Did Tony Blair really deserve to win GQ’s philanthropy award?


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Tens of thousands fewer Sierra Leonean children are suffering malaria fever. More than 3,000 sports coaches have been trained in one of England’s unhealthiest regions. And governance over 200 million Africans, some of them the poorest on the planet, has been improved.

It is a list of commendable achievements for a trio of British charities which in the last four years have spent £24m on pursuing their mandates to alleviate poverty and increase opportunity in locations from Hartlepool to Monrovia.

But when the founder and backer of these organisations is revealed as one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair and, as happened this week, he is handed a gong for philanthropic success, any chorus of applause is at risk of being drowned out by howls of outrage and disbelief.

GQ admitted that it had hoped it decision to to declare the former Prime Minister its “philanthropist of the year” at its annual awards ceremony would achieve “a bit of a stir”. The magazine would not have been disappointed.

MPs and commentators, including Gary Lineker, queued up to condemn the honouring of a politician tainted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and criticised for his subsequent career mixing diplomacy and good deeds with lucrative roles consulting for banks and questionable regimes, including oil-rich Kazakhstan.

The sense of disbelief - and Mr Blair’s image problem with sections of the public - was summed by one tweeter who wrote: “Tony Blair has won Philanthropist of the Year at the GQ Awards, seeing off tough competition from Kim Jong Un, and ISIS.”

Scrutiny of the annual accounts of Mr Blair’s trio of charities, set up following his exit from Downing Street, nonetheless reveals that the one-time PM and his foundations have made significant progress in tackling some of the ills identified by their globe-trotting patron.

In Sierra Leone, the former premier’s Faith Foundation, set up to help prevent religious prejudice and conflict, has pioneered the use of church and mosque congregations to spread education on measures to tackle malaria, a scourge which kills 750,000 worldwide each year and accounts for a quarter of all childhood mortality in the west African country.

Documents submitted to the Charity Commission cite research showing the scheme had reached at least a quarter of the population, increased the number of people using bed nets by 13 per cent and decreased the proportion of children suffering fever - the most common symptom of malaria - by eight per cent.

In Britain, the Tony Blair Sports Foundation has sought to improve public health in north east England, home to his former Sedgefield constituency, by encouraging participation of young and old in sport, and training thousands of coaches in a variety of sports.

While the inclusion of “indoor rowing” in that list may raise eyebrows, the charity, whose trustees including Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, has spent more than £500,000 since 2010 on projects including last year funding courses for nearly 1,200 volunteer coaches as well as hundreds of student cricket “leaders” in schools to encourage participation in one of Mr Blair’s preferred sports.

The third of the charities - the Africa Governance Initiative - now works directly with six countries, including Liberia, on the nebulous task of improving the delivery of basic public services - and advanced but vital technology such as the internet - by working directly with national governments. Its most recent accounts state that it is has added Nigeria and South Sudan to its list of partners, bringing the total number of people who could benefit from its work to 200 million.

GQ defended its award, saying it was the successes of the charities which had persuaded it to honour Mr Blair, whose office said this week that he had contributed £10m to charity, including “significant contributions” to his foundations. Among his wider donations is his £4m advance for - and all royalties from - his memoirs, which were given to the Royal British Legion.

In a statement, the magazine said: “GQ is pleased to acknowledge [the Blair charities’] work, and also his contribution to alleviating social deprivation in the UK.”

To his detractors, the foundations amount to window dressing for Mr Blair’s second career as a senior statesman and friend of assorted plutocrats. Donors to his Faith Foundation have included the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk and Michael Milken, a reformed fraudster once dubbed the “Junk Bond King”.

Rupert Murdoch also gave $100,000 (£60,000) to the charity’s American arm before the relationship between he and Mr Blair soured, apparently over the alleged friendship between the former Labour leader and the media mogul’s ex-wife Wendi Deng.

Speaking after the announcement of the award at a celebrity-packed gathering on Monday, the Labour backbencher John Mann said: “It sends the wrong message. This sort of award should go to an unsung hero who has given up their time for charity.”

Mr Blair’s aides pointed out that he had dedicated the award to staff and volunteers, adding his charities would continue to “provide innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues”.

In a previous interview, the former Prime Minister once said: “In the charitable world… more often than not there will be the warmest of welcomes for anyone wanting to contribute to a common endeavour.”

His critics are likely to continue to disagree.