November 27, 2014
In Blog News
The charity Save the Children faces a backlash from staff after it presented Tony Blair with a “global legacy award” in New York last week – despite privately acknowledging that he is a controversial and divisive figure.
Amid widespread criticism on social media, many of the charity’s staff have complained that the presentation of the award has discredited Save the Children (STC). An internal letter, which gathered almost 200 signatures – including senior regional staff – in the first six hours of dissemination, said the award was not only “morally reprehensible, but also endangers our credibility globally”, and called for it to be withdrawn.
It said that staff wished to distance themselves from the award and demanded a review of the charity’s decision-making process.
“We consider this award inappropriate and a betrayal to Save the Children’s founding principles and values. Management staff in the region were not communicated with nor consulted about the award and were caught by surprise with this decision,” it said.
The move has also raised questions about Save the Children’s (STC) integrity and independence because of close links between the former British prime minister and key figures at the charity’s helm.
Its UK chief executive, Justin Forsyth, was a special adviser to Blair for three years, and Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, is currently on the board of STC.
Blair was presented with the award by the US arm of the charity at a glittering “Illumination Gala” at the Plaza Hotel in New York on 19 November, in recognition of his “leadership on international development”.
The charity cited two G8 summits hosted by Blair during his premiership which focused on debt relief for poor countries. At the Gleneagles summit in 2005, world leaders pledged to “MakePoverty History”.
Forsyth, who was appointed chief executive of STC in 2010, previously worked for Blair, focusing on global poverty. In an introduction to his blog on STC’s website, Forsyth writes: “In 2004, I was recruited to No 10 by Tony Blair, where I led efforts on poverty and climate change and was one of the driving forces behind the Make Poverty History campaign.”
Accepting the award at the New York gala, Blair said: “From the beginning of humankind there has been brutality, conflict, intrigue, the destructive obsession with a narrow self-interest. But throughout all human history, never has been extinguished that relentless, unquenchable desire to do good. To act not only in self-interest and sometimes to even to act in defiance of it.” Protesters swiftly took to social media, led by MP and anti-war campaigner George Galloway, who tweeted: “Following the grotesque award to child-killer @TheBlairDoc Tony Blair by Save the Children all right thinking people should withdraw support.” He also demanded STC rescind the award.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted a picture of Blair with the words: “As this man defends any dictator who’ll pay him, @SaveTheChildrenUK inexplicably gives him award.” Roth later corrected this to STC US.
An online petition calling for STC to revoke the award said many saw Blair “as the cause of the deaths of countless children in the Middle East”. It had gathered more than 81,000 signatures by 1pm on Tuesday.
According to an email sent last week by Krista Armstrong, the charity’s global media manager, to senior colleagues, STC has received a “high volume of complaints and negative reactions regarding the award”.
The email acknowledged that Blair “is a hugely controversial and divisive figure in many parts of the world” and listed a number of questions that had been raised by STC staff, soliciting possible responses from her colleagues.
The first question was: “Why would Save the Children chose (sic) to provide one of its most prestigious award – ‘a global legacy award’ to a man accused of being a war criminal?”
In response, Eileen Burke, STC’s director of media and communications in the US, circulated “a line” explaining Blair was selected for the award for debt relief work and the Make Poverty History campaign.
“Otherwise we are not in a position to respond to some of the geopolitical questions below,” she wrote in a separate email.
In a statement, STC stressed that the award was given by the US arm of the charity, not by STC UK or Forsyth. It said the award was presented because of Blair’s work as prime minister on Africa and poverty.
In response to a question about the scale of internal anger and opposition, STC added: “In a global organisation like ours of thousands of people, our staff have strong views on a whole range of issues and people and we respect that diversity of views.”
A spokeswoman for Blair said the former prime minister was “deeply honoured and moved to receive the award in recognition of his work”. Asked about the wisdom of accepting an award from an organisation with two former Downing St employees within its leadership, Blair’s office pointed out that the award was made by STC US.
Since propelling Britain into the US-led war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of fierce opposition in parliament and among the public, Blair has regularly been accused of war crimes. He is expected to be strongly criticised in the report of the government-appointed Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, which is due to be published next year.
On the day he stepped down as prime minister in 2007, Blair took up the post of special envoy to the Middle East Quartet, which mediates between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinians and their supporters have frequently charged that, rather than a neutral interlocutor, Blair is strongly pro-Israel.
Three years ago Tony Blair Associates, the former prime minister’s consultancy firm, signed a multimillion-pound deal to advise the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbeyev. Blair and his companies also have lucrative consultancy contracts with Kuwait, the UAE and Colombia.
Other areas of Blair’s post-Downing St work include African governance, faith, sport and climate change.
Powell did not respond to Guardian requests for comment on Blair’s award and his role as a board member of STC.
Forsyth’s salary at the Save the Children came under scrutiny last year when it was disclosed that he was paid £163,000 a year, including more than £22,000 in performance-related pay. He has since taken a pay cut to £140,000.