Interview with Samantha Nutt, executive director of War Child Canada
METTA SPENCER: Hi, Sam! I’m so glad you’ve returned intact. You go to such dangerous places!
SAMANTHA NUTT: This time it wasn’t dangerous. We were in Jordan at the Syrian border, interviewing families living in displaced communities throughout Jordan. Over a million Syrian refugees have fled into neighboring countries—Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon—but Jordan itself has hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. One of the camps I visited, Zaatari, is the second largest refugee camp in the world, after Dadaab in Kenya.
But the situation there is now changing. Many refugees have left or are leaving the camps. There are often many hostile divisions within the camp, between refugees of different origins and ethnicity. For security reasons, if they get an opportunity, many families go live with an extended family member or, if they have the financial means, share a small house outside of the camp. The vast majority of the refugees in Jordan live in the communities, not in camps. The challenge, then is knowing where they are and making sure there are programs in place to protect the children, particularly those at high risk. Syrians are having difficulty integrating into Jordanian society—difficulty accessing schools and, because Syrians are not allowed to work unless they are granted a special exemption—which is rare and expensive—their families are often desperate. This presents enormous protection challenges for girls in particular, because they are at risk of being trafficked or forced into early marriages. Young boys are being used as child laborers or in other high-risk activities, such as street begging, because children are less likely than the father or the mother to be arrested and detained. Because of these growing needs, we’ve been focusing its efforts outside of the camps on enhancing child protection strategies.
SPENCER: “We” being…?
NUTT: War Child. We’re an organization that fills the gaps between emergency work and longer-term development work that tends not to occur until there is some measure of peace and security. We focus on three areas: education; access to justice; and what we call “opportunity,” which is economic development and poverty reduction. In education, for example, we do catch-up learning with kids, allowing them to reintegrate into schools, teacher training, and some basic school rehabilitation with communities if that’s required. Kids may be out of school for years during a war, and it is a major challenge both in terms of their intellectual development and future prosperity, but their emotional well-being as well. When you fall behind because of war, it can become a major disincentive to return to school at a later age. If you were in grade five when the war started, you wouldn’t want to go back to grade five when you’re 18 years old. This is one of the generational impacts of war that War Child is addressing in countries around the world.
Our Access to Justice programs in Uganda, Afghanistan and elsewhere focus on promoting the rule of law and eradicating sexual and gender-based violence. We train lawyers and paralegals; we support complainants who want cases to be brought forward to break the cycle of impunity. We do that through formal judicial work and informal processes—community mediation and conflict resolution.
The third pillar, “opportunity,” promotes economic livelihoods for families. We work with women in particular, but youth as well, because young people with access to income are less likely to join militant and rebel groups. They join for economic as well as ideological reasons, so if you can provide other ways for them to have a voice and earn an income, that remarkably reduces the number of kids being exploited.
SPENCER: To do all those services, you must have an enormous staff!
NUTT: (Laughs.) We don’t. War Child Canada has a budget of less than $8 million a year, but we focus on building up the capacity within the countries where we operate, so we always work with local partners, which is not only more efficient than sending foreigners overseas, but a better development model. We invest in them and train them, so we have 250 full- and part-time and national staff in the countries where we operate, all of whom have experienced the impact of war first-hand.
SPENCER: How many countries?
NUTT: Right now eight different regions, but we have been in as many as twelve at a time. There are more than 22 conflicts in the world now and we should be in all of them. We’re in Afghanistan, Darfur Sudan, South Sudan, eastern Congo, at the Syrian border, northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, and we just concluded our training in a couple of other locations. Sometimes we get called in to do a specific piece of work. For example, in Haiti after the earthquake we trained justice workers: lawyers, paralegals, and local organizations that work on human rights, sexual and gender-based violence, and legal defence of women and children. That was a particular contract with the UN and we were there for a couple of years. Because we were able to raise the capacity of those local partners, they were able to work directly with the UN themselves. We aim to make ourselves redundant. Even in Afghanistan, after a decade of collaborative programming, our partners are now receiving funding directly from the European Commission and others. That’s wonderful—and kind of funny because there’s sometimes sadness in our office when partners don’t need us anymore. We have to remind ourselves that it means the program has been successful—this is how it should be!
SPENCER: Tell us about War Child’s history. We interviewed you many years ago.
NUTT: Yes. At that time the organization was a cell phone, a backpack, and a staff of one—you’re looking at her. But War Child has evolved. When Eric1 and I started 15 years ago, we had spent years working overseas with different groups—this was the ’90s which saw a boom in civil wars—and we saw some critically missed opportunities. There was a pattern: There would be a crisis in the news—Somalia or Rwanda or Liberia or pick your hot spot. There would be a rush of international organizations bringing with them an external structure that subsumes everything—health, social welfare, education. For a time it would function, but then people would go home, and then the needs would escalate because the conflict would still be going on but there were fewer people on the ground delivering aid with fewer resources. Any war that lasts more than three years, which is just about all of them, witnesses this phenomenon: the exhaustion of international compassion and concern. In eastern Congo, for example, it is still going on 15 years later. South Sudan is still going on 30 years later. It is much harder to generate attention and support for civilians in these crises than, say, Syria or Ukraine right now. And as the funding and media attention diminish, the number of international organizations also diminish and the services they were providing fold.
But there’s another systemic problem too with the way we deliver aid. Institutional donors and the most well-funded nongovernmental agencies overwhelmingly focus on on short-term needs, particularly in war zones—food, water, blankets, health care—all extremely important for keeping people alive. But if you really want communities to be resilient, you can’t have generations of children without access to education, getting further and further behind, with poverty becoming more entrenched.
NUTT: War Child invests in tackling long-term deficits for children and their families. We work with communities to help them rebuild, to strengthen their resilience—both of which are critical to the transition to peace. This is War Child’s programming model. But for those ideas to succeed, for people to support more progressive models of aid that shift from hand outs and strictly relief interventions to longer-term efforts with local communities at the centre of that process, you also need higher development literacy here at home. Which means we need to be having different kinds of conversations, as Canadians, about what’s most effective and it’s important to reach as broad an audience as possible. To do this, in the early days we fostered a relationship with the music industry and with music artists.
SPENCER: What an unusual approach!
NUTT: Our work with different artists was how we got the word out; how people got to know us.
SPENCER: I guess you’re the only peace organization that is totally into pop music.
NUTT: I’m not sure we’d say pop, but certainly alternative music and rock and roll. Music and revolution always go hand in hand. We have relationships with musical artists, have put out benefit CDs and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars with extraordinary Canadian bands—Our Lady Peace, Chantal Kreviazuk. K’Naan, and many others. We’ve worked with Bruce Cockburn, with Simple Plan, Sarah McLachlan. They’ve raised a lot of money and a lot of interest in the cause. Our first big event was a concert in 2000 with the Tragically Hip in Winnipeg that raised over $300,000. Our model of engagement with artists though has evolved as the industry has changed. Artists rely more on their live performances to make a living now than ever before, and we fully respect that, so we’ve been working with artists in other ways. And we’re not putting out as many CDs anymore because with digital downloads nobody buys them. But artists will often do private performances to support War Child. We make exclusive events out of those and they are an important source of fundraising for us. And not just music artists, but other artists as well. We did a big auction here in Toronto last year, called the Free Hand Art Auction. Great Canadian visual artists contributed to that. We also auctioned off a Damien Hirst’s hand-painted guitar that raised over $150,000. Art is a vehicle for change, for expression, and for protest. It will also be a part of who and what War Child is, how we fundraise and how we connect to our supporters.
SPENCER: Didn’t you once take bands with you to Africa?
NUTT: Fifteen years ago we made a documentary with Much Music and MTV to expose Canadian youth to what was happening in the world. The model was for artists to participate as investigative journalists, covering the issue and drawing attention to some important human rights issues. It was a very small production team—one videographer, one producer, with a heavy focus on the issues. But we try to stay ahead of what everybody else is doing. Once we did it, everyone else started doing it, and so we haven’t done those in a while. We try to do things that are smart and provocative, as well as respectful of the communities we serve. Otherwise we won’t do it.
SPENCER: Do you organize high school groups in Canada?
NUTT: Students will often take that on themselves and start War Child groups, and it is very encouraging to see. It’s not a big part of our work, but sometimes high school and university students take on something that they feel very strongly about—the Arms Trade Treaty, for example. They want to get involved, and we’re happy when they do. It’s very inspiring. I speak to a huge number of groups. I probably do 30 or 40 keynotes across Canada. But the energy and initiative that comes from speaking to student groups are something to behold.
SPENCER: Really. You speak mostly to students?
NUTT: No, all kinds. Teachers’ groups. Nursing. High school. University. Government groups. Lawyers. I even spoke to asset managers about ethical financial practices as a governance issue. It’s another way to engage people in the issues and it also helps drive support for our efforts.
SPENCER: We should mention about your medical practice. You work mostly with immigrants?
NUTT: No, it’s a mixed population. But I enjoy my time at Women’s College Hospital very much. Unlike world peace, when patients come to see me at clinic, they usually have a problem I can solve. “Oh look! You have an ear infection. I can fix that!” (We laugh.)
SPENCER: And for a while you were teaching courses in international health at the University of Toronto.
NUTT: Yes but I don’t do that anymore. To be honest, I work at least sixty hours a week and sometimes you have to make hard choices. Especially with a nine-year-old at home.
SPENCER: While driving through the U of T campus I saw your picture on a telephone pole. It was U of T’s way of advertising how good the university is.
NUTT: I know! When my son was in kindergarten they asked the kids what their parents do. So when my son’s turn came, he said, “My daddy’s a doctor and my mommy’s on a pole.” (We laugh.)
SPENCER: We reviewed your last book, which argued in favor of working with, rather than “on,” the populations that you’re serving. At the time, I was in conversations about the debate between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly about whether development aid really does any good. What are your thoughts about that?
NUTT: Well, people assume that aid is the problem. Aid is not the problem. Aid done poorly is the problem. As to the debate between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs, there’s the Millennium Villages Project, which is Jeffrey Sachs’s project. Some of what Bill Easterly said has proven to be correct. There have been difficulties with the Millennium Village model, which were easily anticipated from the front end.
But I find it curious that economists are the ones having these debates about what can work and are the ones driving these “new” models. We presume that free market capitalism can lift people out of poverty. But if you’re not addressing education, human rights; if you’re not training and building up local capacity; if you’re not attuned to the constraints that people are facing, then you’re not going to achieve what you intend, because you’re imposing something unfamiliar onto people. Besides, it takes a generation to see the effects of well-managed aid. The most important determinants of child mortality, economic security, family nutrition, vaccination rates—all of that—are women’s education levels and women’s independent access to income. And obviously, education isn’t something you can do for a month. It is a long-term commitment and unless you’re prepared to invest for the long term, your impact will be limited. That’s why “quick fix” solutions and models based on economic theory alone rarely succeed when it comes to the challenges facing the global south.
SPENCER: At the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre a few years ago an African woman was fulminating about the problems in her country. She said there were lots of young men sitting around waiting for the truck to arrive with all the benefits of foreign aid, but they weren’t interested in working.
NUTT: You can create those cycles of dependency if you do aid incorrectly. Africa is plagued by it. We’re beginning to see that among the Syrian refugees in Jordan because they’re not able to work or get their kids into school. People become dependent on those handouts and then when you try to introduce other opportunities that promote self-reliance, they feel that you’re trying to take away what they’re being given and they react with anger and despair.
We can do a lot of harm through aid. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop it because it can also be tremendously effective. Even in places like Afghanistan, where now you’ve got increasing enrollment of girls in school and increasing participation of women in income generating activities and in the political process. There’s no denying that there have been some successes there. True, aid has been squandered in Afghanistan and leveraged by the military to win hearts and minds, which has been extremely problematic. There have been major flaws in that process, but there are also good lessons on how to make aid work, and we need to study those lessons. We need to be more transparent about when aid works and when it doesn’t, and why.
SPENCER: I want to hear more about Jordan and your trip.
NUTT: It was quick but I have spent a lot of time in Jordan over the years, especially going in and out of Iraq, a country I know pretty well. We’re working with at-risk communities—not only Syrians but also Jordanian children—to support the protection of kids. We’re looking at education, access to justice, safe spaces for kids, and income-generating activities for families. We’re identifying the local partners that need support, and what capacities they have. We had meetings with the government, meetings in communities, meetings in the camps. We’re up and running and we will be there for some time. This crisis shows no signs of abating.
SPENCER: Do you get government funding?
NUTT: Yes, from the Canadian government, USAID, the European Commission, and several foundations, to name a few. Government funding is about thirty percent of our budget. The rest comes from foundations and UN agencies. The last bit comes from private donations and music- and arts-related events.
SPENCER: Who runs the Syrian refugee camps? Are they run well?
NUTT: It varies from camp to camp. UNHCR and Save the Children are leading the Zaatari response. Refugee camps are an extremely difficult situation for any family to be in. Security is a problem in any camp, where looting, conflict, and harassment are routine. When a traumatized population lives away from home, with limited resources, it can be scary. Violence is common. But these are among the best-run camps that I have seen anywhere in the world, in part because they have been fairly well-funded.
There has been a lot of international attention paid to this crisis. There’s a very big presence of international organizations right now, compared to South Sudan, Darfur, or other war torn regions. But families are often afraid to live in the camps, so when they can leave, they do.
The big camps in Jordan have fewer people now. But this presents new challenges. While it is relatively easy to provide services to a refugee camp because you have a well-defined population, once they get out into the community they are all over the place and you sometimes you don’t even know where they are. You have to go from house to house, to know where and how best to provide them with service and support. It’s a lot more time consuming, and access becomes a much bigger problem.
SPENCER: Does Jordan allow people to become Jordanian? I guess there are language issues.
NUTT: Language isn’t an issue. But it’s a huge strain on any country to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees. And Jordanians already have high poverty and unemployment. They react in understandable ways that also compound the problem. They don’t want Syrians taking jobs from Jordanians. You have to have a special skill, go through a process, and pay lots of money to work if you are a refugee in Jordan, which Syrians can’t afford to do. Imagine if we had hundreds of thousands of Americans suddenly arriving here, desperate for work and ready to undercut Canadian wages. You can see how that tension would fester. When we’re providing programming, we don’t want to exacerbate community tensions by singling out Syrian refugees for all the services when there are impoverished Jordanians next door. To ease the tensions you have to work with the entire community and bring them together.
SPENCER: When refugees leave the camp do they have to be secretive about their movements? Do they try to hide their origin?
NUTT: No, they can’t. Everybody knows who’s a stranger.
SPENCER: I understand that Canada has accepted hardly any Syrian refugees.
NUTT: Correct. We’re becoming a lot tighter when it comes to accepting refugees here. Americans accept many more than we do. But I’m told that most asylum-seekers no longer try hard to come to Canada. A lot of them end up in Europe, but Europe also goes through its own phases. For a while Germany was very open, for example, but now they’ve become stricter too.
SPENCER: Did you come back with a different political analysis than before?
NUTT: No, but I hadn’t fully recognized the extent to which the response needs to transition from the emergency phase to something much longer term. The conflict is now in its fourth year. During the first couple of years people assumed there would be a solution and they’d be going home. Now they recognize that it may take more than a decade to resolve.
SPENCER: Yesterday we saw people on TV going back into Homs in some sort of truce. Most of them seemed to be just picking up a few things from their demolished homes to take with them and saying, “I have no idea where I’m going.”
NUTT: That’s right. So as you move into this longer phase, the thinking needs to change. That’s when you need diplomacy. You need to help Syrians earn incomes. You need strategies that will benefit both societies without putting people’s lives into a perpetual pause. Now people say, “The war’s not ending, and my life isn’t beginning.” There are negotiations going on within the UN, but this is the time for international donors—who are giving large amounts of money to the Jordanian government to respond to the crisis—to look at it as a regional problem, and to make it possible for Syrian refugees to work and support themselves. But that’s not happening to the extent that it should.
SPENCER: Lakhdar Brahimi resigned two days ago. He had been trying to get a comprehensive solution going, and what worked in Homs was an ad hoc ceasefire. He didn’t want a piece-by-piece approach to the problem. I presume he was frustrated and felt he was getting nowhere with negotiations between the government and the rebel groups.
NUTT: The problem is, the opposition groups are so fractured themselves and some of them are very militant. Unfortunately, it is no longer a two-way peace process, but multi-party. And some of the groups that must be negotiated with actually have no legitimacy—many of those fighting aren’t even Syrian. Then the question is: how do you force those groups out? How do you negotiate with the main players?
SPENCER: That is similar to another problem: When you run a nonviolent civil resistance movement there’s always a danger that it will be taken over by the Black Bloc or some violent group. I wonder what’s the best way of preventing that.
NUTT: Unfortunately, in any opposition movement you will get marginal groups that take it to the extreme. The only way I know to prevent this is just to continue to speak out and express concern when you see that happening. I consider myself a peace activist and I don’t embrace groups that espouse anarchist ideology or who believe it’s okay to vandalize or hurt people to achieve their agenda. The only thing I know to do, when confronted with militant ideology of any kind, is to keep speaking and writing.
SPENCER: Within the camp do you find people who support ISIS, the most radical violent group?
NUTT: Sure. That’s normal. When people aren’t winning, they tend to support groups that they think will help them win. Often those are the loudest and most violent groups. And war makes people vengeful.
SPENCER: Whereas in fact, they are the groups that are least likely to succeed.
NUTT: I agree. Yep.
SPENCER: Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s book shows that nonviolent groups are twice as successful as violent ones. In fact, when you see a group turn to violence, you may as well say that it’s game over.
NUTT: Yes. When people are involved in that stuff—throwing Molotov cocktails and so on—they will say that they are reacting to police brutality, and that can be true. But sometimes they are people who just have an underlying psychopathology: anger and rage.
SPENCER: I’ve become interested in a local organization called the Syrian-Canadian Foundation for Humanity. They do even-handed, non-political work. As individuals they all have political positions, but they do not take sides when it comes to humanitarian relief. But they get nowhere. If they go out to talk to people, nobody wants to discuss Syria—probably because they expect to hear only one side of the story.
NUTT: We see this with the Ukrainian crisis too, which is very polarized. I do a monthly show with Peter Mansbridge and Janice Stein and another couple of guests called “The Turning Point.” Recently we have had a few panels about Ukraine, and after every show I receive angry criticism through social media because I didn’t say enough that was negative about one side or the other side. Not that I said anything wrong, but they’re angry that I didn’t condemn this or that group. Whenever you talk about any war, it is politicized. Some people want to debate it, some people just want to shout, and other people find it overwhelming and just want to stay out of it.
SPENCER: I don’t know whether it’s really true that people are less willing to discuss Syria than other conflicts, or whether it’s really the same everywhere.
NUTT: If you talk to the South Sudanese, they will tell you the same thing. And there’s been a tremendous amount of international attention paid to Syria. It’s declining now as we turn to Ukraine, but while Ukraine was happening, there were massive deaths in the Central African Republic that barely made the news here.
You also had a huge conflict in South Sudan. We still have staff who are in hiding because of the recent escalation in violence. So if you are Southern Sudanese, you would consider that people are much more willing to talk about Syria than what’s happening within their country. Syrian refugees are in camps and are receiving services. In South Sudan you have much less of that. When you’re embroiled in something you can feel that nobody’s noticing because for you it is all consuming, but it’s relative.
And in general it’s tough to get people to pay attention to conflicts. In a natural disaster the world often responds passionately because they see those in need as blameless.. But people, unfortunately, see war as inherently political even though those caught in the crossfire are also blameless. And war really is political, but we would hope that people could still set aside their uneasiness about the politics for the sake of humanitarian action.
SPENCER: Do you engage in partisan discussions or do you tell people that you’re just there to deliver aid?
NUTT: Aid is inherently political. The funding, and where the aid winds up—all of that is embedded in value judgments. If Canada is providing hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria, but providing very little aid to the eastern Congo, that is a political decision. We can’t pretend otherwise.
SPENCER: But suppose you’re in the field and you have two queues coming to you wanting to be sewed up and you say “I’ll take care of this line but I don’t want the other line because you’re on the wrong side”—I don’t think you do that.
NUTT: I don’t sew people up. I’m a public health doctor and it would end badly for everyone if I did! But no, you’re there to help people through a difficult time and they are going to have different views. I personally feel it is important to listen to all of those views.
SPENCER: Do you express agreement or disagreement?
NUTT: It depends on what’s being said and done. You never get the truth in war. The closest you can come to the truth is to have as many conversations with as many people as possible. I’ve been in this for over twenty years and I’ve had lots of conversations. I recognize the ways in which one can be coerced and co-opted and played, but it’s by constantly being aware of those manipulations that you remain effective. The people who make mistakes in this work are the people who see it as very simple. It’s not.
SPENCER: Do you feel that by these conversations you can help others see things differently? Is your listening a contribution to conflict management?
NUTT: Sometimes. But our programming model always brings sides together. When groups that are opposed to one another come together for their children, those resentments break down. Nevertheless, we all have them and they can be exploited. If you look at the partisanship now in political discourse—
SPENCER: The worst that I’ve ever seen it.
NUTT: Yes, terrible. And those views can be manipulated to turn verbal violence into physical violence. But by continuing that dialogue we may offset it.
SPENCER: Where are you going next in your career?
NUTT: Writing has become very important to me. I’m just beginning to outline another book. And speaking out about issues I’m passionate about—conflict, women’s issues, human rights. Writing and speaking go together. That’s how I test my ideas and see how others are thinking. But I’m simplifying my administrative work with War Child and I am no longer responsible for the day-to-day management, which has been an important change.
SPENCER: You’re wonderful, Sam. I’m so glad that we got to talk today.
Samantha Nutt is executive director of War Child Canada . Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.
1 Dr Eric Hoskins, now Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long Term Care; MPP for St Paul’s, Toronto.