Dr Samantha Nutt is a medical doctor and the Founder/Executive Director of War Child Canada. For fifteen years, she has been at the frontline of many of the world’s major crises – from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia to the Congo and Sierra Leone to Darfur. George R Vaughan caught up with this pioneering academic to get an insight into her crucial international work.
Although born in Canada you spent your first years in South Africa. Do you recall much of that time and what it must have been like growing up in what was still a time of apartheid?
“I was six when we returned to Canada. I do have some early memories of Africa – the beauty, the smells, my first friends – and I suspect this had some kind of influence on my eventual return to the continent. There was still apartheid, and I think this too is one of the reasons why I eventually became a human rights activist.
“One of my earliest memories – I was about four – was of playing with my best friend, Norah, in a park. Norah was Xhosa. The police stopped us because it was a “whites only” park and told my mother we’d have to leave. I remember Norah and I standing there, holding hands and crying. My mother was furious with the officers and very vocal about her feelings. So it was ingrained in me from an early age to stand against authority whenever it perpetuates injustice and hatred.”
You had a strong academic focus but what pushed you towards a medical pursuit?
“I was a humanities student most of my life – literature, philosophy, ethics, critical thinking, history, etc. In university, I became more and more interested in the relationship between health and human rights. I studied and wrote a research paper on the legacy of medical apartheid in South Africa. I was mostly interested in that narrative side of medicine: the convergence of the historical, political and economic factors that resulted in huge disparities and inequalities when it came to health and access to health care.
“In many African nations, and among Canada’s First Nations people, life expectancy was half of what you would find among affluent communities. Trying to understand why and what might be done to address this imbalance led me to medicine, and I’ve been trying to bridge these two disciplines – medicine and the humanities – ever since.”
Can you start by telling us a little bit about how you started War Child Canada and the motivations behind it?
“I worked for several years after medical school with various aid groups in Africa and the Middle East and saw that while some things were being done right, there was also a tremendous need to approach certain challenges differently. For one thing, it was very necessary to start shifting the focus from “emergency relief” to longer term strategies that invested in local communities, enhanced their capacity, stimulated local employment and helped them become more resilient, ultimately reducing both the threat of war and its impact. Too often, what I saw were short-term interventions staffed overwhelmingly with foreigners who ran parallel structures with no accountability to the local population they served. And when the cameras went home, so did they, and so did the infrastructure they’d built up, leaving civilians more vulnerable and dependent on aid than ever before. I did not want to keep contributing to a system that I felt was fundamentally broken.
“So a few of us with expertise in war zones began to look to new models. Models focused on local people and that addressed some of the structural challenges – poverty, unemployment, impunity – that increased their vulnerability to war, famine and disease. We also wanted to encourage people here at home to think differently about aid, so that we better understand the impact that we might have – both positive and negative. That’s where the music partnerships came in; to get that message out and foster social change. We started as a completely independent organization, as did two agencies that shared the same name in Europe. Several years later we all came together to form an alliance of War Childs. We’re all still independent and have diverse approaches, but we share a common purpose: to help children in war zones.”
You have spent over 16 years working in war zones. During this time do you feel the world has become a more dangerous place to live and survive in for more people?
“The answer to this question really depends on how far back you want to go. Steven Pinker wrote an excellent book a few years ago called “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” chronicling the ways in which human beings, overall, have become less violent over the course of history. If you look at the atrocities committed during the Second World War, or the threat of our complete nuclear obliteration during the Cold War, the world – in many corners – is more stable and less brutal. However, and this is an important qualifier, these gains have not been evenly distributed.
“We are experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Children in South Sudan are currently being tortured and abused in a bloody resurgence of violence. The war in eastern Congo, characterized by horrific sexual assault and other widespread violations of international law, continues. ISIS in the Middle East is intent on winding back the clock of human progress in the bloodiest, cruelest of ways. So social stability and security are still relative concepts, and many millions of people around the world experience insurmountable levels of violence, poverty and despair as a result of war. And in that period of time, humanitarian work has also become more dangerous, impeding our capacity to respond to these crises and help those in need, making it even harder for war-ravaged communities to survive.
“To me, the point isn’t whether the world is more or less dangerous. The point is that it remains far too dangerous for far too many people.”
How have you seen first hand the impact war has had on civilians?
“Yes – for the past two decades. I have lost far too many close friends to war. And I have been lucky, on a few occasions, to have survived war myself.”
Do you feel the West has played a negative part in world affairs by becoming involved in more political struggles globally or do you think there are cases when this has been justified?
“I would argue that it depends on which Western role – or intervention – we are talking about. There’s no question that the West’s involvement in Iraq over the past decade plus has been an unmitigated disaster and helped spawn what is now ISIS and the broader catastrophe playing out in the region. Libya too is now a failed state. Afghanistan is not secure, the Taliban are far from gone and terrorism is on the increase, globally. The weight of evidence, therefore, is that these policies and military interventions have made the world neither more stable nor more secure.
“Military engagement is only one way in which the West engages in world affairs. Diplomacy, the promotion of human rights through aid and development (I debate the strengths and weaknesses of “aid” in my book, “Damned Nations”)…there are many examples of the ways in which these interventions have contributed positively to people’s survival and well-being, and averted catastrophe.”
What can ordinary civilians do to help the situation?
“One of the most effective things anyone can do is to support organizations working with local community groups to help during these crises. But be invested for the long haul, because it’s going to take years – not months. Which is why I always recommend that people give to international causes, but don’t give once then walk away and wonder why things never seem to get any better.
“It’s far more effective to give even smaller amounts of money on a regular basis – such as monthly – because this allows organizations to properly plan and to spend their time effectively on programs instead of on fundraising. It also means that local partners can depend on those agencies and are not so adversely affected by the media cycle.”
Do you believe charity can make a difference or is there still the risk (or perception) that funds making over to these challenged countries never make it to those who really need it?
“This kind of cynicism is very common. But if you’re giving to a reputable organization that is accountable to its donors and you take the time to learn about what they do, and how they do it, you can be assured that your money is being well-managed and well-spent. Registered charities that work internationally are just as accountable for the public funds they receive as charities raising money for local projects, such as hospitals. We are all subject to the same regulatory environments, and checks and balances.
“But don’t presume that organizations with low or no overhead are more accountable for the funds they receive. Monitoring programs, measuring outcomes, tracking the dollars – these take time and resources for the best organizations. 75 cents on every donor dollar well-managed is infinitely better than 100 cents on the donor dollar wasted.”
You’ve been quite vocal on your thoughts over what mankind is doing to the planet. What do you say to those who still claim global warming is a myth?
“I would say find another planet to live on, because you’re gonna need it.”
Has your experience of the horrors around the world changed your perception of people and your outlook for the human race?
“While I’ve seen the worst of humanity, I have also seen the best. I have known people who have done extraordinary things to help others and to rebuild their communities.
“I have witnessed boundless compassion and breathtaking resilience. I’ve ventured into parts of the world that few others will ever see. It’s been a tremendous privilege. And at times it has been heartbreaking. I’ve laughed with women in Afghanistan and Somalia, and I’ve wept with mothers in Darfur and child soldiers in Sierra Leone. So while I am not the idealist I once was, I still believe in our potential to reach across cultural, religious and geographic divides and find compassion for one another.”
Is it difficult for you to shut yourself off from your work when you need to?
“There are times when it has been. But I have a wonderful husband, a loving child and a great circle of friends who are funny, smart and self-effacing. They lift me out of my seriousness and have zero tolerance for self-pity, so that helps!”
What do you do outside of your work to relax? Do you have any hobbies or interests that are completely away from your “day job”?
“Ha! I don’t have a day job. I have an all-day job. Between writing and War Child and public speaking and everything else I do, my down time, such that it is, is all about family. I have a ten-year-old son. So my time relaxing these days is spent immersed in Marvel Super Heroes! So far Ant Man’s my favourite. I’m a sucker for the underdog.”
If you could change one thing about the world we live in right now then what would it be?
“An end to war. I know that sounds hopelessly unrealistic with groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and others terrorizing civilians around the world. But so many wars are unnecessary. They are the product of greed and hatred and decades (if not centuries) of score keeping, compounded by bad foreign and military policy. They are fuelled and abetted by the rabid proliferation of arms and the unfettered exploitation of natural resources, particularly to unstable parts of the world.
“In the global south, wars are often exacerbated by poverty, unemployment and low education levels. While it may not be possible to prevent or stop war in every instance, it is possible to give peace the advantage. I’d like to change that balance.”
If you would like any further information about Samantha Nutt then visit her website here http://samanthanutt.com
George R Vaughan