Why Save The Children’s Global Legacy Award to Tony Blair matters for C4D

Addendum 26 November: As the story unfolds, a new post:
Learning organization #fail: Save The Children’s PR to defend Blair is almost worse than award itself



I only read about Save the Children’s (STC) Global Legacy award to Tony Blair today and was surprised that it has not made bigger waves in the virtual development discussion spaces:

The controversial former Prime Minster received the Global Legacy Award at the Save the Children Illumination Gala 2014, which was held at The Plaza in New York City.
The star-studded event boasted a guest list featuring Save the Children President and CEO Carolyn Miles, acting couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner and Twilight actress Dakota Fanning – as well as the much-loved collie dog.
(…)
A spokesman said Blair had been chosen for the award on account of his work while serving as Prime Minster, including setting up the Department for International Development and hosting two G8 summits.
You surely need a bit of selective memory to just highlight these ‘achievements’ among the many other things that are, shall we say, a bit more controversial and involve a war in Iraq and PR work for autocratic regimes…

But at the same time the award was an eye-opener in terms of how the charity-industrial complex communicates with the rest of the world and how little critical C4D approaches often seem to matter in the mainstream. In some ways, I am almost grateful that STC gave an award to this controversial political figure (and I am being very, very polite here…):

The critical public sphere is smaller than we think

There is probably an overwhelming majority of people who stop their intellectual engagement with the topic after a quick ‘former Labor Prime Minister receives an award by some chidren
s charity’ reading of the story. I think the (absence of) reactions thus far show that few people make critical inquiries, question STC’s judgment or catch up on Blair latest business dealings. Or maybe they just like Ben Affleck better and focus on his appearance at the award ceremony…it is interesting that my first encounter with the subject was through a Russia Today article-which is usually not the best journalistic source for balanced, critical coverage...

We can no longer rely on political activism from large, professional charities
This may not be exactly news, but it is worth a reminder: Large NGOs, charities, ‘civil society organizations’ will not be among those organizations that will rock any domestic political boats. Oxfam tried and was quickly criticized as
overtly political and it mainly preached to the small choir of domestic development and social justice enthusiasts.
I think the STC award is a particularly bad example of how strategic PR, working with the elites and their representatives and institutions is replacing political messages-in the comments I have received it seems that STC is seen as very close to the British Foreign Office and the ‘establishment’.
I am sure that a journalist could solicit a comment from STC along the lines of ‘we are very conscious about our funding efforts in the Christmas period and we want to raise money to do good in our projects’-which is not entirely untrue, but I still wonder how a controversial former political leader is helpful in such endeavors.
(Addendum 24 November: A helpful, yet anonymous, commentator has pointed out that the event was hosted/organized by STC USA-not UK (although this is difficult to figure out from their global website). Since Blair's real or perceived achievements for UK's development landscape were key in his selection and the global CEO was in attendance this obviously happened with STC UK's consent and engagement-so they rightly deserve critical feedback).

What role for development communication professionals?

In some ways, I feel sorry for those professionals who need to defend the decision and will probably and hopefully receive more critical feedback from journalists and the wider public. But I am more concerned about potential bigger shifts in large charities away from ‘real C4D’ to PR-possibly similar to the way journalism is changing with fewer critical journalists being faced with more and better PR content that is produced by a growing industry. 

I understand that large British NGOs may not be the leaders in critical C4D efforts at home and that before the Christmas giving extravaganza they need to play it safe, but we (teachers, researchers, professionals) need to make sure that we do not forget the political foundations of our work amongst the celebritized ‘noise’ of songs, campaigns and awards and the discourses around managerial imperatives that ‘CEOs’ perpetuate to defend their choices for awards.
 
In the meantime, I can just encourage you to not donate to STC-they are probably happier with uncritical money from large donors than engaging with critical ‘members of the public’…

Comments

  1. This is a good take on things with a couple omissions. The outcry in the UK has been fairly loud. STC UK's Facebook page was bombarded with negative comments and there is currently an online petition circulating in the UK for STC to rescind the award. The rub is that this award was not given out by STC UK. It was given by STC US. While it's not realistic to expect the public to understand the difference, these two organizations, though under the same umbrella, do work and make decisions largely independent of each other. The point being it wasn't a British charity that gave Blair the award, it was an American charity. None of this excuses the stupidity of the award, but it does help put it into perspective. Also, you devoted precious little space to the fact that Lassie was also present at this award gala.

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  2. This in an important comment, indeed! Thank you very much! While I am aware that STC (like many other large INGOs) operates a 'franchise' system with fairly independent country offices, I was unaware that STC US was behind it. I was surprised that Blair received a 'global' award mainly for his work around UK aid. So this surely happened with STC UK's consent and they deservedly have to deal with the backlash. Regardless of which STC is responsible I have friends in my networks who do great frontline work with children in the conflict-affected countries in the Middle East and those feel particularly let down by an award to Blair given his previous and current political entanglements in the region...

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    Replies
    1. I have been told by a couple of friends on the campaigns team that almost no-one in STC UK knew about the award at all, including most senior people. They couldn't confirm that absolutely no senior execs knew about it, but it sounds like there definitely wasn't a consultation with STC UK.

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    2. Thanks for your comment, Eoin-very interesting and useful. However, many questions remain: First, I don't understand why any part of the STC 'family' should give an award to Blair-the presumably share the same values and objectives. Why Blair who is probably little known in mainstream US? Second, the UK Exec Director is good friends with Blair. Difficult to imagine that he didn't know about this or tried to stop US colleagues from the award. Third, IF you stress the 'US not UK' assumption, then why is STC UK not stepping in NOW, distancing themselves from US? In the end they wanted to build a global brand and the global brand is damaged through this award and PR disaster

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  3. I included your point about STC USA as addendum in the post, but I refuse to drag a childhood pet hero into this discussion ;)...

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  4. Absolutely, the worst part about these stupid awards and all the celebrity chasing that STC and other INGOs are doing is that they only take away from the good work that modest, hard-working, dedicated humanitarians of all races are doing on the front lines. Also, while the top brass of STC UK were most likely aware that this award was being given, I guarantee that 99% of the employees of STC UK were completely unaware of this until they read about it in the press. But that is part of the issue here - iNGOs like STC have become so large that they are developing split personalities. You have the money and publicity chasing stunts like this to balance with the actual aid that's being delivered to people who badly need it, and whom in my experience are often not being helped by anyone else - let alone their governments. Additionally, the fundraising wings of the big iNGOs are for some reason reluctant to explain to the public the complexities of the work they do and the contexts they work in. Instead we have nonsense like BandAid30 where iNGOs resort to celebrity ambassadors and trite publicity campaigns. My feeling is that even though they are bringing in big money with these tactics in the short term, it will all eventually come to a head and the public will lose interest the more they realize they're not being told the whole truth about aid and development. Which is a shame, because I believe if the public knew more about how aid actually worked they would be supportive of the effort. But perhaps this how things have to happen - a major backlash will bring about a major change. Stories like Blair's award will most likely hasten this inevitable shift.

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    Replies
    1. This comment is spot on. For more on this kind of debate (PR, Press and charity comms please read this post http://www.duckrabbit.info/2014/11/faking-it-charity-communications-in-the-firing-line/)

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