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What are international development charities for?

What are charities like Save the Children for? This is a question we must always be asking ourselves. Are we there to provide the services that children living in poverty need but do not have? Are we an alternative system to provide healthcare, education and other basic services?

Today I was able to visit some Save the Children projects for the first time since I joined this organisation and this subject was the forefront of my mind. In Wolliso district in Ethiopia, Save the Children has been working for many years on water and sanitation, health and education projects.

The colleagues there, managed and funded by Save the Children US, are not in any doubt about what they are doing and why. They know that they have to do the best that they can for children in that very poor area, but that they have to do it in ways that are sustainable.

The best example I had today was the Early Childhood Development approach that has been pioneered in this area. Firstly, Save the Children helped the local community to build schools for themselves in areas which were neglected. The government provides the teachers’ salaries but they work in a different way to other Ethiopian schools. Instead of the normal curriculum, in their first two years of schooling they are encouraged, in smaller than normal class sizes, to build their confidence, social skills and ability to process information through play and learning. This has been shown to improve their performance when they go into the formal school system.

Whilst admiring this, my first question is always: “How will this benefit all children in the country, not just the ones that Save the Children is able to support?” Again colleagues here were already ahead of me. Save the Children has persuaded the government to adopt this approach which is now being introduced into all state schools as a new Grade 0.

In addition, Save the Children has worked with the government and will hand over these schools to the government’s full control in 2011, freeing up Save the Children money to move into new districts which need the same approach.

This is exactly the answer I hoped to get to my questions. I am going on to visit some health projects in Tanzania and, of course, will be asking the same question there. (By the way, the photo shows me with some children at the schoool but be assured there definitely not only boys in the school. They were simply playing football near where we arrived. Save the Children is doing plenty to make sure girls get into education and stay there too).

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