A foundation set up by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is donating £20 million ($29 million) to British NGO Save the Children to train a “next generation” of emergency aid workers from developing countries.
The six-year pledge was first announced on 19 May, weeks after the UN accused a Saudi-led military coalition of killing 510 children in Yemen last year. Critics say Save the Children should not take the money on ethical grounds and that it weakens respect for international humanitarian law. Others say humanitarian funding is often tainted and ask why Saudi Arabia should be singled out for criticism.
Saba Al Mubaslat, chief executive of Save the Children’s Humanitarian Leadership Academy, welcomed the donation in a press release: “We are delighted to partner with HRH Prince Alwaleed, a philanthropist who sees the benefit of investing in front-line responders, investing in peace and investing in a global public good.”
The multibillionaire prince chairs Alwaleed Philanthropies, the source of the funding. The donation will go towards setting up 10 training centres for professional humanitarian responders over the next few years. By the end of 2016, new centres will be set up in Dubai and Bangladesh, according to Save the Children. On 1 June, Alwaleed also joined the Giving Pledge, a club of ultra-rich charitable donors started by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. Alaweed Philanthropies, via its PR firm, declined to comment for this article.
Despite being a prominent royal, Save the Children pointed out to IRIN that Alwaleed “does not hold a government position”. Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center however told IRIN that Alwaleed is “clearly aligned with government policy, and over the years he has always been careful about criticising wrongdoings by the Saudis”.
A senior staff member at a humanitarian NGO, who requested anonymity, told IRIN that accepting the donation is highly dubious because of “a stark and fundamental contradiction between Saudi behaviour in the real world and what the aspirations or goals would be of this Humanitarian Leadership Academy”.
The funding crosses an ethical line, he said, in a style of “anything goes” fundraising, practised notably by Save the Children, but also by many other aid organisations: “It’s not where you draw the line, it’s that no one’s drawing any line. No one.”
Save the Children UK, in a written response to IRIN questions, said the grant passed the organisation’s “robust” donation acceptance policy. The policy “means deciding whether the impact the charity can have through programming and advocacy funded by a donor or partner outweighs any potential risks that the donor’s practices may have on children, our staff, or Save the Children’s reputation.” In 2014, the NGO’s donation acceptance process declined only £700,000 out of a potential £22.5 million in “high-risk opportunities”.
If there is a line, many aid agencies have already crossed it, a senior UN official working on the Middle East told IRIN. (The UN received over $300m of humanitarian funding from Saudi Arabia in 2015). He said any aid agency, UN or NGO, taking UK or US money, but turning their nose up at Gulf funding because of Yemen, was operating a double standard, “verging on racism”. “The Yemen war would not last 10 minutes without the support of the Americans and the British. Impossible.”
As long as the donor does not influence decision-making nor become too dominant as a proportion of income, any ethical dilemma is no greater with Saudi Arabia than with the US or UK, he argued, adding: “it’s about whether the money converts into control” and whether grantees gag their own public statements. If Save the Children, for example, were to stop condemning rights violations by Saudi Arabia, “you’d have to ask questions”, he said. In a written response to questions from IRIN, Save the Children said: “This donation in no way impacts our programme or advocacy work in Yemen or elsewhere,” pointing to its recent statements on the UN-Saudi Arabia “list of shame” furore.
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition was named for killing and injuring children and bombing schools and hospitals in an annual UN review of the impacts of war on children. Saudi Arabia strenuously rejects the findings of the report and its listing along with other offenders in a “blacklist” annexed to the document. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted he had capitulated to demands from Saudi Arabia and its allies for the country to be at least temporarily delisted. The climb-down was slammed by a range of organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and InterAction, a US consortium which includes Save the Children’s US wing.
The NGO staffer said the timing could hardly be worse for the Save the Children funding news: “Here you have the Saudis putting the squeeze on the [UN] secretary-general in the exact opposite way that you would want from the perspective of humanitarian leadership.”
Barakat, of Brookings, commented that it would be “unfair” to see the funding as an attempt to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s reputation, partly because it was already in play before the latest controversy. He did comment on the international flavour of the grant, saying: “I think, in general, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries should be made accountable for what’s going on in their immediate neighbourhood and invest the money to build capacities, first locally, nationally, regionally and, if there is extra money, internationally. It is quite depressing when you see them investing huge amounts of money [abroad]. This is clearly about soft power and they don’t do this sort of thing at home.”
The Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) intends to provide specialist training for humanitarian management, especially for professionals from the global south. Its first initiatives are in Kenya and the Philippines. HLA was registered as a UK charity in January 2015. Its chair is Jemilah Mahmood, and the board includes Mark Goldring, the CEO of Oxfam. Other trustees include a Save the Children executive, the vice chairperson of the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, and figures from academia and the private sector. Jan Egeland, chief of the Norwegian Refugee Council, stepped down from the board in March 2016 to work on the Syria situation.
On behalf of Goldring, an Oxfam spokesperson told IRIN: “Mark has received assurances that all due process were followed in checking the suitability of this donation and that the Humanitarian Leadership Academy can accept this generous support.” Other trustees contacted by IRIN for this report either did not respond or referred enquiries to Save the Children.
An earlier controversy last year over Saudi humanitarian aid centred on a donation of $274 million, specifically for Yemen, that was held up by issues of independence and ethical concerns.
Save the Children’s launch of the HLA was set back by funding issues. The 2014 annual report states that the venture “…was delayed until 2015 pending funding decisions”. The HLA has also now received backing from the UK, Norway, the Gates Foundation and Unilever, according to Save the Children. In open data published by the UK, Alwaleed’s donation matches a multi-year £20 million pledge from the UK’s Department for International Development.
Barakat told IRIN: “The real question is why did he not invest in the region… and why would he want to give it to Save the Children to do global work?… Clearly he is trying to get an international headline.”
The NGO staff member was adamant: “The point is obvious. The Saudis are violating every humanitarian rule in the book in Yemen… You, Save the Children, one of the leading INGOs in the world, you’re willing to take 20 million pounds from the Saudis for a quote-unquote humanitarian leadership academy… Right now, money talks, period.”