A guest post from Matthew Hilton, ahead of our forthcoming round table on ‘imperial humanitarianism’ (brief details here, more details to follow, but keep the afternoon of Friday 1 March free):
In the run-up to its fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1969, the humanitarian agency Save the Children (SCF) commissioned a film. Surprisingly for this rather conservative charity, it approached the overtly left-leaning film-maker, Ken Loach, fresh from the success he had had in highlighting the plight of the homeless in Cathy Come Home.
Loach was given free reign by SCF to make the film that he wanted. He picked on some surprising themes. Focusing first on a children’s home run by SCF in the UK, he depicted the staff as extolling all the worst patrician aspects of Victorian philanthropists. Turning to the fund’s work in Kenya, he implicated SCF in a system of neo-colonialist exploitation symbolised by its creation of what effectively amounted to an English public school in Nairobi. Warming to his theme, Loach then forgot about the SCF altogether and chose instead to undertake a wholesale attack on the very principles of charity. Linking the causes of poverty around the world, the film ends with a call for a global socialist agenda.
To suggest that SCF didn’t like the film would be to put it mildly. Senior executives and trustees were appalled at the private screening. But the lengths they then went to to bury the film were quite extraordinary. Loach and his film company were sued, and the film was eventually deposited at the British Film Institute on the understanding that no one could view it. Only in 2011 did the SCF finally permit a public screening.
Thanks to a deposition of the archives of SCF at the University of Birmingham, Loach’s accusations can now be tested. Researchers can explore the hundreds of boxes of material to see whether Loach was correct to argue that SCF was overly paternalist, too politically moderate, too connected with political and social elites to be able to offer an alternative point of view, and too hand in glove with governments to be able to speak truth to power.
Have things changed since? Certainly the organization’s CEO thinks it took a while. At the screening of the film in 2011 he made the extraordinary claim that from the 1960s to the 1980s aid did ‘more harm than good’. Unfortunately, we are not yet in a position to ask this of the SCF. Although the papers reside in the Cadbury Research Library, the NGO’s lawyers have blocked access to any papers after 1972. It is to be hoped that this decision will be changed soon and SCF’s archives will be made available to researchers, like those of Christian Aid, War on Want, the Red Cross, and Oxfam (from 2014).
The Save the Children Fund archives are held at the Cadbury Research Library. The available inventories aren’t complete, but you can get a preliminary look by searching for ‘SCF’ in the catalogue. (At least one third-year Birmingham undergraduate is already writing her dissertation using earlier material from these archives.)