NGO chief defends working with “child labour” firms

Child labor in morona santiago, ecuador 1990 cropped

Save The Children chief says it's OK to partner with companies accused of child labour - as long as they're heading in the right direction

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28th July 2015 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

The head of a major, international children’s charity has defended working with firms which allegedly exploit child labour.

Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save The Children, said it was legitimate to strike up partnerships with the likes of Nike and Walmart.

The two global companies have been accused of using child labour in countries such as Bangladesh, but Forsyth says it is correct for the charity to work with firms which are trying to improve how they operate.

He said: “Nike has a very progressive policy on child labour. Whether it is already implemented in the right way is another question, and that’s the same with other companies.

“We’re not going to only work with companies that are perfect, but we’ll work with ones that are going in the right direction.”

Justin Forsyth, Save The Children

Justin Forsyth, Save The Children

If we can reinvent ourselves, we have an unbelievable opportunity. If we did what Save the Children did 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be having that kind of impact

In a wide-ranging interview with a national newspaper, Forsyth – who has been head of Save the Children since 2010 – also defended its corporate partnerships with the likes of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Unilever, Pearson and Goldman Sachs.

On GSK, which the charity has a £15 million partnership with, he said: “I saw Andrew Witty, the head of GSK, the other day and he wants to transform the company. He feels that GSK is a vehicle for addressing inequality in health and addressing the bottom of that pyramid.

“That’s why they’re working on malaria, Ebola, pneumonia products. Obviously there’s a business case, but that company also believes the heart of their values is to do good in the world. I would say that a lot of companies aren’t in that position.

“We want to work with the ones that definitely want to make a difference in the world.”

Forsyth also shed light on one of the most controversial episodes of his time in charge so far: the backlash when the charity’s US arm awarded former prime minister Tony Blair a global legacy award.

This provoked outrage among the charity's supporters world-wide, who were incensed with the accolade because of Blair’s role in the Iraq war.

The award, for Blair’s work in Africa, saw an internal rebellion at the charity, with 500 members of staff signing a letter calling for it to be revoked.

Forsyth, a former Blair aide, said he was distant from the decision to honour Blair.

He said: “I’ve apologised to the people I upset over this. We were so busy at the time. We were overwhelmed with Syria and Ebola, and I just passed it over in my email to send it to Tony’s office. I didn’t register it. My political antennae should have been out and I should have cautioned the staff about it.

“There wasn’t a reaction anywhere else in the world. It was only in the UK. We didn’t get any reaction in the US, and this was a Save the Children US event.

“Most people would accept that Blair, with Gordon Brown, did a lot in the 2000s to make a massive difference on development. I think I had forgotten how toxic Blair has become in some people’s eyes. I thought this was a reward for the work he had done in Africa. I’ve travelled with Tony Blair to Africa and he’s treated with tremendous acclaim.”

Forsyth has overseen a massive expansion of the charity’s operations over the past five years.

By the charity’s own reckoning, the number of children it has helped has doubled from eight 15.4 million in this time.

It has an annual budget of $1.6 billion, a global staff of 14,000 and it works in 120 countries.

It recently took over the NDO Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International).

Forsyth said: “If we can reinvent ourselves, if we can think about achieving more, we have an unbelievable opportunity. If we did what Save the Children did 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be having that kind of impact.

“The problem with NGOs is that there is a danger of living in a politically correct and very narrow world and having less impact, rather than looking at ways of having an innovative impact. But we’re not throwing out our values in the process.”