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close this bookThe Courier N 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentMichael Aaronson, Director General, Save the Children

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 compromised ?

-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 each other.

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 Committee ?

-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 positive

· 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 happen ?

-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 depressing.

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 development programmes.