Independent Appeal: 'We're making a difference for millions of children'

Justin Forsyth is the pioneering boss of Save the Children – one of the charities in the Independent Christmas Appeal. He tells Paul Vallely how lives can be transformed

These are hard times and you might expect the boss of one of Britain's biggest charities to be gloomy. But Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children, is surprisingly upbeat. "The hidden story on global poverty is one of real progress," says the man who took over at the helm of Save the Children a year ago and has made it, in that short time, one of the most innovative and impressive overseas charities.

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"People are surprised by that, because places like Africa really only get on our TV screens when there is a terrible crisis, like the disaster in East Africa at present," he says. "But actually, out of view, in Asia and in Africa we've had these big steps forward. And people need to know that because what they have done, through giving and through campaigning with Make Poverty History, has transformed millions of people's lives for the better."

That might seem an odd thing for a charity fundraiser to say. You might expect him to begin with the traditional cry of moral outrage at the fact that there are still 7.6 million children across the globe who die every year from preventable diseases.

"Moral outrage has its place," he concedes, "but you also have to acknowledge that just a few years ago that figure was 12 million and we have got it down dramatically. There is still a lot of work to do, of course, but we have shown what can be done through a combination of mass vaccination, more health workers and better health systems in the poorest countries."

As a nation the British are instinctively generous. "That goes very deep, even in these tough times. There is a group of people that doesn't like aid but there's a much bigger group that feels very supportive. It's deep in the DNA and psyche of the British people: Comic Relief, Live Aid, Make Poverty History and Jubilee 2000 show that. The challenge now is, how do we accelerate that?"

Forsyth is entitled to take the long view on this. At university in the 1980s a political exile from Namibia involved him in solidarity action with a country then under the thumb of South Africa's white apartheid government. It led to his first job working as researcher at Oxfam where he progressed through the policy, advocacy and campaigns departments. He became the key figure in its campaigning strategy, setting up Oxfam International in Washington to pressurise the Clinton White House, UN, IMF and World Bank. After that he was special adviser to Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown on Africa, development and climate change.

What characterises Forsyth's approach in all those jobs is not just an appetite for hard work and mastery of detail but also his openness to innovation. Under him Save the Children – which is one of the three charities in the Independent Christmas Appeal – has introduced a scheme to replace food aid from Europe's subsidised food mountains with fresh food supplied by local traders in Africa that stimulates rather crushes the local economy.

A pilot scheme for treating pneumonia in Ethiopia has cut child deaths by 17 per cent and is now being rolled out across the country. New ways of keeping children in education have been pioneered in earthquake and war zones. It has come up with new methods of tracing children lost in disaster areas and developed foster systems as an alternative to refugee orphanages. "These all seem quite small things but they make quite a big difference," he says.

His vision is to spread change though signature projects such as the one in India where a physician called Dr Bang taught ordinary women in a few villages five simple health techniques. "It cut child deaths by 62 per cent and the approach is now being rolled out by the government to 500 million people in India," he adds. "We're now applying that approach in 15 other countries and trying to get governments there to adopt them.

"That's my model of change: brilliant on-the-ground programmes; Lancet-quality evidence to prove they work; and then replication on a massive scale to accelerate change based on knowing what works – and addressing underlying root causes as well as relieving immediate symptoms. Last year we reached 10 million children but I'm hoping we can scale that up to teach hundreds of millions of children."

His innovation encompasses fund-raising too. The ITV talent show Born to Shine teamed up talented youngsters with celebrities to raise £2.1m for Save the Children. He got the showbiz agent Simon Fuller, to ask 150 world famous people – including Lady Gaga, Eminem and David Beckham – to tweet in support of a record Bob Marley's family had given to the East African appeal. It drove 800 million people to a donation website. "The thing I've learnt," Forsyth says, "is that you have to be very popular in your methods of communication."

Approaches have to change because the world is changing. Nearly three-quarters of the world's poorest people – 1.2 billion people – do not live in the poorest countries. They live in middle-income countries such as Brazil and India. "Of the 7.6 million kids who die unnecessarily every year, two million live in India," he says. "Growing in equality is a big challenge."

India may have high economic growth but a million Indian children die annually from malnutrition. The caste system still entrenches huge poverty. There is massive discrimination against girls. Aid isn't going to be the answer to that. So Forsyth funds an Indian Save the Children, led and staffed by Indians, that enrols Bollywood and cricket stars to campaign to get the Indian government to prioritise the poor.

Two things have shaped Forsyth's thinking. "I worked for Oxfam on Rwanda in the genocide," he recalls. "If you lived and worked through that, where half your staff got caught up in it, it changed you for ever. I was in Mogadishu before that, just before American Marines were killed there, and I knew that if that hadn't happened the world would have intervened in Rwanda and we wouldn't have had nearly a million dead. That made me more of a humanitarian interventionist."

The other influence was seeing Make Poverty History bear massive fruit in the Gleneagles G8 deal on aid and debt. "That shaped my politics: think big, go for it, mobilise millions of people, get results. The millions of campaigners who made Gleneagles happen should feel enormously proud. They changed something for ever. Six million people are getting Aids treatments where almost none did before. One hundred per cent debt cancellation was agreed. Child deaths have been cut, and maternal mortality. More kids are in school. There's economic growth in Africa, more democracy, fewer countries in conflict, bans on land mines and cluster munitions. We have made massive dents on intractable problems."

He continued that approach in working with David Cameron, Andrew Mitchell, Bill Gates and many NGOs to push for international action last year at the Global Vaccines and Immunisation Summit that reached a deal to vaccinate 250 million more children by 2015. "That will save four million lives. Most of the world's politicians are so fixated on their own domestic problems that they can't see the wood for the trees. Cameron, to his credit, is an honourable exception, as is George Osborne who has real personal commitment here. The lesson I learnt from working with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the G8 and G20 is that we need just a few politicians of vision to prevent the agenda from stalling internationally."

If that can be avoided, he feels, given the progress that has been made in learning what kinds of aid are most effective, the world could be on the edge of a big change. "It really does feel that we could be the generation that makes sure very few children die of preventable illnesses and that all children can go to school. It sounds ambitious, but I really think it can be done."

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