. Fifteen years from now, some 147 million children in sub-Saharan Africa will be living below the extreme poverty threshold – a product of demography, inequality and the depth of poverty. These children will account for over 40 per cent of total world poverty.

Never in the history of the post-war period have so many people been displaced by violent conflict and emergencies – some 65 million in 2017. Over half of these people are children. And behind these numbers is a collapse in the rules, norms and laws forged to protect civilians from armed conflict.

It is today far more dangerous to be a child living in an area affected by conflict than it is to be a soldier. Children can be bombed, assaulted, raped, abducted or treated as collateral damage with near-total impunity while the world looks on and wrings its hands.

Our job as a sector is to help ensure that the UK plays a global leadership role in addressing these and other challenges. That is what our organisations were created to do. It’s what the UK public expects us to do. And it’s what we have a moral duty to do.

Many years ago, when I first got involved in international development, I was greatly influenced by Amartya Sen. In the 1980s and 1990s, the received wisdom in development was that rising income alone would better the human condition. Amartya’s great insight, so profound that it has entered into common sense, is that development is fundamentally about what he called ‘human capabilities’ in areas like health, education, and ability to influence decisions that affect their lives.

In the last analysis, development is about creating the conditions which enable people to flourish; and it is about combating the unjust inequalities that destroy so much potential.

Most of us would share this starting point.

We would also share two other convictions.

The first is that the commitment of a country, an organisation or an individual to ‘international development’ is not just an abstract idea. It is a measure of our capacity for compassion, empathy and solidarity with the world’s most marginalised people.

The second shared conviction is a simple idea: namely, that we can make a difference. In Save the Children I share an office with colleagues who come to work every day because they believe passionately that their efforts will, in some small way, keep alive the hope that children living in poverty or in the midst of violent conflict need to believe a different future is possible. The same spirit prevails in other organisations and in DFID.

So how can the UK make a difference?

The answer to that question is not just by using its economic or military power. Instead, it is to utilise our least remarked upon but more potent asset: our status as a development superpower. The country has in abundance a formidable arsenal of soft-power assets in the form of diplomatic capabilities, historic ties, and influence at the UN and in the World Bank-IMF. The 0.7 per cent commitment is part of that soft-power armoury. It is rooted in values, ideas and the basic idea that doing good in the world counts for something.

The aid pledge is about demonstrated leadership. The fact that the 0.7 per cent commitment has transitioned across political cycles and survived enormous financial pressures tells us something important. This is an exciting example of bi-partisan consensus in a political world marked by increasingly binary and polarised debates.

I am aware that some critics on the right and the left see aid as an irrelevance, or even as a source of potential damage. Some of these critics – Angus Deaton and Bill Easterly among them – make serious points that deserve consideration and engagement.

Yet the overwhelming weight of evidence is that UK aid does what it says on the tin: it saves lives, expands opportunities and makes a difference.

Of course, development is about far more than aid. What we do on trade, finance and energy policy, on arms exports, and on conflict-prevention, diplomacy and global governance all matter. Development assistance should be seen as part of a package. But aid and the 0.7 commitment provide the UK with the stature and the resources to drive change through global leadership, and to influence agendas that matter for the world’s poorest people.

This is not the time or place to set out detailed manifestos. Save the Children’s report on Next Generation Aid provides an overview of what we see as some of the central priorities. Over the next few years, the UK could provide the global leadership needed to:

  • Combat pneumonia, the ultimate disease of poverty and single biggest killer of children. Almost 1 million young lives are cut short every year – and almost all of these deaths are preventable. The critical antidote is universal health coverage with a focus on the most marginalised children.
  • Drive an agenda that tackles the global learning crisis. Over 500 million young people are either out of school, or they are in school systems that are failing to provide them with even the most basic literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills. In an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, this is a prescription for poverty, inequality and jobless growth. Much of the disadvantage behind the learning crisis can be traced to the early years – and this is where Save the Children is focusing our efforts.
  • Restore rules on protection. If the world cannot come together to uphold the rules, norms and laws that protect children from being targeted in armed conflict, what hope is there for the universal values that underpin our shared humanity? The UK could – and should – be in the vanguard of international efforts to ensure that those who impose humanitarian blockades against Yemeni children, who bomb schools and homes in eastern Ghouta, and who rape and assault Rohingya children, are held accountable for their actions. It is not beyond our legislative capabilities to find ways of making UK justice part of the armoury for dealing with gross violations of the rights of children affected by armed conflict. And the UK can help set normative standards through vehicles like the Safe Schools Declaration – an attempt to demarcate schools as sanctuaries of learning rather than military targets.

Values have to be centre-field in any vision for development. Back in the old days of decolonisation and the Cold War, UK aid imperatives were dictated by commercial considerations, one-way advice, and narrowly-defined strategic self-interest. Looking ahead, as economic power shifts to the South and the East, sustained UK leadership will depend on the projection of values like universal human rights and equal opportunity, on engagement, and on an ability to forge the alliances needed to tackle the great global challenges of our era – including the eradication of poverty in all its forms.

With the right leadership, the UK could become the standard bearer for an approach to development that translated the SDG commitment to ‘leaving no-one behind’ into practical strategies for combating the inequalities based on wealth, gender, ethnicity and of markers for disadvantage.

Earlier today the International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt’s speech made clear her commitment to Global Britain, and we should applaud her own vision for the Department for International Development as a driving force in acting on that commitment.

But if we are to truly grasp the opportunity of Global Britain, and meet the 2030 deadline of the SDGs, we all need to change – and international NGOs should take an unflinching look at what has gone wrong. If I were looking for analogy, I would describe what is happening as our ‘2008 financial crisis moment’. The financial system was shaken by a sub-prime crisis that eroded confidence, weakened public trust and destroyed institutions. Ten years on, the world has yet to fully recover.

I’m not suggesting that our sector is going the way of Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers. It is not. But we face a crisis of trust – and trust is at the heart of our contract with the UK public, donors like DFID, and our partners.

We must ask ourselves with unflinching honestly what is at the heart of this crisis. I’ll come to the immediate issues and the practical measures we can take to deal with them in a moment. First, though, it’s worth pressing the pause button and asking ourselves some tough questions about what we got wrong.

Looking back, UK organisations, including many of those here, can point to some formidable achievements. Civil society built the great coalitions that created the impetus towards debt relief. They put poverty on the agendas of multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. They fuelled the drive to create the global health funds, helping save countless lives. Make Poverty History changed the world for the better.

I wonder if some of the roots of our current problems can be traced to our past success. Yes, we achieved breakthroughs on debt, secured the 0.7 per cent commitment, prompted the G8 to act, and helped make the IMF and World Bank more poverty-focused.

But perhaps we attached too little weight to supporting organisations working to change policies and politics in their own countries. We attached too much weight to G8 communiques and not enough to engagement and solidarity with the movements combating child labour, early marriage and poverty in the global South. The idea that ‘doubling aid would halve poverty’ was an expression of this naïve exuberance.

If we approach the current crisis with both wisdom and modesty it could mark the beginning of a new era. As a sector, we need to recognise that the future cannot look like the past. Alongside pride in what has been achieved through brilliant campaigning, we need to discover a sense of humility – and a sense of realism. Campaigning slogans are a poor substitute for hard evidence on what works, for a relentless focus on programme quality, and for a shift in our resources towards partners working close to where decisions are made.

So my answer to the question of whether we need a new vision of development is a resounding yes. Our whole development ecosystem – think tanks, universities, businesses, charities, and foundations – have a role to play. And I am firmly committed to ensuring that Save the Children plays its part.

This is not a time for knee-jerk defensiveness. We should applaud the investigative journalists who have turned the spotlight on our organisations – and we must now fix the very real concerns they have identified. Because we face a collective action problem, Bond has a critical role to play in bringing together our agencies to forge practical solutions.

Some of our challenges relate to the protection of beneficiaries and others in countries where our programmes operate. The argument that, because we are working in violent places with weak governance, different safeguarding standards should apply to our sector is right in just one respect. Different standards should be applied: higher standards.

Our staff and our partners are coming into contact with children and women who have been uprooted, traumatised by violence, weakened by hunger, and robbed of their most fundamental rights. There is only one standard of protection that should be applicable, and that is the very best standard.

I do not have blueprints, but there are a number of avenues that merit urgent exploration:

  • Screening: If development agencies with programmes were to carry out mandatory DBS checks as a regulated activity, this would help keep high-risk predatory men out of our organisations – and this is one area in which early legislation would help.
  • Globalising the DBS system: Collectively, we are as strong as the weakest link. We have seen too many cases in which predatory men are able to move freely across our organisations. Creating a unified database and indexing system linked to individualised ‘humanitarian passports’ or a similar device would be a big step in the right direction. Interpol could play a critical role in this area.
  • Taking safeguarding seriously: When emergencies happen they typically overwhelm local, regional and international response systems. Think of the movement of over 800,000 Rohingya people in just a few months into Cox’s Bazaar – one of the poorest parts of Bangladesh. We surge in our specialist teams covering nutrition, health, shelter, water and sanitation. But what about the surge in safeguarding teams? The reality is that there is no surge.
  • Building our expertise: We now have enough evidence of the scale and systemic nature of this problem to know it needs a systemic response. Could we as UK NGOs, perhaps working with DFID, establish a global centre of excellence on safeguarding and sexual violence with a broad mandate covering training, certification, victim support and oversight of virtual teams that could be deployed rapidly in response to crises? Such a centre could also help agencies construct comparable and consistent data for reporting on child safeguarding, sexual abuse and other indicators.

Lastly, I wanted to say a few words about Save the Children here in the UK.

Over the past few weeks I have operated an open-door policy, along with a confidential email address, for staff who want to talk to me about their experiences. Much of what I heard raised very fundamental questions about our historic culture. More recently, I have had the painful experience of having to stand in front of our staff to talk about media stories describing alleged past behaviours that are unacceptable and indefensible. That has been hard – but the women involved in these cases have suffered immeasurably greater levels of pain.

I have seen enough and heard enough to know we must draw a line in the sand. People come to work at Save the Children because they are driven by values and a passion for what they do. They have a right to be protected and to feel respected – and I am determined to ensure we come out of this episode as a kinder and more resilient organisation.

This is not the place for me to discuss specific episodes. Later this week, Save the Children will be kicking off an independent review of our working culture led by a prominent expert in the field. That review will assess where we are and help chart a course towards the best practice standards our staff deserve. It will provide an opportunity to learn from the past and build for the future.

For the record, and to clarify any misunderstanding in the light of media reporting: when I announced the independent review of our culture and that it would report to me, I never intended to suggest that I would run it. I simply wished to emphasise the importance I place on the process and its outcome. The review was always going to be run by an independent expert and report to a sub-committee of the Board of Trustees. My role will be to receive the report at the same time as it goes to the Board, and implement any recommendations. As CEO and as a former trustee, it would be wholly improper for me to be either an active member of the review team, or a source of influence on its findings.

I have very much welcomed the contributions of staff members, past and present, and the very active debates now taking place on social media. The passion with which views have been expressed reflect the passion people feel for Save the Children – and therein lies the cause for hope that a better tomorrow can emerge from the pain of today.

Let me conclude with one final reflection. Over the past year or so, I have had an opportunity to visit our programmes in Somalia, Yemen, Uganda, northern Kenya, north-east Nigeria and with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

There is something profoundly humbling about standing in nutrition clinics in Somalia that represent a difference between life and death for dozens of children. Being part of an organisation that can link the generosity of the UK public to those children through staff driven by a sense of compassion and commitment is why I love working at Save the Children. And it’s why I will spend every waking hour to ensure that our organisation is fit for the purpose of extending hope, opportunity and security to children who deserve our solidarity.

This is my responsibility to our beneficiaries. It is your demand. And it is our mission.

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