Feature: Stop the Spread- The Disasters Emergency Committee, Ebola, and Humanitarian Fundraising in Britain

Andrew Jones is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham.  His research examines the rise of modern humanitarian organisations in Britain, with a focus on those agencies connected to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).  Originally set up in the 1960s, the DEC has recently been in the news for its ongoing Ebola outbreak appeal.

For humanitarians, 2014 has been a year of crises which have stretched the international aid system to ‘breaking point.  Now, leading British aid agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children have once again jointly mobilised to respond to a global emergency under the umbrella of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).  The DEC is a familiar actor in Britain as it coordinates the fundraising of thirteen humanitarian organisations for large-scale disasters.  It does so primarily through making joint appeals on television for public donations to support relief work.  Originally set up in the 1960s, the DEC has made over sixty such appeals to the public in the decades since then.  However, its current appeal appears very different to anything that has come before, calling for funds to tackle the ongoing Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.

DEC Ebola Crisis Appeal

DEC Ebola Crisis Appeal, 2014 (http://dec.org.uk/)

As the DEC has repeatedly stressed, this is the first time that it has launched an appeal for a disease outbreak.  Various media outlets have picked up on this as a newsworthy story in its own right, echoing DEC Chief Executive Saleh Saaed’s remarks that the Ebola appeal is ‘completely unprecedented.  So far these publicity tactics have been effective; at the time of writing, the DEC has raised twelve million pounds in six days.  The emphasis on the appeal as exceptional represents an interesting use of the past.  It also suggests that now may be a timely moment to reflect back on the history of the DEC.  Of course, presenting a systematic historical evaluation of the DEC is well beyond the confines of a blog post.  What follows is a brief introduction to the DEC and what it suggests about humanitarianism in Britain.

The DEC was set up in 1963 by what were then the ‘big five’ British humanitarian organisations: Christian Aid, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Save the Children, and War on Want.  Their coming together was presented as a pragmatic step to enable collaboration, but it was also a response to the new power of television as a medium.  In the early 1960s, individual aid organisations discovered that emergency appeals on television could reach larger audiences, and generate more donations, than previously thought possible.  More money also meant more rivalry and the DEC was devised to dampen competition between its members.  The Committee met after major disasters to pool information and initiate joint action.  All five members had equal authority, with decisions taken by majority vote.  Representatives from government and the media were also invited to observe and contribute.

DEC Tsunami Earthquake Appeal

DEC Tsunami Earthquake Appeal. Sky News, January 2005.

Crucially, the DEC was granted exclusive arrangements with the BBC and ITV to air emergency appeals in primetime television slots after major disasters.  This gave its members a unique level of access to television.  British charities were not permitted to purchase advertising on commercial television until the 1990s, while conventional appeals on the BBC were tightly regulated.  These arrangements with the broadcasters continue today, now widened to include Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and a range of corporate partners.  The DEC’s first appeal was in 1966 for an earthquake in Turkey.  This raised £560,000 (about nine million pounds in today’s money) and the Committee has been making regular appeals ever since.

The history of the DEC captures the importance of the mass media, especially television, to the sustained rise of humanitarianism in Britain in recent decades.  It is through the media that society encounters disaster and bears witness to distant suffering.  The most successful DEC fundraising drives have all been launched to capitalise upon widespread public sympathy already created by dramatic news reports of overseas disasters.  These have ranged from Turkey in 1966, to Bangladesh in 1970, Ethiopia in 1973 (and again in 1984), Rwanda in 1994, to the Indian Ocean in 2004, and Haiti in 2010.  In all of these cases, the DEC acted quickly to position itself as a channel for public sympathy and raised massive sums from the public.  The standout example of this remains the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami appeal which raised a remarkable record sum of £392 million.

However, modern aid agencies are also beholden to how the mass media operates —pursuing ratings, roaming quickly from one emergency to the next, drawn to simplistic accounts and negative images of distant suffering.  In the rush to raise money, DEC appeals have often provided a simplistic view of overseas emergencies, presenting them as existing outside of politics and easily solved with more cash.  More recently, the DEC has strived to provide concrete information concerning how its members spend their funds, and the contexts in which they work, to the public.  This contrasts with many early DEC appeals which provided little information of substance to viewers beyond guilt-inducing calls to give money.  Many DEC appeals have relied heavily on graphic images of starving children which have been consistently effective at raising money from the public.  The use of such images has been denounced within the aid community since the 1970s for promoting an unethical view of the world and reinforcing problematic stereotypes.

DEC East African Emergency Appeal

DEC East African Emergency Appeal. The Guardian, June 1980.

The history of the DEC also sheds light on the impressive growth of the humanitarian sector in recent decades and the competition between aid agencies that this has created.  The DEC was set up to dampen rivalry between its five founding members.  It also excluded non-members from the benefits provided by television appeals.  As the British humanitarian industry grew in size and number, the DEC came to be perceived by other organisations as a self-interested ‘cartel’ which refused to open up its membership.  These tensions eventually culminated in an independent review into the Committee, triggered by a problematic appeal for the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  This review examined all aspects of the DEC’s operations and resulted in the barriers to DEC membership being relaxed.  The DEC was also formally established as a non-profit organisation with charitable status at this time. The ‘New DEC’ was officially relaunched in 1997, comprised of fifteen members with an independent Council and more professional evaluation methods.  Despite concerns at the time that the DEC would not survive in a more competitive broadcast environment, the Committee has thrived in the years since.  The DEC is now often lauded as a successful model of collaboration for other charitable sectors to emulate.

Clearly, to understand the development of non-state humanitarianism in Britain requires an understanding of the history of the DEC.  But what does this history tell us about the current Ebola appeal?  For a start, it suggests that despite claims to be ‘unprecedented’, the Ebola campaign is actually quite a conventional DEC appeal.  The Committee has responded to public empathy about Ebola victims whipped up by recent news coverage and has harnessed this for fundraising purposes.  This includes television appeals and press advertisements characterised by evocative language, images of suffering children, and dire warnings of impending catastrophe.  These have been reinforced by inventive campaigns on social media under the hashtag #StopTheSpread.  This approach to fundraising and publicity actually fits quite neatly into a longer history of emergency humanitarianism in Britain.

The DEC takes its own accountability and transparency very seriously.  Any money it raises will undoubtedly be put to life-saving uses by its members.  However, the timing of the appeal also raises questions about why it was not launched earlier.  The Committee has received some criticism for being slow to respond to the epidemic.  This may reflect the reluctance of the broadcasters to agree to an appeal for a disease outbreak.  More likely, it highlights how the DEC and its members are continually one step behind media coverage, rather than out in front.  The Ebola epidemic has been unfolding throughout the year and arguably no non-governmental humanitarian agency has done more than Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to spearhead the international response.  Revealingly, MSF-UK is not a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Andrew Jones
University of Birmingham

For more on the Disasters Emergency Committee, visit: http://www.dec.org.uk/

For more on the DEC Ebola appeal and to donate, visit: http://www.dec.org.uk/appeals/ebola-crisis-appeal

Posted in Andrew Jones, Features | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Crystal Palace Triangle Project: Studying Voluntary and Community Action in Crystal Palace

Colin Rochester was the founding Chair of the Voluntary Action History Society and is a founding partner of the Practical Wisdom R2Z Research Consultants. He has worked in and with the voluntary sector for over forty years.

Why on earth have my colleagues and I at the Practical Wisdom R2Z research consultancy embarked on a study of voluntary and community activity in the Crystal Palace area of South London (for details see our website)? How can we possibly justify adding to the existing piles of largely unread studies of local voluntary action?

There has been no shortage of well-conceived and well-executed local studies since Stephen Hatch carried out his pioneering research on the voluntary sectors in three English towns, which provided the Wolfenden Committee on the Future of Voluntary Organisations with much of the evidence that informed its influential report[1]. Later research has included Tony Marshall’s ambitious series of Local Voluntary Action Surveys for the Home Office in the 1990s[2]; Konrad Elsdon’s in-depth studies of local organisations[3]; and Andri Soteri-Proctor’s more recent micro mapping of a few adjacent streets[4].

UnknownIt was, however, during the first decade of this century that the production of locality studies boomed and became a minor industry in its own right. Local infrastructure bodies like councils of voluntary vervice -– stimulated by New Labour’s programme of ‘modernising’ the sector – commissioned or produced a steady stream of reports designed to advertise the importance of the local sector by producing statistics to demonstrate its scope and significance. With some honourable exceptions these studies were of poor quality and added little to our understanding of local voluntary action.

While most of these products fell well short of the standards set by Hatch. Marshall, Elsdon and Soteri-Procter, they did share with them a similar aim or purpose. They were designed to provide statistical information about the number of organisations in a given area, the resources they deployed and the activities they carried out. Their purpose was to map and measure local voluntary action.

Unknown-2By contrast our justification for undertaking yet another local study is that we are taking a radically different approach. It is different not only in what it sets out to achieve but also in the methodology we have adopted to enable us to meet our aims.

It is true that we will be developing a working map of voluntary and community activity in Crystal Palace, but this is not the end of our enquiry so much as an important means of working towards it. Our aim is to understand ‘how things work’ – why and how people become involved in voluntary and community activity; how they organise to make it happen; and what factors encouraged or inhibited voluntary action in the area.

Unknown-3And we will explore these questions through in-depth interviews in the manner of Tony Parker or Studs Terkel[5] to present the views of key individuals who are the ‘experts‘ on voluntary and community activity in the area. These will be supplemented by the use of documentary and on-line sources, observation of, and participation in, many of the activities we identify and a series of short ‘vox pop’ interviews with local residents as they go about their everyday activities. And we will maintain a relationship with our interviewees that will help us over time to shape both the conduct of the enquiry and the ways in which we will present our findings.

Finally, the study is also unusual in that it is a voluntary activity in its own right. No one has asked us to do it and nobody has funded it. We are free to explore where our interests take us constrained only by the willingness of our collaborators to travel with us.

So, what we have begun is not so much another step along a well-trodden path but a new and different approach to understanding how voluntary and community activity ‘works’.

[1]Stephen Hatch, Outside the State: Voluntary Organisations in Three English Towns (London: Croom Helm, 1980).

[2]Tony Marshall, Local Voluntary Action Surveys (LOVAS) Research Manual: LOVAS Paper 1 (London: Home Office, 1997).

[3]Konrad Elsdon, Voluntary Organisations: Citizenship, Learning and Change (Leicester: NIACE, 1995).

[4]Andri Soteri-Proctor, Little big societies: micro-mapping of organisations operating below the radar (Third Sector Research Centre Working Paper 71; Birmingham and Southampton: Third Sector Research Centre, 2011).

[5]See Tony Parker, The People of Providence (London: Hutchinson, 1983) and Studs Terkel, Division Street America (New York: Pantheon, 1967).

Posted in Colin Rochester | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Feature: Mental Illness and Childhood Migration: The Bright or Dark Side of Victorian Philanthropy?

Steven J. Taylor is a PhD researcher in the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester.  He discusses the challenges of locating —and interpreting— mental illness in charity archives and of assessing the ethics of philanthropic emigration schemes.   

My current research interests sit at the intersection of three important historical topics: childhood, insanity, and philanthropy.  Recently I have attempted to weave these broad themes together in my investigation of a charity that operated from the north west of England during the late nineteenth century.  I am particularly interested in young charity emigrants who had mental illnesses. These youngsters were few in number, but their narratives shed new light on the nature of charitable endeavours for children with mental disabilities between 1870 to 1910.

At the outset it is perhaps wise to comment on medical nomenclature.  ‘Lunacy’ and ‘insanity’ were often catch-all terms for  —as we would refer to them today— a range of mental illnesses and learning disabilities.  Mental illness or lunacy was usually considered to be a temporary condition that an individual acquired and would typically recover from.  Nineteenth-century diagnoses of lunacy included ‘mania’ and ‘melancholy’.  On the other hand, mental disability was apparent from birth or infancy and was believed to be permanent.  Mental disabilities came under the medical terms  of ‘idiocy’ and ‘imbecility’, diagnoses that have altered meanings in modern vocabulary.  The majority of children that I encounter in my research were diagnosed as mentally disabled.

I first came across the records of the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge in the summer of 2012 when I was exploring alternative spaces that catered for insane children.  The charity’s archival material has been well maintained and its detail instantly piqued my interest in the philanthropic efforts of the Refuge.  I didn’t expect to find much about mental illness within the archive but the personal narratives that it revealed were compelling.  The charity, relatively overlooked by historians, spread across Manchester and included homes and shelters for vulnerable, abandoned, and orphaned children.  What really sparked my curiosity was the role that the Refuge played in the emigration of pauper children to Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.  I knew of similar emigration programmes in other cities, but had not heard of one operating in Manchester.

Child emigration met a number of middle-class philanthropic goals.  Firstly, the children were settled with stable farming families in rural Canada where they were exposed to the benefits of domesticity. Secondly, they were made productive through employment on farms and consequently taught the value of their work.  Thirdly, they were considered to be settling the empire.  Finally, they got a new start in life, away from the dirt and vice of the industrial city.

Of course, the expectations of the reformers were overly optimistic and many of the children were beaten (some even killed), worked too hard, treated as outsiders in their foster families or exhibited some of the vices that were considered so detrimental to the British city.  These experiences have been documented elsewhere but they are important in setting the scene.  I was more interested in the mentally ill child and hopefully asked a question of the archival material: were children who were mentally “inferior” ever emigrated?  Of course, the records screamed back at me, in the stern reformist voice of Victorian philanthropy, that children needed to be in good health and have obtained a medical certificate attesting to such condition before they could embark on a voyage to Canada.  Alas, it seemed as if I had reached another dead-end attempting to discover unconventional spaces where child insanity was managed.

Perhaps a little selfishly, the apparent good physical and mental health of these children had left me a little downbeat.  To me it seemed as if emigration would have been an ideal way to rid the charitable homes of problem, awkward, or medically expensive children.  Maybe I had just formed an unnecessarily negative opinion of Victorian charity?  Then I came across a range of scholarship from Canada that suggested children emigrated from England were tainted by their ‘heredity’.  Cautious about such eugenics language, I continued my search of the child case files in Manchester to see if I could identify “taints”.  After a huge amount of trawling through the extant records I unearthed a handful of children described as insane in the individual annual reports sent back from Canada.  These children were said to be ‘epileptic’, ‘feeble-minded’, ‘imbecilic’ and some were eventually confined in Canadian lunatic asylums.  All were said to be congenital cases and had been emigrated despite their medical condition.

Somewhat frustratingly (to me at least), the mental inferiority of the children was only revealed when they were situated in families in Canada.  This letter sent from the distributing home in Canada demonstrates how authorities in England learned of the mental illness of one of their emigrants:

Edith A. was returned to the home because of her strange behaviour, she was becoming mentally unbalanced, had interrupted the minister in the service for one thing. She came here on Tuesday July 31st, was rational at times but gradually got worse requiring close attention all the time, for a night no one could sleep on that side of the house for her continual singing or knocking. We tried to coax her in every way as she thought herself quite a baby. At last we called in medical advice and she was examined by our own kind friend Dr Gibson and also by Dr McCall. Both gentlemen advised removing her to Rockwood Hospital for the Insane. They did their best to press the officials to take her in at once without the usual papers being signed, and they agreed yesterday. Miss Ramsey and I took her there. The superintendent thought she ought to have been sent to another hospital and so await further developments. In the meantime the doctor has to answer fifty odd questions that are asked. There is one question that may crop up, and that is who will pay for her there. She is under 18 and has been out three years.1

Of course, the Refuge would never have been able to justify the removal of the children if they had identified them as mentally disabled in Manchester.  When thinking of reasons for removing them I am left pondering two possible conclusions. Firstly, the Refuge, quite proudly at times, stated that the cost of emigrating a child was £10, but maintaining them in the city was an expense of £15 (for a healthy child) a year.  Children with mental disabilities were likely to be a burden on charity and ratepayers for a considerable amount of time, maybe even the rest of their lives. Their removal to Canada made good economic sense; it shifted a considerable expense to a faraway land for a reasonable one-off fee.

The second is more optimistic. The purpose of emigration for Victorian philanthropy, at least at a rhetorical level, was to provide a better life in a new land for those that were never going to be successful in the urban and industrial city. The open spaces of the countryside were considered therapeutic for those suffering from mental impairments and contemporary alienists thought that the agricultural classes were mostly exempt from insanity. Consequently, emigration was in the best interests of these children and Victorian charity provided them with a better life.

The binary nature of these conclusions bothers me, a lot! It is apparent that mentally disabled children were emigrated to Canada. The question is about the nature of Victorian philanthropy and whether the children were sent to improve their lives or the balance sheets of the charity? In the end I suppose the conclusions come down to personal interpretation and whether these youngsters were representative of the bright or dark side of Victorian charity.

For more information see Steven J. Taylor, ‘Insanity, Philanthropy and Emigration: Dealing with Insane Children in Late-Nineteenth-Century North-West England’, History of Psychiatry 25, no. 2 (2014): 224-236.

1.  Greater Manchester County Record Office, Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge, Emigration Files, M189/7/2/5/048-54, 7 August, 1913.
Posted in Features, Steven J. Taylor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Disability History Professional Workshop

Mike Mantin is a Research Fellow for the Wellcome Trust-funded project, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, at Swansea University.  Here he shares his impressions of a recent multidisciplinary workshop on disability history.

Disability history, by its very nature, crosses boundaries and disciplines. Writing about disability in history is writing about social and economic marginalisation, literary symbolism and changing interpretations and models of health. Most importantly, it resonates enormously with the contemporary fight for health and welfare for disabled people. It is with this in mind that the collaborative history project on which I work as a Research Fellow, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, organised our professional workshop, Looking Back, Moving Forward. Held at Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum in early April 2014, the event brought together various healthcare professionals —ranging from student nurses to physiotherapists and archivists— to discuss the history of disability in the coalfields and the everyday dangers facing workers in one of the most dangerous of British industries.  Although South Wales’ once-sprawling coalmining industry has all but disappeared, all those working in healthcare in the area were familiar with its lasting health impact, making confronting the past even more important.

Rescue Brigage of a Coal Mine

A rescue brigade of a coal mine in Wattstown, Wales, in 1914. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

After brief talks by Anne Borsay and David Turner introducing the study of disability in the past, the workshop participants were split into four small groups for sessions themed around a particular source. The sessions brought together material for discussion from across the timespan of the project, making room both for the rulebooks of eighteenth-century friendly societies and Second World War propaganda films about rehabilitation centres. The vivid sources were at the centre of each session and helped spark the discussion. Steve Thompson and Ben Curtis’ talk explored the spread of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from the most human of perspectives, by using a Picture Post article profiling the 1929-30 Aberpergwm football squad.  The team had flourished that season but, by 1945, seven players were struck with the disease; the remaining four were either dead or seriously injured from accidents.

Elsewhere, David Turner and Dan Blackie used the rules of mutual aid associations to explore the ‘mixed economy of welfare’ for disabled miners. Whilst the dreaded workhouse loomed large in popular and historical imagination, the voluntary sector played a crucial role, adding further complexity to discussions about the historical roots of the modern concern with ‘welfare dependency’. Another session led by Kirsti Bohata and Alex Jones shifted the focus to coalfields literature, much of which recorded the proliferation of disability in the pits and the mining towns. Disability served not just as a symbol of the industry’s human devastation but as a narrative device, individualising the lived experience of disability.

Life Begins Again Session

Participants watch the wartime rehabilitation film, Life Begins Again. Photo courtesy of Mike Mantin.

My session, co-run with Anne Borsay, used as its discussion point the short wartime film Life Begins Again, which follows a disabled worker from injury to recovery in the new industrial rehabilitation centres, explained via the somewhat questionable acting skills of the doctors and physicians working in the institutions.  The viewer is taken into rehabilitation centres such as Talygarn House in South Wales, which used a model based as much on returning patients to economic productivity and masculinity as to fitness and health.  We ran the workshop with each of the four small groups during the day.  All four of the discussions we witnessed were completely different, and all centred around the work experiences and opinions of the participants. The rehabilitation programme’s embrace of holistic medicine and industry-specific programmes of returning to work struck a chord with some of the workshop participants. Many saw the ambitiousness of the programme, and its embrace of both physical and mental treatment, as something that might be a positive influence on modern-day healthcare. Others pointed out how the film was very much a product of its time, as it was a programme of state rehabilitation aimed at filling a labour shortage created by the war. (That, and the fact that everyone is chain-smoking throughout.)

The final session of the day was a plenary discussion led by Andrew Davies of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, Rhian Davies of Disability Wales, and Joy Merrell of the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University.  The plenary discussed the themes explored in all of the sessions and tied together disability issues historical and contemporary. Andrew Davies saw the treatment of disabled people in the past as a cause for reflection on modern-day issues of accessibility, which he argued should be at the heart of disability policy.  Rhian Davies discussed the individualised narratives of the sources and stressed the need for society to recognise the need for disability access and move on from the notion that disabled people have an individual duty to simply ‘get better’. Merrell saw the event as highlighting the need for the healthcare profession to look back at the past and ask what modern-day lessons it can offer. A particularly important point she brought up was the need to recognise the multiple sources of medicine and welfare in the historical coalfields, with voluntary and community care side-by-side with emerging state welfare and health programmes.

The feedback for the workshop was positive. Participants told us that they enjoyed discussing historical issues with the varied group and contrasting historical issues with current standards and practices. As well as this, the workshop allowed for an open forum to think about conceptions of disability, the historical roles of the patient and the healthcare professional and the complex legacy left by the coal industry —not just its devastating record of disease and illness, but also its strong communities. The lesson that we took away from the day is the importance for historians to work with the communities and professionals whose lives continue to be affected by the histories they study.

Posted in Conferences, Events, Mike Mantin, New Researchers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Feature: Exporting Visions and Saving Children- The Swedish Save the Children Fund

Ann Nehlin is a researcher at the University of Stockholm in Sweden.  In March 2014, she gave a VAHS seminar on the relief efforts of the Swedish Save the Children Fund in the mid-twentieth century (listen to the podcast here).  In this blog post, she reveals how the organisation navigated the difficult politics of the Second World War and its aftermath.

That children should be exempted from war and political conflicts, regardless of their nationality and religious affiliation, is considered self-evident by most countries’ governments and non-governmental organisations.  The number of nations that ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989 is a clear sign of this.  However, looking back historically, we can see that upholding this principle has been difficult.  In the aftermath of the two world wars when nationalistic currents and political conflicts in Europe were strong, politics appear to have played an important role in determining how relief activities for children were performed.

This is particularly visible in Swedish international relief activities directed towards children during and after the Second World War.  The task of preventing nationality, politics, religion, or background from influencing how, where, and to whom relief was directed was hampered by the politics of neutrality adopted by the Swedish government at this time.  However, philanthropic organisations such as the Save the Children Fund have played an important role in bringing attention to and dealing with such issues in Sweden.  The organisation has had a large impact in shaping politics and policies relating to children’s welfare.

Child Transport from Finland
Child transport from Finland. Photo courtesy of the Finnish Archives of National Defence, SA-Kuva.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Swedish government stipulated neutrality, which in brief meant that it did not participate in armed conflicts or side with any of the warring countries.  With regard to the reception of refugees the Swedish government followed the so-called “Nordic prerogative”, meaning that it prioritized ethnic Nordic neighbours.  This was also the case for Swedish international relief work.  Swedish relief was mainly directly towards the Nordic countries and the bulk of that relief went to Finland.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund chose to work with the government’s outlined policies and thereby gained the government’s trust.  The organisation expanded rapidly, from a modest 260 members in 1937 to 47 000 members by 1947.  Apart from an enormous increase in members, it gained a position as an informal advisor to the Swedish government, recommending where and to whom Swedish relief should be provided.

The close cooperation of the Swedish Save the Children fund with the Swedish government enabled the organisation’s growth, but it did come at a cost.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund was a member of the international Save the Children Fund.  This relationship required the Swedish organisation to take part in international relief activities.  Honouring this requirement, however, was complicated by the Swedish organisation’s commitment to its government’s politics of neutrality.  The international Save the Children Fund forwarded requests to the Swedish branch for support for relief actions in Europe during the Second World War, but these were mostly declined.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund did not want to go against the Swedish government’s politics.

Even if Sweden did not directly participate in the war, it was still affected.  After the government decided to enforce a politics of neutrality, it began to juggle how this was to be upheld; this balancing act was to last throughout the war.  Towards the end of the war, concerns about the potential post-war consequences of these policies began to surface and the Swedish government tried to counteract possible international critique by increasing its international relief work.  A substantial amount of money was allocated to relief and a government committee, responsible for all Swedish international relief, was established.  The decision to increase relief efforts triggered a “turf-war” amongst Swedish NGOs and the Swedish government as each competed for control over the distribution of relief.   One of the outcomes of this struggle was that the Swedish Save the Children Fund further enhanced its position.

The Swedish government’s changing standpoint on international questions towards the end of the war resulted in the provision of relief for non-Nordic countries.  This was primarily carried out by the Swedish Save the Children Fund and the Swedish Red Cross, but was supported by the Swedish government.  Not only did the increase in Swedish international relief work provide an opportunity to redeem Sweden’s dented reputation, but it also permitted the export of a Swedish visions of industry, childcare, and politics —a Swedish model of society.

The Swedish Save the Children Fund and the Swedish Red Cross established children’s homes and apprentice homes in France and Germany and, in the early 1950s, in Israel.  Locations for these institutions were carefully chosen and relief work was concentrated in specific areas to ensure that this relief was as visible as possible.  For example, one children’s home was established in Normandy in France.  One reason to pick these particular area ―apart from the need of local children― was that Swedish industry was well established in the region.  A children’s home would “complement and give life” to this industry.  Normandy was also geographically close to Sweden, which meant that transports of supplies and different kinds of materials, such as prefabricated Swedish houses, was easy and not too costly.

The children’s homes were decorated with Swedish textiles, Swedish equipment, and were staffed by Swedish personnel who were trained in modern Swedish childcare.  The establishment of the children’s homes was met with great interest and the institutions received many prominent visitors who were interested in modern Swedish childcare.  According to the Swedish Save the Children Fund, this generated much-needed goodwill for Sweden.

Swedish relief work was also directed at Germany.  Germany offered the opportunity not only to export Swedish welfare, but also a Swedish model of society.  After the war, it was not only considered important to demilitarise the Germans, but also to denazify or reorientate them.  This was intended to turn Germans into citizens who could live and function in democratic societies.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund actively participated in this task.  It set up children’s homes and apprentice homes in Germany, the interiors of which were carefully planned.  The organisation aimed to make the homes as homely as possible, using the best that Swedish industry could offer, as in the homes in France.

Swedenheim in Oberhausen

Swedenheim in Oberhausen, Germany. Photo courtesy of the Swedish Red Cross.

The establishment of the apprentice and children’s homes was considered a success.  Pompous inaugurations were held both in France and Germany and prominent people from the UN, government ministers, and members of the press and radio were invited to celebrate the Swedish contributions.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund planned to hand the management of the different homes over to local authorities once the institutions were up and running and staff trained.  However, this did not always work out as desired.  A representative of the Swedish Save the Children Fund who toured Germany in 1954 pointed out that the management of some of the homes had been neglected, which reflected badly upon Sweden.

The Swedish Save the Children Fund only made modest contributions to Jewish children during and after the war.  As late as 1947, the organisation declined a request from the Jewish World Congress to support transports of Jewish children from east to west, arguing that this could be considered a political act.  In the early 1950s the organisation did however carry out extensive relief work in Israel in conjunction with the Swedish government.  The Swedish Village Kfar Achim was established, mainly by the Swedish Save the Children Fund.  Seventy-five prefabricated houses were transported from Sweden and constructed on site.  There was also a nursery, yet again fully equipped with the best Swedish industry had to offer.  Here, too, pompous inaugurations  were held to celebrate Swedish gifts and contributions.

At this time, Swedish politicians were proud of the emerging Swedish welfare state.  These politicians generally considered that the Swedish democratic system could serve as a model for other countries.  The Swedish Save the Children Fund eagerly assisted in exporting Sweden and Swedish visions.  However, by doing so, it on several occasions compromised its utilitarian founding principle: to help as many children in as many places as possible.  The Swedish organisation repeatedly declined to subordinate itself to its international parent organisation or participate in relief work for children in places where it was most needed.  The need to restore Sweden’s international reputation and generate goodwill for the country frequently overshadowed humanitarian goals.

Exporting Visions and Saving Children

Ann Nehlin’s book, Exporting Visions and Saving Children- the Swedish Save the Children Fund, was published in 2009.

Posted in Ann Nehlin, Features, Research, Seminars | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment