Michael Aaronson, Director General, Save the Children
'Our independence is very important to us'
There are many 'actors' engaged in the process of Third World
development including governments, multilateral institutions, bilateral
agencies, private enterprises and of course, 'non-governmental organisations'
(NGOs). The term 'NGO' covers a range of different bodies and their activities
are many and varied. In the Dossier, we examine some of these activities and
discuss the wider role of NGOs working in developing countries.
To start the ball rolling, we spoke to Michael Aaronson, the
Director General of 'The Save the Children Fund' which is a large British-based
NGO. Mr Aaronson is an Oxford graduate who began his career with a two-year
spell in Nigeria as a relief worker for Save the Children. It was there, he
says, that he 'caught the bug for working in Africa. 'He then served as a
British diplomat for 16 years before resuming to Save the Children seven years
ago to run the overseas operations of the Fund. On 1 May, he became
Director-General We began by asking him about the role of Save the Children
specifically, and northern NGOs more generally.
-There are a number of roles. I think that the primary
justification for being involved in somebody else's country, as an outsider, is
the belief that one has some substantive contribution to make, providing added
value by supplementing local skills, capacities and resources. In other words,
bringing or doing something that cannot be acquired or done locally. Linked to
that increasingly is our role in our own countries of the North, and
particularly in the European Union, as an advocate for the South. We are
advocates for the development process and particularly for human development,
which is really the ultimate goal. By drawing on our own experience of trying to
undertake development in the South, we aim to speak with authority and to have
some influence on the policies of the major institutions in the North.
Obviously, for us, this means the British Government and the European Commission
in particular. Our independence is also very important to us. We are not, in any
way, agents of anybody else's policy, other than where there is a mutual
coincidence of interest. In short, our mission requires us to be there, first
and foremost, to respond to need, but we also see it as part of our
responsibility to use the experience that that gives us to try and have some
influence on the policy process.
· Do you see any
difficulty in carrying out that tvvo-pronged role-providing development
assistance but also lobbying ?
-No, I don't think that there is any clash of interests.
Lobbying is not a word like particularly-I prefer to talk about using our
experience-but in any case, I don't see it as a separate activity. Provided it
is based on our own experience of trying to make things happen on the ground
then I don't think there is any contradiction. After all, if the European
Commission, for example, funds an NGO like Save the Children to do a development
programme somewhere in Africa, then clearly it wants it to be as effective as
possible. If our experience tells us that the conditions the donor is imposing
on us make it more difficult to do our job properly, then I would have thought
it was as much in the interests of the donor to be told that as it is in our
interests to try to have the conditions eased.
We have been actively engaged with the Commission, alongside
other European NGOs, discussing the general conditions of cofinancing. As you
know, there has been a review process, which I have to say has been going on far
too long. On the humanitarian side, Save the Children has also been very active
through our liaison office in Brussels. We were one of the first agencies to
sign a framework partnership agreement with ECHO (The European Community
Humanitarian Office). We have been involved in the current efforts to review the
framework agreement where again we feel that a number of the stipulations
actually make it much more difficult for us to do our job effectively and
deliver for the Commission what it wants. So we are, if you like, lobbying with
others to get those conditions changed.
· One can understand why
public bodies like the Commission or national agencies ask NGOs to do certain
things because NGOs are often capable of 'reaching the parts that others cannot
reach' But isn't there a danger that you might be drawn into the system ? You
presumably have an interest in maintaining your operations and keeping your
staff employed. If that means more co-financing, with taxpayers' money becoming
a major source of income, are you not concerned that your independence might be
-I think there is that danger and it is very important for NGOs
to be aware of it and not let it happen. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate
for a public authority which is charged with implementing a particular policy,
to look to others such as NGOs to help it achieve it's goals. We have to be
realistic about that, and understand where the public authorities are coming
from. But equally, I think we look to them to have a sophisticated understanding
of our role. We have sometimes felt, particularly in recent times, that some
authorities view NGOs rather simplistically as little more than contractors.
There seems to be a trend in this direction in some parts of the Commission.
There is a failure to understand that we are independent organisations with our
own mission and mandate, our own constituency and our own accountabilities-both
to the people we work with in the developing world and to those who support our
activity at home. So it is perfectly all right for the KU, let us say, to want
us to help it achieve its goals but they need to understand where we are coming
from. It is very important for us not to have our efforts distorted because we
fail to stand up for ourselves. I don't think that it need be adversarial. I
think it is just about the different parties having a better understanding of
Save the Children gets substantial funding from government and
EU sources. Our turnover is about £100m (ECU 120m) year and about half of
that comes from grants from statutory bodies. But the important point is that
the other half comes from voluntary public subscriptions. So even though we are
heavily engaged in grant-funded activity, we have also got a very solid
voluntary fund-raising base. Indeed, it is because we have that base that we are
able to take money from institutional donors. We are not in the position of
having to take the money because without it we couldn't do the work. We have a
very clear view of what we want to do. If people are happy to fund us to do that
work, that's great-they're happy and we're happy. In other words, the key to it
is having a strong independent funding base of your own.
· How happy are you about
the relationship with the EU and about the operation of the NGO Liaison
-I have only been on the Liaison Committee for a year but from
my experience as the British representative, I think that in some parts of the
Commission -those that are used to working with NGOs-there is a desire to
improve the nature of the partnership. In other parts, where working with NGOs
is a more recent experience, I think they have got quite a lot to learn about
us. Obviously the people in the NGO unit in DG VIII (The Development Directorate
Genera/) are very experienced and well aware of the role of NGOs. But elsewhere
in the Commission there is definitely a need for a greater understanding of what
we are and what our role can be.
'The image of the Third World is becoming less and leess
· In the foyer of your
building there is a display which includes a quotation by Sir Philip Gibbs
speaking just after the end of the First World War: He said: 'Beneath all the
hard crust of materialism and cynicism which have Europe in their grip at the
moment, there has been a welling up of generous ardent idealism, which very soon
will break through the crust and prevail.' 75 years on there still seems to be
rather a lot of materialism and cynicism around and arguably it is on the
increase. Given that you have a large base of individual subscribers, are you
concerned about the possible effects of 'aid fatigue'?
-I think it is a worrying trend. It is undoubtedly fuelled by a
variety of factors: certainly the international recession and the fact that
things have become a lot harder all round. It is also fuelled, I think, by
political changes following the end of the Cold War. These have unleashed all
sorts of rather depressing and destabilising events. By and large, the image of
the Third World is becoming less and less positive. I think another factor has
been the unrealistic expectations of recent times that have so quickly been
dashed. Nobody talks about the new world order any more but it is quite
staggering how, relatively recently, everybody was talking about it. That's what
led the Americans into their disastrous intervention in Somalia. Its the sort of
idealism that was to be found in Boutros Ghali's 'Agenda for Peace' which he has
now more or less formally acknowledged is unrealistic. It was this feeling which
led the UN Security Council into some pretty foolhardy involvements in Africa,
and the negative feedback from all that is very dispiriting.
The kind of things that we have seen in Somalia and elsewhere
certainly make life more difficult for organisations like ourselves. They must
also cause problems for the EU as a donor as it seeks to justify its actions to
it own constituency. But I don't know that I would necessarily call it 'aid
fatigue'. I don't think the individual member of the public is any less moved or
that there is any less compassion around. What there is, at the moment, is a lot
of bewilderment as to what the appropriate solutions are. People thought things
would be a lot easier because that is what they were told, and it's not turning
out to be so easy after all.
· As regards so-called
'aid fatigue' among officials donors, there have been reports that the US
Congress is trying to slash an already modest aid budget At the same time we
have a problem in the EU over the funding for the second half of LomV. Are
you concerned about these trends ?
-Yes. We are all watching what is happening on Capitol Hill with
considerable alarm. We are also concerned about developments in the EU over the
second half of LomV and in particular, I have to say, about the minimalist
stance adopted by the British government. They seem to want to blame Europe for
reductions in its own bilateral programmes and to set up some sort of rivalry
between the two.
· The UK government says
that it wants to expand its bilateral programmes. Do you think that is likely to
-I think frankly that it is a red herring. The real issue at
stake here is political priorities for Europe. It appears that more priority is
being attached to relations with the East and the Mediterranean countries and
that that can only be pursued at the expense of relations with the South. By all
means assist the process of transition in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet
Union. This is very important. We should also be helping to address the problems
of the Mediterranean countries. But surely not at the expense of the developing
world. In absolute terms, levels of poverty and suffering there are still on a
completely different scale to anything we see closer to home. That there is a
squeeze on aid to Africa seems therefore to be a direct consequence of the fact
that there is no additional funding being made available. That's the real issue.
All this stuff about whether a bilateral programme is any better than a European
one is just a smokescreen. Obviously, it appeals to nationalistic sentiment in a
country like Britain where knocking anything European is fashionable. I think it
is utterly depressing how, in British politics, there is so little serious
consideration of the potential benefits to this country of working with our
European partners to try to achieve more together than we can achieve
separately. The debate is never on those terms. It is always conducted in purely
negative terms of what are we going to 'give up' and I find that hugely
Interestingly, in the NGO sector, the British have a much better
reputation in Europe. Representing British NGOs, I find that our work is highly
appreciated and welcomed by our European colleagues. This is because we are in
an area where we are all conditioned to think in terms of 'how can we achieve
more by working together?' It is part of the culture and ethos of NGOs, and I
think that stands out in strong contrast to the negative, inward-looking,
narrow-minded and depressing attitude of politicians in this country:
politicians of all parties, I have to say. We have a bit of a 'little England'
problem here, I am afraid.
· There is a
proliferation of organisations of varying types under the broad 'NGO' heading.
And whenever there is a crisis, in somewhere like Rwanda for example, they all
descend on the place, presenting problems of coordination. What is your view of
this phenomenon ?
-The longer-established, and what I would regard as more
professional NGOs (I hope we can count ourselves as one of these), have been
very alarmed at this relatively recent phenomenon of mushrooming NGOs. Rwanda
was an appalling example. There were something like 130 organisations working in
the refugee camps in Zaire and another 100 trying to set up shop inside Rwanda.
And frankly, many of them were thoroughly ill-equipped. They had very little
real contribution to make and seemed to be there solely to raise their own
profile and attract funding. They certainly showed no desire to take part in any
coordinated plan of action. So those of us representing the UK platform on the
EC NGO Liaison Committee would put our cards firmly on the table on this issue.
We need, as an NGO community, to begin trying to impose some standards of our
own, for example, by developing codes of conduct. The good name of NGOs is at
stake and I think that we have to do something about it.
We have to be careful not to impose our own models of
civil society on the South'
· What about Southern
NGOs. Do you see their emergence as an aspect of the development process ?
-It is a very important aspect of our work, although I have to
say that in recent years, I think it has become a bit of a fad. There are also
very real dangers attached to it in that we have to be very careful not to
impose our own external models of civil society on the countries of the South.
For Save the Children, for example, to go around setting up little local
branches in Africa would seem to me to be completely inappropriate. The question
of what sorts of NGOs emerge as part of the civil society in developing
countries is a matter for the people of those countries. It is not for us to
force the pace or impose our own models. I think we also shouldn't forget that
NGOs form only a limited part of the whole spectrum of civil society. People
talk about NGOs in a very undiscerning way, failing to distinguish between local
NGOs and community-based organisations. The latter may truly represent
particular communities in a way that local NGOs do not. Local NGOs may represent
elites, philanthropists or whatever. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of
course-its how Save the Children came into being-but obviously, the development
of civil society is very important. Local NGOs undoubtedly have a role to play
in that but we, as outsiders, need to be sensitive to the local context and not
allow ourselves to be seduced by the latest fashions.
· The balance appears to
be tipping away from traditional development assistance towards humanitarian
activities. Is that something which you have seen within your organisation ?
-It is certainly a phenomenon that we are concerned about. This
refers back to one of your earlier questions. What seems to be at stake at the
moment is the extent of the North's commitment to longterm development in the
South. There seems to be some sort of disillusionment with it. We see a much
tougher attitude on conditionality together with a feeling that we will get
involved where we have to, because the scale of suffering is so great, and it is
being shown on our television screens. If we don't react, we will look bad with
our own constituency. In practice, that means a lot of funding that might
otherwise have been available for development work is now being channelled into
humanitarian activity. In fact, it is not even 'humanitarian', strictly
speaking. It is really emergency relief with a strong political flavour to it.
· Isn't there some merit
in this approach given that after 30 years of attempted development assistance,
the number of success stories doesn't appear to be very great
-Well my response would be 'whose fault is that ?' Are we really
justified in penalising Africans. Maybe we should look more at our own practices
and ask ourselves if we have been doing it the right way. Obviously, there are
faults on both sides. Africa has done itself no good at all by failures of
governance, corruption, civil war and so on, but I think for us to sit here and
pass judgment from on high, ignoring the historical and contemporary context of
Africa, is a bit rich. It is very easy to use that as an excuse. Let me give you
what I think is a good recent example. After the Kibeho massacre in Rwanda, the
Commission announced that it was suspending all aid through the Kigali
government. I actually think that said more about feelings of inadequacy in
Europe than about anything that is happening in Rwanda. I believe that it was a
reflection of European guilt at its failure to engage in Rwanda in anything more
than a superficial way. There has really been only a very half-hearted
involvement in the process of reconciliation, the justice process, and in
rehabilitation and reconstruction. Instead, we have seen huge sums being poured
into unsustainable refugee camps along the border.
You also asked whether that has been a problem in Save the
Children. One of our corporate goals is that we will continue to provide
emergency relief- but in the context of long-term development. In other words,
we not interested in becoming a sort of flying squad for humanitarian
assistance. We are committed to long-term development. Obviously, we also try to
provide relief where children's lives or well-being are under threat but we will
always keep our eye on the longer term perspective and won't allow ourselves be
diverted from that.
· Broadening the
discussion a little, can I ask about your views on structural adjustment There
are those who regard it es the great hope-or even the panacea-for genuine and
sustainable development Do you agree with that analysis or do you think that it
is ill-founded ?
-I think there are no panaceas in development; certainly no
economic panaceas. I believe that the whole approach to structural adjustment
reflects a misplaced obsession with economic models and a view that development
is about economics when it is actually about people. Economic growth is a means
to an end, not an end in itself. Properly applied, it is a way of achieving
greater wealth and, more crucially, greater well-being for a greater number of
people. At the macro-economic level there may be perfectly sound arguments for
structural adjustment - although they have been disputed-but there is no doubt
that at the level of the ordinary people, particularly in Africa, adjustment
policies have led to greater suffering and hardship. Nor is there any guarantee
that any economic gains resulting from adjustment will be applied to the benefit
of the population at large. There are some very well documented cases. What has
happened to the health service in Zimbabwe under structural adjustment is just
one example. I think that development is too important to be left to economists.
· Another big change
which, on the face of it, ought to be very encouraging, is the democratisation
process in Africa. Working in an NGO, has that change made it any easier for you
in your dealings with local administrations ?
-There are many encouraging things happening in Africa but I
think that the perspective of an organisation like Save the Children is always
going to be a bit different in this area. Even in countries which suffered most
under non-democratic regimes, it has always been possible for us to find people
to work with: people who are committed to improving the lives of children. One
thinks, for example, of Ethiopia under Mengistu. We worked there quite happily
for many years and made absolutely no compromises to the authorities. Whatever
else their faults, they were intelligent enough to know that they needed us to
be there and, therefore, they were prepared to allow us to carry on working
according to our own lights. Now, obviously, we have a very good, close and
ultimately more productive relationship with the new Ethiopian regime because,
if you have a democratic system, there are all sorts of possibilities that
weren't there before. I suppose what I am really saying, without wishing to
sound arrogant about it, is that organisations like Save the Children are able
to reach the parts that others can't as you yourself said. That makes a
difference as to how we view the countries in which we are working.
Children are important social actors in their own right'
· What about the
proposition that there can't be development without democracy ? There are those
who argue the opposite-that if you try to set up a democratic system, it is more
difficult to get the economy sorted out because of all the competing interests.
-Well there can't be development without human rights. I would
certainly agree with that. But I think that is a slightly different proposition.
The trouble is that when we talk about democracy, we are really talking about
our own particular models. I don't think the case is proven that the Westminster
form of governance, for instance, is necessarily the most appropriate to the
needs of Africa. I think that remains an open question.. We would regard it as a
bit insolent if Africans told us how we should run our democracy here. They have
every right to feel somewhat insulted if we judge them only by their failure to
operate our system. I think we should be a bit more open-minded about that.
· Finally, with specific
reference to Save the Children, where do you see your organisation going as we
approach the next millennium.
- What we want to do is promote the role of children in
development. One of the reasons for this is to do with human rights. Our Charter
is that of the rights of the child, which are now reflected in a UN Convention.
This sets out the values that underpin all our work. For us, there is therefore
an obligation to try to address the needs of children as part of securing their
rights. But we think there are also quite substantial practical arguments for
doing that. Children are important social actors in their own right. In many
countries, they make up more than half the population. They also, in many cases,
contribute quite significantly to household economies. But their position is
usually defined only in relation to adults so that one never really has any
insight into their situation or role in the development process. We think that
it is very important to try to redress that. There is a parallel here with the
debate about the role of women. The role of children in the thinking of
policy-makers today can be compared to that of women 20-25 years ago. It is now
a commonplace that women are crucial to the development process and that
policies and programmes should pay particular attention to their situation. What
we are saying is that there is a comparable case to be made with regard to
children. So one of the key things we want to do is to promote the children's
agenda in development, as a genuine means of promoting more effective