Scanning the 2019 horizon, it would be easy to drift towards a state of pessimism.
We are living through a period in which attacks on international cooperation, multilateralism and universal human rights have become the new ‘normal’. The world is hopelessly off-track for the 2030 goals of eradicating extreme poverty, ending preventable child deaths and providing all children with the education they need to flourish. Progress in areas like maternal nutrition and stunting has all but stalled. I could go on…
… but being part of Save the Children is a great corrective to pessimism.
While we are sailing into strong headwinds, our teams are making a difference in some of the toughest places to be a child. Visiting Sulawesi, Indonesia, in the wake of the tsunami in October, I saw our teams providing hygiene kits, putting up temporary schools and clinics, and providing shelter. They were the first there and we are now in for the long-haul reconstruction effort. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, we are working with Rohingya refugee children, providing education, protection and vital health services. In the rubble that is the city of Mosul in Iraq, our teams are helping traumatised children come to terms with their experiences and rebuild their lives. Speaking to the children affected by these and other humanitarian emergencies is a reminder of the resilience of hope and courage in the face of adversity. It is also a call to action on our organisation.
Earlier this year I had an opportunity to visit our programme in Hodeida, the port city at the centre of the Yemen crisis. During that visit I saw one little girl called Ayesha* being weighed by our teams during a nutrition screening programme. She was seven months old but weighed just 8lbs – the average birthweight of a baby in the UK. Ayesha was referred to an intensive care centre for malnutrition for the second time in her short life. She would not have survived without that support.
Our teams in Yemen are delivering life-saving (and I use those words in the literal sense) health and nutrition support to hundreds of children, working in the most difficult of circumstances. They are able to provide this support because of the work of our staff and our supporters. These efforts were publicly acknowledged by the UN’s Special Envoy to Yemen and the UK Foreign Secretary, who put out a statement saying that Save the Children UK’s work had concentrated minds ahead of the peace talks. As I write, the ceasefire in Hodeida negotiated during the peace talks is holding, which will give us an opportunity to reach more children. There are now 400,000 children like Ayesha whose lives are hanging by a thread because of hunger and war – and it is imperative that we pull out all the stops to avert a catastrophic famine.
Through our programmes we have a window on some of the great development challenges of our day.
Whether it’s providing education to girls in South Sudan, health services in Ethiopia, or large-scale nutritional support in Bangladesh and Nigeria, these programmes provide real benefits to vulnerable children – and they give us insights into the barriers to opportunity facing so many children. Invariably, these are rooted in unequal power relations and the failure of governments to tackle extreme inequality. That is why our 2019-2021 strategy will focus on the most deprived and marginalised children.
That approach will also steer our work in the UK. Through our programme and policy work we have been addressing some of the great social injustices in our own society – including the early childhood learning disparities that set so many children on a course for failure. By partnering with schools and families in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country, we are helping to close these gaps.
As always, this year ended on a high with Christmas Jumper Day. This is a public institution that combines fun with serious intent – and I am eternally grateful to our friends and partners for their support.
2018 has been a tough year for Save the Children UK internally.
We have had to face up to the fact that we have sometimes fallen short of the values our staff have a right to expect. I am committed not just to learning from our mistakes, but to setting them right through practical action. This commitment extends to our Board of Trustees. Earlier today, the Chair of our Board, Peter Bennett-Jones, decided to step down from his role. This follows an independent investigation into complaints about remarks he made during discussions with staff about the charity’s future direction. Peter has been a passionate supporter of Save the Children UK in his role as Chair, and we are all grateful for his hard work and commitment. I’m also grateful to the staff involved for raising their concerns, and to our Trustees for acting swiftly and decisively in instituting the complaints procedure. The Board will appoint an interim Chair in due course, after which it will commence the search for a permanent replacement.
We continue to support the Charity Commission with their inquiry, which was launched earlier in the year to investigate the handling of historic allegations of sexual harassment. We have also been focusing on building a culture that fully reflects our values, taking into consideration the recommendations set out in the review into our organisational culture that was published in full earlier in the year.
In 2019, we will follow the example set for us by our founder.
Eglantyne Jebb went to great lengths to defend the rights of children. She then built an organisation that worked to change laws, engage with the public, and mobilise funds for programmes. That’s a model for change that remains in our DNA. One of the things I’m most excited about next year is the global campaign we’ll be launching with Save the Children colleagues across the globe to protect children affected by war. Tragically, the rights of these children – rights which our founder helped establish – are today violated with impunity from Syria to Myanmar, South Sudan to Nigeria. Our campaign will take on the culture of impunity, and I hope that as many people as possible will join our efforts.
2019 is also our centenary year. Like any anniversary, a 100th birthday is an opportunity to reflect on the many things that have been achieved. More importantly, though, it is a moment to act and to make a difference for children who need our support and solidarity.