Dame Claire Bertschinger: charities should not be influenced by the demands of government

The former Red Cross nurse who inspired Live Aid talks to Mathew Little

Bertschinger returns to Ethiopia (photograph: Arthur Edwards)
Bertschinger returns to Ethiopia (photograph: Arthur Edwards)

Claire Bertschinger, who has been made a dame in the New Year Honours list, can justly claim to have changed the face of charitable giving in the UK.

Back in the summer of 1984, she was a Red Cross nurse at a feeding station in one of worst-hit areas of famine-torn Ethiopia. It fell to her to decide which children would be given the limited food supplies and which would be left to die. An interview with BBC news reporter Michael Buerk brought home the enormity of the situation to viewers in Britain and inspired Bob Geldof to launch Live Aid, which raised £150m.

When she returned home the next year, she was greeted as a heroine - but felt anything but. "When I came back, people weren't listening to me," she recalls. "I was telling them I'd done a bad job and thousands of kids were dying, but people were just telling me how wonderful I was. I stopped talking about it and carried on with my life. I continued to work in war zones for the next decade."

It wasn't until 2003, when she returned to Ethiopia with Buerk for a BBC documentary, that Bertschinger was able to face her traumas and start talking about her experiences. The visit also sparked her involvement with the African Children's Educational Trust, a charity that runs schools in rural African communities and sponsors students. She has since become a trustee and an apostle for the role of education in development.

"Education is the key to the future for resource-poor settings," she says. "It opens doors and it radically improves people's health, particularly for women."

When Buerk interviewed her, Bertschinger's first reaction was that he was a "prat" for asking stupid questions. But now she is convinced of the value of the media for charities. "I don't think NGOs fully take advantage because a lot of them don't want to spend money on professionals to represent them or they don't know how to present themselves," she says. "They could learn a bit more about presenting themselves to the public and not be scared of publicity."

Bertschinger no longer works in the sector: she now teaches tropical nursing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But she has strong opinions about the role of charities - she believes they should decide their mandates for themselves, rather than be influenced by the demands of governments. "Charities have to be regulated by government," she says, "but government shouldn't tell us what to do or where to go. We decide."

Her involvement with the African Children's Educational Trust has also provided a link with her previous life - she returned to Ethiopia last November to visit the charity's schools. "Students who 25 years ago were in the famine are now graduating as doctors, lawyers, teachers and IT technicians. I've seen what a wonderful agency it is."


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