Fresh from talking to Save the Children about their founders and their early days, Emily Baughan writes for us on what historians and charities can learn from each other.
When I first began research in the archives of Save the Children, they were housed in the organisation’s UK head offices in London. As I read harrowing accounts of the 1921 Russian famine, I sat metres away from a team organising deliveries of food and medicine to famine stricken regions in Niger during the 2010 East Africa Famine Appeal. Witnessing these two food crises unfold alongside each other, I saw that the questions and problems being faced by the staff as Save the Children today were similar to those which confronted their predecessors over almost ninety years before. This experience left me with a conviction that historians can and should have important inputs into conversations about contemporary humanitarian practice and policy.
If historians wish to be heard by humanitarian organisations which, by their very nature, lurch from one crisis to the next, they must find ways to make their research accessible. One very obvious way of doing this is by directly talking to organisations, as I enjoyed doing at Save the Children offices in Cardiff and London this spring.
The early leaders of Save the Children, sure that they would be remembered as the ‘heroes of the age’, were careful to compile a ‘devastating mass of documents for a future history-reading generation’. They even spoke of their ‘pity’ for the historians who unearthed their prolific paper trail! Yet, conscious of this future interest in their work, they began to mythologise their origins and sought to obscure instances of conflict and controversy. They did so by centring the story of Save the Children’s early years upon one of their early leaders, Eglantyne Jebb, who was portrayed as a saintly figure ‘ahead of her time’ in her concern for ‘all the word’s children’ in a period of nationalism and xenophobia.
In my talks, I offered a more complete reading of the Save the Children’s early history, reintegrating the wide range of actors that influenced its work, and situating its discussions and decisions within the wider social and political context of the era. Rather than being saintly, otherworldly figures, Save the Children’s founders grappled with many of the questions facing charities today. Should they use graphic missing word to fundraise, or would these offend public sensibilities? Should they further their reach by co-operating with governments and business, or would this compromise their integrity? How should they interact with other charitable organisations with which they were in ‘competition’ for donations? With limited resources, how did they decide which children should be helped?
In a bid to overcome the controversy associated with their work, Save the Children’s early leaders claimed that humanitarianism was a universal ethos, distinct and separate from political concerns. Matching the rhetoric of ‘non-political humanitarianism’ with the Edwardian discourse of ‘scientific philanthropy’, the choices they made were claimed to be ideologically neutral – the natural outcome of the intersection between universal concern and pragmatic common sense.
This, of course, was not the case. Actions which appeared as neutral were underscored by the ideas and assumptions of the interwar era. Their relief work on the continent of Europe betrayed Victorian value judgements about the deserving and undeserving poor. Efforts in Africa upheld the importance of colonial intervention. In their discussion of the British poor, they were influenced by the ‘the science of eugenics’.
As historians, our role is not to castigate charities for past actions out of step with present norms and values. The best corrective we can offer to organisations’ celebrity origins stories is to denaturalise purportedly universal humanitarian norms. We should show that, far from being politically neutral, humanitarian acts and actors have been deeply influenced by contemporary norms and ideological agendas. Understanding this, I believe, is vital in order to open up debate in the present day humanitarian sector. If humanitarian is understood as a flexible and contingent ideal, there can be greater scrutiny of contemporary efforts, and greater innovation in future planning.
I benefited enormously from the talks I gave at Save the Children UK in London and Save the Children Wales in Cardiff. Fielding questions from a new audience, well versed in many of the issues I deal with, was a great way to gauge which aspects of the project seem particularly important and interesting. It helped me to rediscover the relevance and reality of Save the Children’s past, several years since I first ventured into their archives.