2019 is off to a flying start
Even with the extraordinary pace of medical advances, this is the only Save the Children centenary any of us will ever experience (sorry to break that news!), so let’s start with a quick reminder of where we came from.
100 years ago, in the aftermath of the First World War, Britain was maintaining a wartime humanitarian blockade against Austria and Germany. That blockade was killing children through starvation, disease and poverty. Providing aid was against the law. Enter our founders, Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton. They broke the law, raised aid, and created an organisation – our organisation – with a mission. Here’s how Eglantyne put it: “We must develop a powerful international organisation for child saving which would extend its ramifications to the remotest corners of the globe.”
All of us in Save the Children UK and our wider movement are custodians of that organisation – and I find it tough to think of a greater privilege or a more daunting responsibility.
Stop the War on Children
I often wonder what Eglantyne and Dorothy would make of modern warfare. In one conflict after another, from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Nigeria, children are on the front line. Some are deliberately targeted. Others are caught in the cross-fire. Treated by combatants as collateral damage, they are killed, maimed and traumatised. Worst of all, the rights of children are violated with near total impunity.
Our Stop the War on Children report highlights that some 420 million children live in conflict zones, and the number is rising. These children face many risks, and not just from bombs and bullets. We estimate that 500,000 babies died between 2013 and 2017 because of the indirect consequences of conflict, including malnutrition.
Terrible as they may be, statistics can never capture the human tragedies that define armed conflicts. Nine-year-old Hassouni* stopped going to school after it was badly damaged by an airstrike during the battle for Mosul. His family decided it was time to flee the city, but they were hit by a car bomb in their attempt to leave. Hassouni was left in a coma but survived with a paralysed hand, constant pain in his arm and shrapnel lodged in his skull. His two brothers, one of them just two years old, didn’t survive.
How does a nine-year old come to terms with that?
We’re calling on the UK government and our friends, partners and supporters around the world to stand up for children like Hassouni. This is not a campaign that offers easy solutions. We have to create a world in which those responsible for harming children are held to account, and in which every government and armed group acts on its international obligations to protect children. More than that, we need to help Hassouni and other children rebuild their lives through education and psycho-social support.
We believe, therefore we must…
Our work on protecting children in conflict is one strand in our wider 2019-21 strategy, which I’m thrilled to say we’ve published today.
Our strategy sets out how we will drive breakthroughs on child survival, learning, and protection as part of the wider Save the Children movement. It also sets out our big priorities over the next three years: we will sharpen our focus on the most deprived children, both in our programmes and our campaigning. We will work hard to deepen our connection with the UK public, building a strong and consistent brand and providing a platform for people and children who want to make their voices heard. We will strengthen our use of evidence. And we will build an organisation that reflects the values of dignity and respect on which we were founded.
Above all, we will work relentlessly to advance the rights of children, challenging the power disparities and inequalities that violate these rights. We will be driven by our belief in the rights of children and their potential to change the world.
Leave no one behind
My first field visit of the year was to Kenya and South Sudan. The trip was a stark reminder of why our strategy is so critical to our mission for children.
As ever, you come back from these field trips with a head full of reflections, unanswered questions, and insights from our staff. What really sticks, though, are the individual stories.
In Kenya, I visited our programme in Wajir. This is an arid county with acute malnutrition rates of 16 per cent (above the World Health Organisation emergency level), child mortality rates that are double the national average, and very high levels of poverty. Huge gender disparities mark access to education and early marriage is the rule, rather than an exception. Basic services are under-financed and inaccessible to much of the population. Our new strategy places a premium on reaching the most disadvantaged and marginalised children. That means doing more in places like Wajir, even though many donors are scaling back support for Kenya as the country becomes more prosperous.
It was inspiring to see our work on the ground. The Adolescent Girls’ Initiative, which is funded by UK Aid, is tackling gender-based violence, educational disadvantage and health problems through a mix of small grants linked to attendance in school, training, and community-level engagement. The initiative has brought out-of-school girls into the classroom. I met 13 year old Fanaka*, who was about to transition to secondary school and wants to become a doctor. Her seven brothers and sisters are also in school. Her mother, who never attended school, told me that she prioritises education above all else because “education is power – I want my girls to be powerful”.
Try topping that as a 10 word summary of why education matters.
In South Sudan, I visited our health and nutrition programme in Abyei, which is funded by ECHO. Abyei itself is a microcosm of much of South Sudan. It doesn’t take detailed surveys to work out that there are very high levels of malnutrition among children – you can see it with your own eyes. Our health teams estimate that one in every two children visiting the clinics are malnourished, many of them severely. Half of the health clinics registered in Abyei are closed.
It’s easy to get trapped in pessimism over South Sudan, but our work also illustrates what is possible. During a visit to one of our clinics I sat and watched a three-year-old boy called Abdo* being treated by Agnes, our clinical officer. Abdo was in a state of great distress. He had a temperature of 39.5⁰C, with severe vomiting. His mother was clearly deeply worried about his condition. While we were there, a rapid diagnostic test confirmed that he had malaria, for which he has now been successfully treated. If the clinic hadn’t been there, if it hadn’t been staffed by people like Agnes, and if it didn’t have the right diagnostic equipment or drugs, Abdo could easily have become another child mortality statistic: malaria is the biggest killer of children in South Sudan.
As a parent with a three-year-old, I find it impossible to imagine the anguish so many parents in South Sudan without access to healthcare must feel. But it is profoundly humbling and inspiring to be part of an organisation linked to Agnes and the rest of the team in South Sudan that is doing today what Eglantyne Jebb founded us to do 100 years ago – save the lives of children who need our solidarity.
*names changed to protect identities