It is such an exciting time to be alive in today’s world. With technology changing daily, new cures for diseases being found monthly, and new explorations and findings happening yearly, one can truly be blessed to be alive to experience it all.
However, with all this excitement comes a serious issue we face: war. There have been just over 250 major wars in the world since World War II, in which over 24 million people have been killed., tens of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured. In the middle of all this are innocent children, and recent reports show that more children than soldiers have been killed during war in the last decade; And for the ones not killed, they have been left orphaned.
That is where award-winning humanitarian, bestselling author and acclaimed public speaker Dr. Samantha Nutt comes into action. Dr. Nutt is not only a medical doctor, but she is the founder of the renowned international humanitarian organization War Child USA and War Child Canada, where she and her organization work with children and their families at the frontline of many of the world’s major crises. She was also one of the recent speakers at TED Talks Live in New York City, where she spoke to a packed audience about War & Peace.
With a career and passion that has spanned more than two decades and dozens of conflict zones, her international work has benefited hundreds of thousands of war-affected children globally and has also drew the support of many political figures and celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Chantal Kreviazuk.
I had the chance to sit down exclusively with Dr. Nutt to pick her brain on everything she does and has accomplished thus far, and hope that you (the reader) take a lot more away from this discussion and Q&A to help make the world a better place too like Dr. Nutt… We can all do something to help.
Growing up, did you always want to pursue a career/path in medicine?
No. In fact, I was very firmly in the “arts and humanities” stream for most of my education. When I graduated from high school I went to the UK on a scholarship to study Drama and English Lit. My path to medicine was much more unconventional and has pretty much stayed that way since becoming a doctor.
What first triggered you to want to start-up War Child Canada / War Child USA?
War Child Canada and USA were born out of a desire to see war and humanitarian aid differently: to tackle some of the systemic disadvantages that often fuel conflict around the world. In a crisis, there is often a rush to help: food, water, shelter, blankets, etc. People’s long term needs are rarely addressed. And as we know from Iraq, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere, wars often drag on for years or even decades. So children miss out on years of schooling, which makes them more vulnerable to poverty and recruitment by militia groups (because they have little education or means of employment). Impunity is also a huge concern, and rape is often widespread. War Child was created almost twenty years ago to invest in those longer term strategies that ultimately help children and their families recover from war and rebuild their lives. We also work to create a safer environment for women and young girls in particular through our access to justice programming. And we work exclusively with local community groups and invest in the capacity of local people. So the story of how the organization began was to achieve these things: to move away from humanitarian models that led to aid dependency and that did not reduce the overall risk of violence. We also wanted to encourage people here at home to think about aid differently so that we give “smarter”, and to achieve that we used music and the arts as a way to help spread the word and get our message out. It’s not a short answer (there’s no elevator pitch for what we do!), but then these are complex issues.
What do you feel makes War Child different than other organizations out there?
The world has witnessed a resurgence of war in recent years. We are currently experiencing the worst refugee crisis ever recorded – greater than World War II. War Child is the only agency completely devoted to and focused exclusively on children in conflict. We take a long term view of the problem of war – that by tackling some of the drivers of violence and instability, from poverty to impunity, we can better protect children and break the cycle. But all of our programs are rooted in the capacity and knowledge of local communities – we don’t set up large expat infrastructures. We invest in and train community groups so that they can lead these changes. And we know our programming approaches work and that our African and Middle Eastern partners in particular value our commitment to longer-term, holistic strategies. This shows in the dedication of our local staff (who are war-affected themselves), many of whom have been with the organization for over a decade and have moved between country programs to share experiences and model successes.
Who personally has influenced you in your life and why?
The people I admire most are our local partners and staff. That’s always been the case. When I first landed in Somalia, my office mate and supervisor was a wonderful Somali woman named Mariam. She was in her fifties. She was tenacious, opinionated and undaunted. I also consider Margaret Hassan, who was the head of CARE’s operations in Iraq for many years, as an important mentor of mine. Sadly, Margaret was abducted by a terror network in Iraq, tortured and killed. But I learned so much from these women about what good development actually means, and how to ask tough questions to know whether your approaches are working.
You have travelled the world and helped countless children and families… where are you heading next?
I will probably be back in South Sudan in the New Year. When I travel for War Child now it is usually to look at bigger picture issues – how a program is doing, where it should go next, etc. I have a ten year old son at home, so I try not to be gone for long stretches in the way that I used to. The conflict in South Sudan intensified in recent years in the area in which we were working. An estimated 800,000 South Sudanese are expected to be refugees by year’s end. We are actively responding to this need, working both in communities and in the camps. It’s an area of focus for us and I would like to help draw some attention to this much-overlooked crisis.
How did it feel to be honored for your work as a Member of the Order of Canada?
I was overwhelmed. To me, though, it’s not the recognition that maters – it’s what you do with it. That kind of endorsement really helps to legitimize what we’ve been trying to do with War Child for two decades now. More than anything, I hope it will encourage people to support that work!
You’ve had countless celebrities join your cause… Who are some of your favorite to work alongside?
Singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida (Our Lady Peace) have been extraordinary contributors to the cause since the beginning. They are genuinely interested in the complexities of both the world and our work – they invest in understanding, as well as in supporting those efforts. We’ve been so grateful for their support. Alicia Keys has also been an incredible advocate for our efforts, and Muse. We are indebted to all of the artists who have helped in various ways, because they leverage their extraordinary platforms to focus on tough issues that are often overlooked in favour of domestic causes and concerns, which are generally easier for people to relate to. But all of these are artists have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for our work. It would not exist without them and we would not be able to reach 400,000 children and their families every year through our programs. War can also be a complicated and polarizing cause to take on and speak to as an artist. That so many of them have had the courage to step forward and draw attention to our work and to explain why it’s necessary is a credit to all of them.
What is your advice for people wanting to give their life/time to the non-profit world?
Be an expert. I mean that. I see so many people who want to start a new nonprofit who have never worked for another agency, have limited experience (especially internationally), think they know how to get it right, but in fact are totally naïve to the realities on the ground. Good intentions aren’t enough to produce good outcomes – you have to know what you are doing, and be trained and qualified for the task.
What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment to date?
Building War Child was a daunting task, but I am proud of what it has become. I am proud of the way that we are pushing the boundaries of humanitarian aid and focusing not on short term approaches, but on long term changes. I am proud that when we say “local partnerships” we really mean it – we spend years training and investing in enhancing the capacity of our local partners and staff, and we listen to them, and it shows in the quality of the work on the ground. I’m also proud that we are pushing new and innovative models when it comes to protecting and defending the rights of women and children even in places where the rule of law is nonexistent. Twenty years ago, War Child was an idea. But because of the dedication of our staff and our partners, and their courage, we now serve more than 400,000 children and their families in war zones every year.
Where do you see yourself and War Child in a year or two from now?
Well, staying alive and sticking around is really the priority, which is harder than it sounds when you’re working in highly insecure environments. But the hard truth is that war is on the rise again and our programs are needed more than ever. We are being asked to be in more places and expand our reach because children in these environments need it. But our resources are finite. Hopefully in the near future we will be able to do even more. Ultimately, though, the goal is for us to not be needed at all. Sadly, we’re still a long way from that.
For more information and to see how you too can help: http://www.warchild.ca & http://warchildusa.org