There is a massive famine and outbreak of cholera currently in Yemen. The United Nations recently calculated that over 20 million Yemenis are in need of immediate assistance. To put this in perspective, Yemen is a country with only 28 million people. That means that two thirds of an entire country are suffering to such a degree to require international assistance. Incredible.
In the background of this massive crisis is a civil war. In January 2015, decade-long tensions erupted between a separatist group named the Houthis (a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority) and the authoritarian president Mr. Hadi. After the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the government under house arrest, Saudi Arabia intervened and is now leading another eight Sunni Arab states in a bombing campaign to restore power back into the Yemeni government’s hands. And civil war continues to this day.
Importantly, a major port in the south called Hodeidah was seized by the Houthis. This port supplies Yemen with over 80% of its food imports. The Saudis won’t let relief ships dock there because the supplies would fall into the Houthis’ hands. This has delayed life-saving supplies for months. Currently, the UN Security Council is trying to intervene to claim the port as strictly neutral. Let’s hope they can succeed.
In the last two years, hospitals and clinics have been destroyed. Government health officials have not been paid in a year. The basic necessities of life, like clean water and food, are a daily struggle to obtain. Cholera, which is spread by contaminated water, can kill within hours if untreated. By August 2017, it has infected more than 425,000 Yemenis and killed 1,900. And the situation is growing so severe that Oxfam calculates those infected with cholera could rise to more than 600,000 (which would exceed Haiti in 2011). The situation is obviously very grim.
Calls for relief from various NGOs and charities are spreading throughout the West. I’ve noticed it more recently, even on my Facebook feed. But with more than one million malnourished children under the age of 5 living in areas with high levels of cholera, charities are getting desperate. Pictures of emaciated Yemeni children are now popping up repeatedly on news websites and social media everywhere. It’s heart-breaking to watch, and uncomfortable to see (especially after I Instagram my latest foodie pic).
When inundated with these grim photos, it sadly echoes so many other previous campaigns we may remember from past: AIDS orphans, Rwandan genocide victims, displaced children in the Sudan, starving children in Somalia, and so many others. But it’s effective. By pushing the suffering and starvation of the world’s absolute poorest children upon the western world, charities are using a remarkable game-changing strategy first used by Save the Children in the early 1920s. It changed both how we perceive children, and how we perceive ourselves. But first, the history…
Immediately after the First World War began, the Allies/Entente Powers blockaded Germany and Austria, meaning they did not send supplies, exports or any traded goods to their enemy. Much like Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen today, blockading supplies was an effective economic weapon, especially against countries (like Germany) that depended heavily upon imports to feed its citizens.
The First World War was slow-moving, hard-fought and resulted in massive causalities. An estimated 10 million people were displaced during the war. And despite the Armistice in November 1918, the food blockade against Germany and Austria continued and did not end until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. That eight month period between the “end of war” and the “start of peace” resulted in mass starvation among the children of Germany and Austria.
For example, a Swiss doctor of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Frédéric Ferrière, reported that out of nearly 60,000 children examined in 1918 in Vienna, only 4,637 had been in good health. In other words, 93% of children were in bad health. (For more, see André Durand’s History of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Sarajevo to Hiroshima).
Meanwhile, one of the first women educated at Oxford, Eglantyne Jebb, had worked for charities for years and was growing concerned about the fate of German and Austrian children under the blockade. We must remember that Germans (“the Huns”) were Britain’s national enemy for four long years. Thus, to overlook this and consider the suffering of the Germany and Austria’s children was quite remarkable. Jebb formed the Famine Council on 1 January 1919 with the direct desire to end the British blockade.
But Jebb soon discovered that her new council was not very effective. Numerous British charities were pleading for donations for various causes in 1919, such as for veterans returning home who were disabled and jobless, or countless families that fell into poverty after the war. Distributing leaflets with dense information, and by collaborating with churches and clubs to get members to donate, these various charities relentlessly campaigned for vulnerable groups. Jebb’s message was not only drowned out by the various other charities, but people were not rising above their national interests, their national prejudices, their national perspectives, to care for foreign children. Children, especially foreign ones, were often the last priority.
But Jebb and her sister, Dorothy Jebb Buxton, found a remarkable solution. They took to the streets of London and circulated a graphic “Starving Baby” leaflet. Instead of using dense text to explain her campaign to readers, Jebb plastered a large photo of a starving, desperate and pitiful 2-and-a-half-year-old Austrian baby on her leaflet. This image was haunting and even caught the attention of the local police. Although they were both arrested for spreading “unpatriotic propaganda,” Jebb (acting as her own attorney) argued the leaflets were not political, but humanitarian. The judge gave her a light fine of £5 and she reportedly felt victorious.
This was the beginning of a new type of campaigning. This was a new type of humanitarianism.
On 15 April 1919, Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund. This charity was the first to promote an abstract image of a “child.” It was the first charity to present children a symbol, an universal archetype, which were worthy of humanitarian relief, irrespective of race, nationality or creed.
Meanwhile, various noteworthy international organisations gathered in Switzerland. They adopted neutrality and impartiality as a key strategy to facilitate relief and prevent further war. Even Save the Children moved its headquarters from London to Geneva symbolise its separation from political powers. Humanitarian historians Emily Baughan and Juliano Fiori claim that Save the Children’s apolitical approach meant that the “innate innocence and value of children (prevented) popular opposition to its humanitarian activities.” (“Save the Children, the humanitarian project, and the politics of solidarity,” in Disasters, 39 (S2): 132). For who, indeed, would oppose such humanitarian action for children?
Herbert Hoover’s relief programs, which had been incredibly successful in Belgium, also provided American food aid to Austrian children. However, relief was given in exchange for gold in 1919, which drained what little remained in Austria’s coffers in the aftermath of the war (see William E. Leuchtenburg’s Herbert Hoover). But Save the Children channelled its relief towards those same children without compensation or political gain.
By depoliticizing the Save the Children charity and the concept of suffering children, the response for famine relief for children was considerably successful, especially in Russia. Although no humanitarian organisation can ever be entirely apolitical (!!!), Jebb and Save the Children had found a way to overcome the nationalist and prejudiced perceptions of its donors. The archetypal child had been born.
The idea of the “universal child” was also strongly defined by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. Much like Moses descending from the mountain, the story goes that Eglantyne Jebb returned from a walk in the hills around Geneva and wrote five famous articles:
- The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
- The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
- The child must be first to receive relief in times of distress.
- The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
- The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
On 26 November 1924, this Declaration was approved by the League of Nations. The members of the League were not obligated to integrate the Declaration into their own national legislation, so it did not guarantee any changes to national laws. But historian Bruno Cabanes (The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924) argues that the 1924 Declaration singled out the protection and welfare of children as priorities for the international community and, ultimately, was more significant for its moral import than for its legal weight.
The methods of Save the Children really has saved the children. Due to the Jebb’s honest, graphic but highly impartial approach, children from all over the world are valued, regardless of their race, class or religion. Although this may not guarantee that everyone generously donates to children’s charities, it does, at the very least, overcome many nationalist and racial prejudices. And, what’s incredible is that it’s still effective today! Whether it’s a starving Austrian child due to a blockade, a African orphan of AIDS, a drowned Syrian child on a beach, a war-stricken bombed out boy in an ambulance in Aleppo, or now Yemeni children with cholera in the midst of civil war, we can go past many labels and prejudices to see them for what they are – children.
To a certain extent, this also changes how we perceive ourselves. By promoting the concept of the “universal child” it also simultaneously reinforces the concept of a “universal guardian.” Human cultures fundamentally protect and provide for society’s most vulnerable members. By reacting to these images of starving children with dismay and shock, and by feeling a sense of injustice, then the viewers are also imparted with a sense of responsibility. Children cannot protect or provide for themselves so we – the guardians – must intervene.
Children’s rights today are still evolving world-wide. Over 100 million children work in hazardous conditions and have no access to education. Thousands are child soldiers. Some states imprison children as young as 12 years old. Over half of today’s 65 million refugees are children.
Although Eglantyne Jebb may have been discussing starving German and Austrian children, her words are still present in today’s campaigns for Yemeni children: “The only international language in the world is a child’s cry.”