Save the Children CEO on a new era of competition for aid

Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children. Photo by: Eric Roset / Africa Progress Panel / CC BY

LONDON — Kevin Watkins, cerebral and softly spoken, could easily pass as an academic.

But this unassuming, bespectacled man is over a year into one of the biggest jobs in the United Kingdom’s aid sector.

Watkins took over as chief executive of Save the Children in September 2016, after years working on the research side of development. He now manages one of the largest NGOs in the sector, overseeing offices in 68 countries and an annual budget of more than £400 million ($539.5 million).

Speaking to Devex at the charity’s headquarters in central London, he reeled off the long list of global injustices that Save is determined to help address, physically ticking them off on his fingers as he went: Bringing health care to children in regions wracked by famine and war; tackling extreme poverty; fighting for the restoration of children’s rights.

In particular, though, Watkins points to the challenge of pneumonia. “Pneumonia is now the biggest killer of children globally,” he explained. “It is the most neglected killer of children. [There are major partnerships] for malaria through the Global Fund, or even for measles or even for diarrhoea. So you have a situation where the biggest killer of children globally is coming down more slowly than any of the other killers.”

Save the Children is trying to build partnerships to bring new medical technology to the fore in this challenge, complementing work with UNICEF and government and corporate partners on getting life-saving drugs and equipment into hospitals and clinics.

We certainly intend throwing campaigning resources at this,” he said, adding that he wants “to get it on the agenda at the World Bank and the United Nations agencies in a way that it hasn’t been so far.”

With a new Department for International Development leader settling into the U.K. Cabinet, the job also brings a powerful advocacy role at home, as the development sector tries to influence the government’s approach to aid under Penny Mordaunt.

“I am expecting to meet her in the near future,” he said with a smile.

Watkins sat down with Devex to discuss his first year at Save, and the challenges that lie ahead for the aid sector — from competing with the private sector to grappling with more intense scrutiny from the media.

The transition from research

Watkins is still a visiting fellow at Oxford University — the same place he got his doctorate in the ‘80s — as well as a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. He took over at Save from Justin Forsyth, who resigned from the post to become deputy executive director of UNICEF, bringing with him experience from UNESCO, the Brookings Institute and, most recently, his role as executive director of the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank.

But though he may have made the jump from researching development to overseeing it in practice, Watkins remains every inch a big thinker — or, as one acquaintance from his Oxfam days has put it, a “massive wonk.”

“I think ODI is an absolutely extraordinary institution,” he said. “It is stuffed to the rafters with fantastic thinkers who, apart from being brilliant researchers, are deeply engaged in trying to effect change.” The day he walked into ODI as its boss “was like walking into the world’s biggest toy shop,” he said.

Yet Watkins waved away any idea that the bridge from research to practice can be tricky to navigate — or that there is really any bridge at all. “The borders between think tanks and NGOs are increasingly blurred,” he argued. ODI and Save are “all part of the same club,” and “there’s an incredibly active intellectual debate that goes on” at the charity, he said.

Becoming business minded

Even in the world of multi-million-pound development charities, Save the Children’s coffers are healthy. Five years ago it declared an income of £283 million ($381.3 million), according to returns submitted to the charity commission. Since then, its income has grown year on year: From £342 million to £372 million ($460.8 million to $501.2 million) and then £389 million ($524.1 million), before topping £400 million ($539 million) for the first time in the 2016/17 fiscal year. As the U.K. government set down in law its commitment to ringfence 0.7 percent of gross national income for aid, so Save’s income from central government commissions has also risen, helping to make it one of the U.K.’s best-funded aid charities — outstripped only by Oxfam, according to the commission’s latest figures.

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These are the sorts of resources an NGO needs to pursue ambitious goals, and Watkins acknowledges that the market for securing those resources is “increasingly competitive.” Though a nonprofit, Save began bidding on contracts a few years ago, going toe to toe with large for-profit contractors such as Adam Smith International, Crown Agents and Price Waterhouse Cooper. As one of the industry’s first “nonprofit contractors,” Save is charting new territory for a sector that increasingly pressures charities to think like businesses.

“One of the things we have seen really over the last decade is the entry into the market for program delivery of some of the very big [private sector] players,” Watkins said. “They have obvious strengths, strengths that are associated with their scale, with their fiduciary capabilities and that sort of area.”

But Watkins argued that NGOs have advantages over the private sector of their own, which come “with our deep roots in communities where we have been working, the fact that we have programs and offices in countries they are unlikely to have programs and offices, that we have a level of expertise in relation to children’s issues that they don’t have.”

Watkins stretches his arms out to emphasise the point. “We have been in Yemen for well over 50 years,” he said. “We have an office in Northeastern Nigeria, in Borno state.” Save is currently “the biggest health provider in Somalia. These really are extraordinary platforms for us.”

And the charity has clearly been able to leverage these advantages. Their annual report states that last year they delivered multiyear government contracts to the value of £91 million ($122.6 million). As the number and size of contracts tendered by DFID has grown, NGOs have struggled to compete. But Watkins is confident that organisations such as his can balance their charitable missions with the capacity needed to win tenders.

He agreed with a senior Save the Children colleague who recently warned that development charities risk becoming “quite technocratic” in their pursuit of contracts. “Across this building [Save’s offices], if you speak to anyone, you’ll get a sense of the passion they bring to this job,” he said. “But you need procurement systems, you need supply chains, you need proper fiduciary reporting, you need to be able to report to donors on the costs and the inputs, the costs that you’ve incurred, the inputs that you’ve delivered.”  

“We are not exempt from value for money considerations, just because we are an NGO ... I don’t want to be part of a sector that hides behind empty rhetoric about our own NGO status.”  

—  Kevin Watkins, chief executive at Save the Children

“These are the basic functioning units of a business,” Watkins said. “Over the last few years we have put very significant investment into all that delivery infrastructure and procurement infrastructure.”

He is also relatively relaxed at the prospect of adhering to the same reforms DFID has introduced for its for-profit contractors, including greater openness in executive pay and accounting and more scrutiny across the supply chain.

“One area in which we would compete or outcompete anyone in the private sector is on transparency,” he argued. “If people want to know our salaries they can go and look on the website or in our annual report.”  

He goes further: Greater scrutiny is something NGOs should embrace. “We are not exempt from value for money considerations, just because we are an NGO with a mission to advance children’s rights,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of a sector that hides behind empty rhetoric about our own NGO status.”  

When Devex asked how charities like Save are handling the current funding climate, where NGOs must face the fact that charity status is no longer much of a shield against external criticism, Watkins smiled politely. If he has an opinion on how other organisations compare on this, he is either too deferential or too careful to share it.

International trade-offs

Save, like other NGOs, must now learn to cope with an increasingly antagonistic media.

“There’s lots of incredibly ill-informed, ideological stuff that goes on about development now, which is not helpful,” he said of the current press climate, with obvious frustration.

The need to find a way to answer these critics has become particularly pronounced as humanitarian work becomes more entrenched in risky environments, he explained. Watkins described Save the Children’s work in Somalia, a country he has visited twice in the last 12 months, including nutrition clinics based in the south-central areas of the country from which the Somali government has largely withdrawn.  

Watkins said “a very large-scale Al Shabaab presence” has taken over the region, referring to the militant group responsible for atrocities on both sides of the Somali border, forcing Save the Children, like other humanitarian organisations, to make difficult trade-offs, and exposing them to criticism for not speaking out against some host regimes.  

His response is characteristically blunt.

“We often get criticised in the media,” he said. Journalists ask: “Why don’t you stand up and condemn dictator X or why don’t you renounce armed group Y in a country?”  

“And the answer to that is: One, I don’t want to get my staff arrested. Two, I don’t want to get them shot. Three, I don’t want to get the programme closed down in areas where we’re making a big difference. We are making complicated judgments, but that is the real world.”

Watkins may understand the need for pragmatism, but he is frank about the impact on children of the behaviour of some U.K. allies. One of the most worrying trends, he said, is the deterioration of the rights of children caught up in conflict.

“These are rights which are now violated with complete impunity,” he told Devex, “including by Britain’s allies in the case of Yemen, where there’s a blockade going on which has the potential to cause a famine, the bombing of children, the rape and abduction of schoolgirls and so on.”

“I think the U.K. has a paramount role to play in restoring the credibility of those rights.”

At Save’s political reception during the Conservative Party annual conference in October, Watkins didn’t shy from joining DFID in publicly decrying what he called “outrageous acts by U.N. troops against children in the name of peacekeeping,” an issue that former DFID chief Priti Patel had attempted to apply pressure on.

The U.N. must be as accountable as anybody else — another item to raise with the new secretary of state, he said.

About the author

  • Russell Hargrave

    Russell Hargrave is a freelance journalist and political consultant, with a special interest in development, migration, and finance. As well as Devex, he writes regularly for Public Finance, the Church Times, and He is the author of "Drawbridge Britain," a book about immigration since World War II, and advises the Liberal Democrats on refugee policy.