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What was he thinking? Tony Blair and Save The Children

November 26, 2014

Last week Save the Children presented Tony Blair with a ‘global legacy award’ in New York, in recognition of his leadership in international development. This has led to a wave of negative comment, mainly asking how a man who played such a leadership role in waging ill-advised wars with negative humanitarian consequences could be so celebrated. Many Save the Children staff have signed an internal letter criticising the award as being “morally reprehensible”, potentially endangering the charity’s reputation, “inappropriate and a betrayal to Save the Children’s founding principles and values”.

I do not intend here to add to the criticism of Save the Children (SCF). I have often worked with SCF over the years, and have in general found it to be a decent, diligent organisation which makes a difference for the poor and marginalised people for and with whom it works. At times it has also been at the forefront of new development and humanitarian thinking and practice. Overall, if it has an attractive brand allowing it the space and funds to do more good work, I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

But I do sympathise enormously with the SCF staff who signed the letter protesting the award. They worry that Blair’s toxic brand will undermine SCF’s brand, and thus their work. I expect many of them also feel personally embarrassed to work for an organisation which is tone-deaf enough to make an award of this nature to a man of Blair’s reputation. I know that in their situation, I would.

It’s worth pointing out that this was an award and an “Illumination Gala” (sic) organised by Save the Children’s US branch. To European eyes, this kind of glitzy schmaltz seems off-key, but in the USA it is a normal part of charity fund-raising and PR, and you can bet people paid large sums for tickets to the gala, hence contributing useful funds to Save the Children’s coffers. In the US, if you organise a fund-raising dinner, you need a key name; and to big up the event and give a sense of coherence, you give her or him an award. (The dog who plays Hollywood canine character Lassie was also honoured at this event, for goodness sake!)  And let’s not forget that Blair was always more popular in the USA than in the UK, especially during the Blair War years. They never had to suffer him as their prime minister, after all.Lassie attends the Save the Children awards in New York

The SCF staff who signed the letter no doubt have justified questions that need answers from their leadership. That’s an internal issue. In my view, there is no doubt that giving Blair the award was a mistake, and therefore a poor decision on the part of someone or some people. I – and probably most others – only heard of the award yesterday, as a result of publicity over the staff letter. But in the end, SCF’s brand is resilient, and will recover, as it has no doubt done before in the past hundred or so years since the organisation was founded. Perhaps there is after all no such thing as bad publicity. SCF has become better and better over the last few years at getting itself on TV whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, and that, plus the good work they do, is surely worth more than this blip of poor publicity.

The question in the title of this blog post – what was he thinking? – is not directed at anyone in SCF (nor at Lassie…), but at the great man himself. Surely Blair must have anticipated the negative publicity this would engender? Or has the man a completely tin ear? If he really is committed to international development, it would have been far better for him quietly to thank SCF for their invitation and let them give the award to someone less controversial, meanwhile getting on with the quiet business of international development of which he is such a strong supporter.

But he did not, and the clue to Tony Blair, surely, is in the words of his acceptance speech. In it, as usual, he said some important and truthful things about the need for better politics and institutions, the humanitarian impulse, and optimism. But he managed to smuggle two advertisements for his own charities (the same number of mentions of SCF, at whose gala he was being decorated…), and several references to his own great leadership while in office. But the dead giveaway was when he drew the audience’s attention to his belief that “change … only happens through Change Makers”. I think we know to whom he was referring.

Now, his acceptance of the award risks leading to a barrage of bad publicity. To add insult to injury, Tony Blair’s office has now responded to an article in the Guardian with a full-on, aggressive message and this looks likely to lead to a public spat. Oh dear.

In his speech, Tony Blair quite rightly emphasised the need for good governance, good politics, institutions, right-thinking leadership, defiance, ambition for and acting in the public interest, volunteerism, and striving. I agree with all of that, and I suspect that were Blair and I to debate what development looks like and how it happens, we would largely be in agreement. But that worries me, because I would hate to been seen to be in agreement with a man I distrust and dislike so much. And that, I think, is how many of those who work for and support Save the Children are probably feeling now.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2014 9:09 am

    Blair reply first states that he formed the DFID. Fine, but DFID blossomed not under him, but Clare Short. It lists the Commission for Africa, which brought around market-centric conditions to Africa, not exactly development.

  2. Commentator permalink
    November 26, 2014 9:54 am

    I completely agree with all you say about Blair – and about all the good work Save the Children do. Having said that, it is completely implausible that Save US would make the award to Blair without the full prior knowledge and agreement of both Save International and Save UK. Save UK has been sailing close to the wind for some time – for example their relationship with GSK continues, despite the fact that in September a Chinese court found the GSK subsidiary in China guilty of bribing doctors, hospital officials and other non-government personnel, and fined them more than $490 million. This was after Glaxo made a $3 billion settlement with U.S. authorities in 2012, having been accused of failing to disclose clinical trial data for some medicines and improperly marketing drugs, among other things. Save is a great organisation that does outstanding work, but Jasmine Whitbread, Justin Forsyth and Jonathan Powell would do well to put a lot more distance between Save and the likes of Blair and GSK, even if it means losing some potential donors and friends in “high places”.

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