Save the Children’s Legacy

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam at Asia Regional Meeting of Save the Children Kathmandu, 14 June 2016.

I feel honoured and humbled to be asked to make some opening remarks at this important gathering of Save the Children’s leadership team in the Asia region.

I am not sure that I have the depth of knowledge or wisdom to address the weighty topic of “Achieving Transformational Impact for Children and Re-inventing Save the Children in Asia”. But I hope my observations will be of some use as you bring to bear your own experience and insights in carving out a niche for Save the Children to play a catalytic role in protecting the rights and promoting the well-being of half the world’s children in this vast and diverse region of Asia.

Addressing a Save the Children meeting like this one gives me goose bumps of great excitement. As I look around, I see all of us here as the proud inheritors, successors and messengers of that great grand-mother of child rights, Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children almost a century ago.

Her lonely voice and courageous crusade at that time not only helped millions of children to survive and thrive but also to create a whole new ethos in human civilization that children’s essential needs must be treated as their basic human rights.

We have all been inspired by Jebb’s famous quotes: “I have no enemy below the age of 11” and “Every war is a war against children”.

As you know, I used to work for UNICEF, a great organization like Save the Children, dedicated exactly to the same cause.

Sometimes in moments of hubris, I felt some of our colleagues at UNICEF and the United Nations claimed disproportionate credit for our leadership and action for all great achievements in securing the wellbeing of children.

But like many of UNICEF’s early and enlightened leaders, I often reminded my colleagues that we needed to be more humble and acknowledge that historically, non-governmental organizations – with Save the Children in the lead – were the true heroes and trail-blazers of child rights, and UNICEF was a rather late-comer.

Long before UNICEF was born, even before the United Nations and the League of Nations were established, it was Save the Children Fund, and its remarkable founder and leader

Eglantyne Jebb, who had first articulated the vision of a Charter or a Convention on the rights of the child.

If we go back even further, Save the Children’s vision was inspired by the pioneering work of the Red Cross movement that was at the vanguard of the historic Geneva Conventions calling for special protection of non-combatant civilians, particularly women, children, the elderly, wounded, and humanitarian workers, during times of wars and conflicts.

The founders and early leaders of UNICEF, like Ludwig Rajchman, Maurice Pate, Harry Labouisse and Jim Grant, were inspired by the principles of humanitarian neutrality and sanctity of childhood espoused by the Red Cross and Save the Children, and followed by many other organizations like OXFAM.

Most of us here today may not know it, but Eglantyne Jebb’s philosophy had a huge impact in shaping the mandate of UNICEF. In 1947 the first Secretary-General of the UN, Trygvie Lie, offered the post of the first head of UNICEF to a gentleman named Maurice Pate. Pate accepted the job on one condition: that UNICEF would be allowed to help children in need everywhere, including in the so-called “enemy states”.

Many of us may not know it, but articles 53 and 77 of the UN Charter actually refer to the so-called “enemy states” – i.e. those who had lost the Second World War.

During the time of the Cold War, there was tremendous pressure on humanitarian organizations like UNICEF and Save to be selective in which countries they could help. But for Maurice Pate, like it was for Eglantyne Jebb, there was no such thing as an “enemy child”.

This principle became very important for UNICEF and Save the Children to help children not only in post-war Germany, Japan and Italy, but also in countries of the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War; in Biafra during the civil war in Nigeria; and in Cambodia when the government in Phnom Penh was not recognized by the United Nations.

This principle, of helping children in need whatever the politics of their parents and regardless of the legal status of their governments, is a precious asset that organizations like UNICEF, the Red Cross and Save the Children invoke even today when referring to “Children as a Zone of Peace”.

More broadly this principle is now being applied to justify humanitarian intervention as part of the “responsibility to protect” approved by the United Nations.

We are all very proud of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and dedicated to ensuring its implementation. UNICEF played a vital role in the final stages of the negotiations, adoption and large-scale ratification of the Convention. But I recall that it was really the leadership, activism and tenacity of NGOs, that was instrumental in crafting and steering the Convention.

In my own work with UNICEF, I experienced first-hand how UNICEF and NGOs working together were able to achieve amazing results that neither UNICEF nor NGOs could accomplish working separately.

I had the good fortune to work closely with leaders of many NGOs, including Save the Children, when I led the UNICEF team negotiating the outcome documents of the World Summit for Children in 1990, the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, and the World Fit for Children goals in 2002.

I can vouch from personal experience, that it was the constant vigilance and support of NGOs that helped us make those documents bold, ambitious and visionary.

At the country and community levels too, when NGOs like Save and UNICEF work together they can be powerful allies in getting progressive legislations and plans of action approved by municipalities and village councils; and to deliver services, empower people and help build local capacity that is so essential for sustainable development.

As inter-governmental organizations, UNICEF and other UN agencies tend to be extra careful not to offend sovereign Member States. It takes the independence and courage of NGOs like Save to put the spotlight on abuses of child rights and human rights sometimes glossed over by governments under the cover of sovereignty.

NGOs in turn benefit from the normative, statistical, fact-finding and analytical work done by UN agencies like UNICEF, to buttress their advocacy arguments. Together, and in a coordinated manner, UNICEF/the United Nations and NGOs can and have achieved great results for which we can all be proud.

Please forgive me for this long-winded historical detour. I do so to emphasize two points:

1) That Save the Children is truly the premier and pioneering leader in the global movement for the rights and well-being of children, and

2) That we have now entered an era of partnerships, and that achieving any further dramatic transformational impact for children in Asia or anywhere else will require Save to reinvent itself as an organization that excels in partnership building, not in solo activism.

I say this as Save prepares to celebrate its centennial in three years time, in 2019. As you enter your second century, it is the right time to ask some tough and self-critical questions including: does the world still need a Save the Children?

With so many other organizations now dealing with Save’s mandate, some of them commanding more resources than Save; with the Convention on the Rights of the Child now the world’s most universally ratified treaty with binding obligations on governments; and with the issues of children already mainstreamed into the world’s development agenda, like the Sustainable Development Goals, Save could easily declare victory and disband itself!

Now, I am not suggesting that seriously, but I do want to provoke a deeper soul-searching in the Save family.

What is the value added of Save in a new world:

– where the United Nations has already assumed the normative role of protecting and promoting child rights;

– where many human rights organizations – public as well as private – serve as watchdogs of child rights;

– where there is a better-funded UNICEF that seems to do everything that Save does;

– where there are organizations like World Vision, Plan International, OXFAM, Medecins sans Frontiers, which have carved out a niche for themselves in areas dealing with different aspects of child rights and humanitarian action;

– where private foundations like the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation with deep pockets and huge influence are taking a lead role in child health and nutrition;

– and where a Global Partnership to end Violence against Children has just been established?

As I recite these examples, I can see in my mind’s eyes a happy Eglantyne Jebb watching us from up above with great satisfaction that her lonely crusade of a century ago has so many supporters now, and that it has become the world’s most popular movement of human solidarity.

Would she say, “Mission accomplished, folks – close the shop”?

I know none of you think so, and I don’t either.

In the march of human civilization, we seem to follow a rhythm of moving two steps forward and one-step backward. Thus the mission of child survival, protection, development and participation is never fully accomplished.

Paradoxically, today we live in the best of times and the worst of times for the world’s children.

On the positive side, children today live a much longer life, and are healthier and better educated than in any previous generation. Nations of the world have adopted many national laws and international treaties for the protection of children from abuse, exploitation and violence.

Children today are high on the world’s political and development agenda. The preponderance of child-related goals and indicators in the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals is evidence of the priority given to the wellbeing of children.

As the world’s premier child-focused civic organization, Save the Children can take much credit and pride in these positive developments.

On the other hand, these also seem like the worst of times for children.

While many diseases that killed and maimed millions of children for centuries have been eradicated or drastically reduced, new diseases seem to emerge every few years. In our own lifetime, we have seen previously non-existent diseases ravage the lives of children – from HIV/AIDS to Ebola and the Zika virus, not to mention environmental pollution.

Every time we feel that we have greatly improved child protection measures, new forms of child exploitation seem to emerge. Pedophilia, trafficking of children and online exploitation of children through pornography on the Internet, are some of the newest forms of child abuse.

And who would have imagined that at the dawn of the 21st century, we would see such monstrous movements as the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS emerging to prey on vulnerable children?

So, dear friends, despite all the progress we have made, given these new challenges and threats, the relevance of Save the Children remains as valid today as when Eglantyne Jebb started the movement a century ago.

But there is one major difference – while Save was a lone-star in the 1920s, it is now part of a constellation of many like-minded organizations in the 21st century.

When I quickly browsed through Save the Children’s new global strategy document: “Ambition for Children 2030”, I found it generally excellent and inspiring. The one criticism I have is that it is a little immodest in acknowledging that Save is now one among many other organizations with a mission to improve the situation of children.

Precisely because we are now in a crowded field of charities, philanthropies and development organizations tripping over each other to help children, it is important for Save to carve out a more distinct place for itself as the world’s premier and pioneering organization for children.

I am sure the leadership of Save has given this much thought, as you went through a major reorganization to pull together some 30 separate Save national entities into a single global Save the Children International.

I confess I have not read your latest policy directives, nor familiarized myself adequately with the long-term strategic choices you may have already made. So, it would be presumptuous for me to make any specific recommendations on reinventing Save the Children in Asia or elsewhere.

My remarks and suggestions are, therefore, based on my general understanding of the working of various child-focused international organizations and their comparative advantages in implementing the now globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals in the next decade and half.

We can all agree on Save’s three global ambitions of ensuring that all children survive, learn and are protected by 2030.

We can also agree that the key interventions to achieve these goals would be through heath and nutrition, basic education, protection against violence; preventing inter-generational transmission of poverty; and good child rights governance.

Your strategy to proactively focus on those marginalized groups that are left behind and excluded from these services also makes a lot of sense.

But beyond these general areas of agreement, what will Save do that others don’t, or where can it claim a distinct comparative advantage?

With its century-long track record, I see Save the Children having four distinct comparative advantages:

1) Its life saving work particularly during emergencies, 2) its community-based child survival, development and protection activities, 3) its advocacy work in setting global norms and policy priorities for children, and 4) its fairly broad-based fund-raising capacity.

Building on these strengths, one would think that Save should perhaps continue to work in these areas. But I must say, even in these areas, Save now has tough competition. If it is to continue to shine, it may have to further narrow down its focus of action.

I suppose like all other comparable organizations, Save is not fully free to do what its leadership would ideally want to focus on.

It must comply with donor preferences; the historical interest of various Save national entities that now comprise the SCI; as well as the needs and demands of countries and communities where it has been collaborating in the past.

Within these constraints, I believe that Save can shine in the following areas:

* Saving newborn lives – as part of the continuum of care encompassing maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition, in which it has acquired good reputation and donor support,

* Women’s empowerment – given its profound impact on the well-being of children,

* Some aspects of basic education – perhaps early child development or quality education for girls,

* Some aspect of violence against children – perhaps making schools free from violence,

* Developing some good models of child participation and global citizenship education for adolescents,

* And very importantly, championing a fairly broad agenda of policy advocacy – focusing on tackling child poverty, analytical work on issues of equity, inclusion and social justice

Save need not do all these in all countries. And it could certainly do a few other unique things in different countries and regions.

In Asia, for example, I would hope that Save might judiciously work in 3 areas of research and advocacy:

* a) Reallocation of budgets from high levels of military expenditures to investment in human security (as the military establishments have been among the biggest beneficiaries of rapid economic growth in Asia);

* b) Targeted programs to reach and empower historically marginalized ethnic, religious and other minorities – not as entitlements for various identity groups, but as incentives for specific outcomes in terms of child and human development indicators;

* c) Transformative social protection programs, such as conditional cash transfers, for vulnerable communities that produce measurable results

I understand that Save the Children’s new global campaign – Every Last Child – will tackle some of the key causes of exclusion to help set the world on the trajectory to end preventable child deaths, achieve learning for every child, and to protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation.

I commend Save’s commitment to do whatever it takes to ensure not to leave any child behind by focusing on reaching the most deprived and marginalized children, who are often excluded due to poverty, geography, gender, ethnicity or disability.

Working in 120 countries, with a combined budget of over $ 2 billion, and a staff of 25,000 people, directly reaching over 55 million children, Save the Children is now part of the big league of global INGOs. It is absolutely right to set it sight and ambition high.

While I see Save rising to new heights of achievement in the future, I want to conclude with one heart-felt observation.

I have long felt that Save the Children has been at the forefront of all major INGOs in terms of its contribution to not just child survival, development and protection, but also commendable humanitarian action in times of all major crises in the past century.

It has won great respect and gratitude of millions of children and their families who have benefitted from its support and solidarity. However, it remains one of the few large INGOs with outstanding contribution to world peace that has not yet received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Comparing it with some other winners of the Peace Prize, I cannot honestly think of any other organization that deserves the Nobel Prize more than Save the Children.

It would be so fitting and so right if Save the Children would get the Nobel Prize on the occasion of its centennial in 2019.

Of course, Save cannot apply for the Prize, nor would it be fitting for you as employees of Save to lobby for it. But I would like some of us from outside Save to begin the process of getting it nominated for the Nobel Prize following due process.

As someone who has devoted his whole professional adult life to serving the children of the world, nothing would make me happier than seeing Save, the premier organization for children, receive the Nobel Peace Prize during its centennial.

So, dear friends, keep up your good work to remain worthy of the world’s highest award.

May Eglantyne Jebb bless us all for our continuing service to the world’s children!

Thank you.