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UK: Save the Children UK Silenced on Iraq

by Kevin MaguireGuardian (London)
November 28th, 2003

One of Britain's most high-profile charities was ordered to end criticism of military action in Iraq by its powerful US wing to avoid jeopardizing financial support from Washington and corporate donors, a Guardian investigation has discovered.

Internal emails reveal how Save the Children UK came under enormous pressure after it accused coalition forces of breaching the Geneva convention by blocking humanitarian aid.

Senior figures at Save the Children US, based in Westport, Connecticut, demanded the withdrawal of the criticism and an effective veto on any future statements blaming the invasion for the plight of Iraqi civilians suffering malnourishment and shortages of medical supplies.

Uncovered documents expose tensions within an alliance that describes itself as "the world's largest independent global organization for children" but which is heavily reliant on governments and big business for cash.

Save the Children UK, which had an income of 122m in 2002-03, boasts the Queen as patron and Princess Anne as president, plus a phalanx of the great and the good lending their titles and time.

The tensions over potential donor influence are not limited to the Iraq crisis. Other internal emails and documents disclose how Save the Children UK was nervous about the reaction of a major donor company, Serco, which makes huge profits from outsourcing, when the charity prepared to criticize the impact of privatization on children.

The row over Iraq erupted in April when the London statement said coalition forces had gone back on an earlier agreement to allow a relief plane, packed with emergency food and medical supplies for 40,000 people, to land in northern Iraq.

Rob MacGillivray, the UK wing's emergency program manager, released a statement which stated that the "lack of cooperation from the coalition forces is a breach of the Geneva conventions and its protocols, but more importantly the time now being wasted is costing children their lives".

Within hours of the statement appearing, the US wing was demanding its withdrawal. Emails sent to staff in Britain by Dianne Sherman, associate vice-president for public affairs and communications in Connecticut, headed "Save/UK criticizes US military", expressed dismay and censured the UK operation.

Ms Sherman said the Americans were "really astonished at today's release, which went out without our prior knowledge, that attacks the US military".

Her email went on: "This is undermining all the great work we've done, much of it in collaboration with you. We'll have to see the consequences of how this plays out - including affecting our future funding from the government."

A number of less controversial "joint messages" were proposed by Ms Sherman, none of which criticized any aspect of the invasion or occupation. She instead wanted the UK and US groups to point out that humanitarian organizations were still not permitted access to most of Iraq, that delays harmed children and, on a positive note, that relief work was under way in Umm Qasr, Masul and northern Iraq.

"Safe, secure conditions must be created immediately to allow humanitarians to bring in essential supplies and expertise to the people of Iraq," was her alternative version.

Accounts published by Save the Children US highlight its vulnerability to political pressure from a Republican White House with "government grants and contracts" generating some 60%, nearly 71m, of its 119m operating support and revenue. The proportion is also high in the UK, where 60.1m - 49% - of the organization's income is "grants and gifts in kind from institutional donors", including the government.

Ms Sherman copied her broadside to US executives including Ann van Dusen, the executive vice-president, Rudy von Bernuth, vice-president and managing director of its children in emergencies section, and Andrea Williamson-Hughes, corporate secretary.

When she discovered the London statement had been posted on the UK organization's website, Ms Sherman also demanded the deletion of US press officer Nicole Amoroso's name as a contact, adding in a second email: "I would also strongly suggest that the press release be removed until we have agreed upon language of the release."

A well-placed source in the UK operation said "all hell let loose" over the US intervention, with telephone calls "flying across the Atlantic" and a series of high-level meetings called to discuss the crisis.

The removal of the US press officer's name was agreed to placate Connecticut but the source confirmed the Americans were also assured they would be sent all future UK statements on Iraq before they were issued.

According to the source, the UK wing toned down later statements to avoid offending the US side of the operation. A statement issued in London on April 25, for example, was cleared in advance with the US, the source said.

Headed "The war is not over for the children of Iraq", it made no mention let alone criticism of coalition forces. The looting of some hospitals was highlighted but not the widespread criticism at the time that troops were standing by and doing nothing.

Save the Children US concentrates on fundraising and is said by London insiders to be anxious to curb campaigning by the UK arm.

Ms Sherman was unavailable for comment until next week, her office said.

But in a statement to the Guardian, Save the Children UK said it had not retracted the release at the heart of the row but had removed the name of Ms Amoroso, saying it had been an error not to consult her.

Subsequent statements, it added, reflected the fact that the situation "had moved on" as medical supplies had landed in Jordan to be moved to Baghdad. "We do not agree news releases issued in Save the Children UK's name with Save the Children US or any other member of the International Save the Children Alliance," the London statement said. "Wherever possible we do share Save the Children UK news releases before they are issued with other alliance members working in the same area. If any changes are suggested by other alliance members to Save the Children releases, they are made or not at our discretion."

The tensions over potential donor influence are not limited to the Iraq crisis. Other internal emails and documents disclose how Save the Children UK was nervous about the reaction of a major donor company, Serco, which makes huge profits from outsourcing, when the charity prepared to criticize the impact of privatization on children.

A number of staff were aghast in the summer of 2002 when a chapter critical of private finance initiatives, written for a report published ahead of the Johannesburg sustainable development summit, was deleted by senior figures in the charity just before it was printed.

There is nothing in the documents to suggest that Serco exerted any pressure, but according to the emails, the charity's staff were anxious not to upset it. One email copied widely in the organization admitted "underlying tensions" existed between the corporate fundraising unit and campaigners arguing that PFIs in basic services did not benefit children.

Another warned that criticism of PFIs by the charity was "naturally making some of our corporate sponsors edgy", and the director general, Mike Aaronson, wanted a full briefing ahead of a meeting with a big private donor.

As the internal debate raged, fundraiser Helen Barnes warned she was in a "tricky position" with Serco, which ran hospitals, prisons and schools for the government. Although about to cease being a corporate member, the firm, she said, "is still keen to support us" as she argued against portraying it as a company operating solely for profit.

"Serco takes its social responsibilities very seriously and invests in the communities in which it operates," Ms Barnes said.

Serco, which is heavily involved in the defense sector, raised a total of 626,500 for the charity, as well as naming its yacht Save the Children in the BT Global Challenge race three years ago.

The charity's statement yesterday said: "At no point [in] the relationship did Serco attempt to influence Save the Children UK policy on any issue."

It continued: "We were able to edit most of the report to meet the required standard but one chapter required further work before it could be approved for publication. Because time was short we decided to drop this chapter to allow the rest of the report to be published in time for the conference."





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