Opinion Articles

Humanitarian impartiality, anti-austerity and the political turn of NGOs

  • RSS Feed Icon

In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown lifted the ban on political lobbying by charities. Conservative critics claim that, as the 2015 election approaches, major humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly revealing their implicit Labour bias. In The Spectator recently, editor Fraser Nelson argued that, instead of buying food for ‘African children’, charities are producing thinly veiled attacks on austerity politics.

Oxfam and Save the Children, two of Britain’s largest international charities, have been particularly criticised. In What Oxfam doesn’t want you to know: global capitalism means less poverty than ever, Nelson claims that Oxfam has been the victim of a ‘hijacking’ by ‘the politicised left’. Oxfam’s recent campaigns argue that the ‘redistribution of money and power from the few to the many’ is the only way to truly eradicate poverty. This is little more than left-wing propaganda according to Nelson who also alleges that Save the Children has become ‘Save the Labour Party’. With its UK branch headed by former New Labour campaign director, Justin Forsyth, Save the Children has, Nelson states, sought to rehabilitate former Prime Minister Tony Blair via a controversial ‘Humanitarian Legacy Award’, while wasting its resources on anti-Conservative anti-austerity adverts.

The conservative critique of Oxfam and Save the Children centres on the notion that charity must be impartial. This impartiality, it is argued, should not only be evident in how aid is given overseas - i.e. without reference to religion, ethnicity, or political creed - but also in the way that charities relate to public policy in the UK. According to The Spectator, Save the Children was founded upon its reputation of political impartiality. This is not the case. Save the Children was founded in 1919 by a group of British internationalists, led by feminist socialist Dorothy Buxton. Early members included Ramsay MacDonald, later Britain’s first Labour Prime Minster, radical economist, John Maynard Keynes, and pacifist suffragette Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence. They viewed charity as a vehicle for political protest against the harsh reparations payments forced onto Germany after the First World War. They predicted, correctly, that the suffering caused by post-war reparations would cause resentment that would lead to another war. Save the Children’s humanitarian work for impoverished German children was matched by vigorous political lobbying. In a series of pamphlets and petitions, Save the Children accused the British Government of ‘waging war by starvation’ and ‘endangering peace by through reckless economic sanctions’. The charity sought not only to alleviate poverty, but also to challenge the government policies that had created it.

However, the early leaders of Save the Children quickly realised that their concern for the ‘children of former enemies’ was unpopular with the British public. One fundraiser, collecting donations at the Henley Regatta, was asked ‘why feed the children who will raise up and kill us twenty years hence?’ In the climate of xenophobia that followed the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Save the Children was accused of being ‘pro-German’. Its leaders quickly realised that to attract donations they would need to change their image.

A painful choice had to be made between political campaigning and humanitarian fundraising. In 1921, a mass famine was sweeping Soviet Russia and, when Save the Children attempted to collect funds for its child victims, they were accused of being ‘pro-Bolshevik’ by the Daily Express. Founder Dorothy Buxton, believed that Save the Children should campaign against British involvement in the ongoing Russian civil war, which she considered was prolonging the conflict and causing the famine. Her politically-savvy sister, Eglantyne Jebb, convinced her otherwise. Save the Children would have to ‘kick sand over’ its left-wing political leanings in order to attract donations. The charity hired M.G. Hamilton, former press secretary to the Daily Mail, as their full-time fundraiser. In his appeals, Hamilton claimed that humanitarian work was ‘entirely non-political’, focused simply on saving ‘innocent children’ rather than challenging the conditions that had produced their poverty.

In claiming to be ‘non-political’, the early Save the Children became palatable to the conservative establishment and aristocratic elite. It gained status. Following initial public hostility to its Russian Famine appeal, in 1921 Save the Children was charged with delivering humanitarian relief funded by the British government to Soviet citizens. Save the Children also gained influence. From the 1930s onwards, it was invited to consult on numerous government committees about child health and wellbeing in the UK. It successfully lobbied, for example, for the introduction of milk in schools in 1944, and the expansion of state-funded nursery school services in mining towns during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But status and influence came at a price. To maintain the veneer of political impartiality, Save the Children leaders found themselves unable to speak out against, for example, the failure of the British government to respond effectively to the persecution of children in Hitler’s Germany. Many on Save the Children’s leadership council believed ‘weighing in on German affairs’ would  ‘destroy our reputation for neutrality’.  In spite of the urgings of Buxton, the charity did not criticise the British government’s policy of appeasement, fearing that would undermine ‘painstakingly built’ relationships with political leaders. Save the Children declined also to publicly attack the government’s ‘disregard’ for the children of the unemployed during the Great Depression. Instead, it used this as an opportunity to forge a closer relationship with policy makers as it ‘stepped into the breech’, increasing its own provision for British children where the state fell short. Political impartiality became tacit support for the politics of the status quo.

Formed in 1942, Oxfam was made up of disenchanted Save the Children leaders. Frustrated by Save the Children’s close relationship with the establishment, Oxfam spent its early years challenging British militarism and imperialism. It provided food aid to civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe, which illegally undermined the Allied blockade of Nazi territories, a harsh military strategy designed to weaken civilian morale and hasten the end of the war. In the 1950s and 1960s Oxfam worked with anti-colonial nationalists to build independent African societies and economies. Oxfam was founded by the left, not – as Nelson argues – hijacked by it.

Charity is not – nor has it ever been – politically impartial. Humanitarian NGOs’ recent political turn can be seen and celebrated as a return to first principles. Charities should own their politics, allowing donors to make informed decisions about the policies and principles that they support. Humanitarian NGOs should not respond to recent attacks by asserting their political impartiality. While in the short term this affords influence, in the long term it limits independence. Rather, charities should insist that that the alleviation of poverty is a political matter. Oxfam and Save the Children have a duty not only to fight poverty, hunger and disease. They should also challenge the political and economic systems that have caused them. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More