Why Save The Children’s Global Legacy Award to Tony Blair matters for C4D

Addendum 26 November: As the story unfolds, a new post:
Learning organization #fail: Save The Children’s PR to defend Blair is almost worse than award itself



I only read about Save the Children’s (STC) Global Legacy award to Tony Blair today and was surprised that it has not made bigger waves in the virtual development discussion spaces:

The controversial former Prime Minster received the Global Legacy Award at the Save the Children Illumination Gala 2014, which was held at The Plaza in New York City.
The star-studded event boasted a guest list featuring Save the Children President and CEO Carolyn Miles, acting couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner and Twilight actress Dakota Fanning – as well as the much-loved collie dog.
(…)
A spokesman said Blair had been chosen for the award on account of his work while serving as Prime Minster, including setting up the Department for International Development and hosting two G8 summits.
You surely need a bit of selective memory to just highlight these ‘achievements’ among the many other things that are, shall we say, a bit more controversial and involve a war in Iraq and PR work for autocratic regimes…

But at the same time the award was an eye-opener in terms of how the charity-industrial complex communicates with the rest of the world and how little critical C4D approaches often seem to matter in the mainstream. In some ways, I am almost grateful that STC gave an award to this controversial political figure (and I am being very, very polite here…):

The critical public sphere is smaller than we think

There is probably an overwhelming majority of people who stop their intellectual engagement with the topic after a quick ‘former Labor Prime Minister receives an award by some chidren
s charity’ reading of the story. I think the (absence of) reactions thus far show that few people make critical inquiries, question STC’s judgment or catch up on Blair latest business dealings. Or maybe they just like Ben Affleck better and focus on his appearance at the award ceremony…it is interesting that my first encounter with the subject was through a Russia Today article-which is usually not the best journalistic source for balanced, critical coverage...

We can no longer rely on political activism from large, professional charities
This may not be exactly news, but it is worth a reminder: Large NGOs, charities, ‘civil society organizations’ will not be among those organizations that will rock any domestic political boats. Oxfam tried and was quickly criticized as
overtly political and it mainly preached to the small choir of domestic development and social justice enthusiasts.
I think the STC award is a particularly bad example of how strategic PR, working with the elites and their representatives and institutions is replacing political messages-in the comments I have received it seems that STC is seen as very close to the British Foreign Office and the ‘establishment’.
I am sure that a journalist could solicit a comment from STC along the lines of ‘we are very conscious about our funding efforts in the Christmas period and we want to raise money to do good in our projects’-which is not entirely untrue, but I still wonder how a controversial former political leader is helpful in such endeavors.
(Addendum 24 November: A helpful, yet anonymous, commentator has pointed out that the event was hosted/organized by STC USA-not UK (although this is difficult to figure out from their global website). Since Blair's real or perceived achievements for UK's development landscape were key in his selection and the global CEO was in attendance this obviously happened with STC UK's consent and engagement-so they rightly deserve critical feedback).

What role for development communication professionals?

In some ways, I feel sorry for those professionals who need to defend the decision and will probably and hopefully receive more critical feedback from journalists and the wider public. But I am more concerned about potential bigger shifts in large charities away from ‘real C4D’ to PR-possibly similar to the way journalism is changing with fewer critical journalists being faced with more and better PR content that is produced by a growing industry. 

I understand that large British NGOs may not be the leaders in critical C4D efforts at home and that before the Christmas giving extravaganza they need to play it safe, but we (teachers, researchers, professionals) need to make sure that we do not forget the political foundations of our work amongst the celebritized ‘noise’ of songs, campaigns and awards and the discourses around managerial imperatives that ‘CEOs’ perpetuate to defend their choices for awards.
 
In the meantime, I can just encourage you to not donate to STC-they are probably happier with uncritical money from large donors than engaging with critical ‘members of the public’…

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