Gwen Hines and Tsitsi Chawatama: Shifting power at Save the Children UK

The charity's chief executive and chair tell Rebecca Cooney about moving on from a scandal, placing power in the hands of those they work with and the debate about its name

Gwen Hines and Tsitsi Chawatama
Gwen Hines and Tsitsi Chawatama

Save the Children UK has embarked on some very public soul searching over the past few years.

In 2018, the charity commissioned an independent review of its culture and practices, which called on the charity to work collaboratively with staff on a comprehensive plan to reform the organisation, reduce workplace "incivility", increase diversity and review whistleblowing arrangements. 

In 2020, the charity pledged that by the end of 2021 people of colour would make up a quarter of its senior leadership team, and said that it had previously been “complicit in colonial oppression” and had reinforced and perpetuated racist stereotypes.

The catalyst for all of this was, of course, the safeguarding scandal in 2018, which erupted over newspaper allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated by aid workers against the very people they were supposed to be helping. 

While there were no allegations about such behaviour in Save the Children’s projects abroad, the charity became embroiled in the scandal after it was hit by a number of revelations about inappropriate behaviour towards women by the charity's former chief executive Justin Forsyth, and former policy director Brendan Cox, both of whom left the charity in 2015. 

The allegations prompted the charity to open an investigation and Kevin Watkins, the charity’s chief executive in 2018, resisted calls for him to step down over his handling of the issue.

The scandal also forced the aid sector as a whole to confront uncomfortable concerns around the power dynamics, colonial legacies and white saviourism that were intertwined with its work. 

This year, the charity appointed a new chair, the NHS paediatric consultant Tsitsi Chawatama in January, and a new chief executive, Gwen Hines, who was promoted from being the charity’s executive director of global programmes in July.

The new three-year strategy they have developed looks set to continue the soul-searching with an organisation-wide discussion about language and a focus on shifting the power from the organisation to those it works with. 

Moving on

So how do you lead an organisation away from such a scandal?

Hines says that for her, it’s about combining her high ambitions for the charity with ensuring staff are well supported.

“We’re very very clear where the line is, and what did or didn’t happen in the past is not going to happen in the future,” she says.

“I’m a great believer that supported staff do the best work - I’m not a leader who jumps up and down and shouts ‘Try harder’.”

Chawatama agrees.

“At the heart of everything is the impact on children - paediatrics we talk about having the child at the centre like a wheel hub and then everyone else is a spoke around that,” she says. 

“To make it work, we need our organisation to be functioning well and that includes people’s wellbeing - they need to be able to work in an environment that is conducive to their best self to get the best impact for children.”

‘Impact’  - what it looks like, how to achieve it and how to measure it - is a deceptively tricky concept for charities but maximising impact is the focus of Save’s new strategy.

It’s clearly something that has been on Chawatama’s mind. 

“If you look at the Millennium Development Goals and then the Sustainable Development Goals, how many times do you keep reinventing things?,” she says. 

“‘Impact’ is not a new word, but there hasn’t really been any challenge to what it actually is, because if we were truly trying to achieve impact years ago, we wouldn’t still be talking about it.”

In order to truly maximise the charity’s impact, she says, its work must focus on being sustainable. 

Hines says that the organisation needs to think about how it can drive big, long-term systemic change, that is effectively “irreversible” on top of its individual projects. 

The three C's

The charity has always had three aims -  ensuring children survive, learn and are protected. The strategy adds a fourth one; the notion of ‘shockproofing’ against what Hines calls “the three ‘C’s” - Covid, conflict and climate change. 

“So it's about everything from being there when an emergency hits and helping the communities themselves with the work they do to cope with those shocks, to some quite geeky but innovative things around insurance and pre-agreed finance and data,” she says.

In terms of measuring impact, she says, the charity will still look at outcomes such as the number of lives saved, the number of children helped out of malnutrition and the number who get an education. 

But, she says: “The ultimate outcome is that a child is born healthy because their mother has been looked after, they get fed properly, they go to school and get a brilliant education, they’re helped through adolescence and protected from violence and go onto a better future themselves - that lifecycle is the holy grail.”

But this holy grail will require a fundamental change to funding - in recent years, institutional donors have increasingly ring-fenced their funding for specific projects.

“So you end up with a project in eastern Congo, where there’s no one else for 200 miles, and if we’re there to do health work but the same family are coming in with a nutrition problem or a child protection problem, the funding is so inflexible that you are effectively told not to look at these other issues,” Hines says. “That’s not smart and it's not true impact.”

Part of the answer to this conundrum is to combine different sources of funding, and to work with partners to combine projects - but she says, there also needs to be a change in the behaviour of donors, whether that’s institutional donors or individuals.

“The drive for value for money has backfired,” she says. “The way everything is now being run as separate projects even in the same community, coming down through layers of bureaucracy means you measure it really narrowly rather than asking what impact we’re trying to achieve.”

Equally, she acknowledges it is harder to talk about governance reforms or increased self-sufficiency in communities, rather than explaining how much food was delivered or how many vaccines were administered. 

“I can explain that we’re doing some work in the community looking for the best way to get nutrition to the child before they end up in the health centre on a drip,” Hines says. 

“But getting someone to fund that research is really hard, getting someone to fund the humanitarian response to buy that drip is much easier, which is crazy - the research is far more cost effective.

Projects that involve giving out cash directly to the people being supported are also often unpopular with donors, despite being shown to be an effective and empowering way to help people deal with the situation they are in.

But, she says: “I think the British public has a much more sophisticated understanding than people give them credit for.

“And I think if you say that you’re putting the child at the centre, they will understand.”

Shifting power

Donors are not the only ones who need to change their behaviour if long term impact is to be achieved - the charity too needs to change the way it relates to those it helps, continuing in a direction the charity has been pushing towards since the safeguarding scandal.

“Shifting power and resources is essentially a process of double devolution - both to local NGOs and partners, which is very much part of Save’s business model, and also to children and their families - they’re the ones who ultimately are in charge of their own lives, agents of their own change, who understand things way before we get there and way after we’ve gone,” Hines says.

“We’re not in the business of flying in and telling people what they want to do - but we want to push even further and faster on this.”

Chawatama says the need to hand over power to those the organisation supports chimes with her own experiences growing up in Zimbabwe and seeing NGOs operate in the country. 

“People have their own ideas, but feel powerless,” she says. “They don’t have the economic power or the ability to speak to whoever is the decision maker in the country or those links to have their voices heard about what they felt was best for their village. 

“So they’re at the mercy of whatever NGO is coming in, and what it wants because it provided the means. 

“It’s that acknowledgement of those voices - working in the NHS we always ask the young people what they want, and it should be the same anywhere, a young person is a young person wherever they are.”

Most projects, Hines says, are part of consortia with local partners, but “you get into this weird world with donors where the assumption is that it is an international NGO that leads the consortium, and my question is ‘why?’.” 

She points to the charity’s work with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh where the charity worked alongside a local partner on a project funded by the World Food Programme. 

“Success for us looks like handing that £20m contract over to the local partner because we’ve shown WFP it works,” she says.

Use of language

Another part of the move to shift the power dynamics at play in the organisation has been an ongoing conversation around the language the charity uses, both internally and externally. This conversation has resulted in a glossary, the first version of which was published in March, but which Hines says will be a living document. 

The glossary sets out everything the charity hopes to avoid in its use of language, from presenting the charity or donor as the heroes and denying agency to those they support, to avoiding jargon. 

There are a number of phrases which betray the colonial and military origins of the international development sector - such as “in the field”, which the glossary points out, the charity would never dream of using to refer to its projects in the UK.

The glossary is colour-coded, from red for discouraged language, green for language that is encouraged and amber for language where staff are encouraged to ‘check and challenge’ whether it is appropriate in the context. 

Unsurprisingly, one of the terms the glossary marks in red is ‘beneficiary’ - which the document argues, “implies passivity and paternalism”. 

The glossary acknowledges that the term may be necessary for some bids and reports, but asks whether Save could help to set a higher standard. In place of beneficiaries, the glossary suggests “people we work with” or “people affected”, depending on the context.

“We started having conversations around what people did and did not like, so it started as an almost crowdsourced idea,” Hines says. 

“Of course different phrases might mean different things in different countries - and that’s just thinking about English. Our partners in Lebanon wanted to be known as ‘customers’, for example.”

This phrasing might not appeal to some, but Chawatama says for her, the key thing is “taking into account what people want to be called, and how they want to be addressed”.

Hines says the glossary is a means to an end - “to open up the conversation, unpack some of these terms and say ‘What’s the point? Who are you talking about and what are you trying to say?’”

Staff have responded positively to the conversation, she says: “They’re still debating some of the terms and that will continue - but people liked the intention behind it.”

The discussion of language of course leads to another sticking point for the charity - its name. 

The name debate

In June, Gemma Sherrington, the charity’s director of fundraising and marketing, told delegates at Third Sector’s annual Fundraising Conference that Save was having “a very live conversation” about its name

But Hines is quick to dispel any idea that the charity is about to change the name it has had for more than a century, and which is used by more than 25 of Save the Children International’s member organisations around the world. 

Nonetheless, she agrees it is important for the charity to discuss the issue. 

“We have very deliberately shifted, internally as well as externally, to say ‘We’re not here to save children, they’re not some passive thing that needs saving, whether they’re in Malawi or Scotland, they don’t just sit there waiting for us to come along and save them’,” she says. 

“Our approach is about making children agents of their own change, putting them at the centre, helping them get their rights and flipping around that way of thinking.”

But, she says, there will be a noticeable shift away from so-called ‘poverty porn’ to “trying to give children a voice and show children as a positive role model for themselves, for each other.”

Chawatama has met Save’s youth advisory panels as part of her role as chair, and fervently agrees.

“They do not need saving, they are not passive in any way,” she says with a smile. 

“They have their own ideas about what matters to them, and are happy to challenge us on whether we’re considered certain things or why things are being done in a certain ways - it’s about really empowering them and giving them a platform.”

And despite the soul-searching, Hines is determined that this should remain the focus. 

“There have been times in the past where Save has been too focused just on Save,” she says. 

“And over the past 25 years, I’ve seen too many organisations that do one bit and don’t look at the bigger picture.

“So for me, it’s about saying ‘If we want that impact, who do we partner with?’ - that’s already a fundamental part of the way we work but I want to see more of it.

“We have the reach, we have the profile, we have the brand so it’s about giving children a voice, and about giving partners a voice to do something that really drives impact.”

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