Kevin Watkins is the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK. Kevin joined Save the Children in September 2016, after spending three years as Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute.
Previously, he held a senior academic role at the Brookings Institution, and acted as an adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Education, before which he spent seven years at the United Nations, as director and lead author of UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report and UNDP’s Human Development Report.
He is a senior visiting research fellow at Oxford University’s Centre for Global Economic Governance and a Visiting Professor of International Development at the London School of Economics.
ECW: We’ve witnessed a horrifying spike in attacks on schools in recent months, undermining both the Safe Schools Declaration and breaching International Humanitarian Law. How can we keep children and youth caught in emergencies and protracted crises safe from these terrible attacks and achieve the goals outlined in the Safe Schools Declaration?
Kevin Watkins: I’m torn on this one because on the one hand it’s very complicated – we recently released an academic and legal report on this that ran to 148 pages because law and policy and practice around protecting children have built up over time with lots of different provisions and instruments, some of which overlap and some of which don’t and we wanted to get to the bottom of what’s really working to keep children safe. We found structural barriers to justice for children, like how attacks against them are prioritized for prosecution and how few experts there are who are qualified to investigate and document crimes against children.
On the other hand, this isn’t very complicated at all. Children being caught up in attacks on civilians is unbearable but attacking them at school or, in other words, attacking children because they are children is unspeakable. All of us at Save the Children are so glad to see increased attention across the world to stop attacks on children’s education, with 108 countries now having signed the Safe Schools Declaration. This October, the world will again meet in the 4th International conference on Safe Schools, in Nigeria and digitally, to strengthen this commitment. Our data indicates that the Declaration has led to change for children, reducing the number of attacks in some countries in conflict who have endorsed it.
In the end the thing that will keep children safe is collective revulsion about the destruction of the hopes of a generation.
ECW: Save the Children is providing children and youth caught in some of the world’s most complex crises and emergencies with the safety, hope and opportunity of an education through Education Cannot Wait-financed first emergency response and multi-year resilience programmes. You were one of the founders of Education Cannot Wait. How do you see the progress from the first ODI report in which you were involved, and where ECW is today?
Kevin Watkins: The first thing to say is congratulations to everyone at ECW for what has been achieved since your formation. It’s hard to believe, looking back, that there was a time when the world felt it was okay to leave children out of school for huge periods of time during emergencies as long as their basic needs for food, shelter and medicine were met. It was particularly infuriating for those of us who conducted research with children and families, knowing that they consistently put education top of their wish list for what they needed after being caught up in an emergency. As with so many things, we should listen to children!
So I think you should be hugely proud of what is being delivered by your partners, of the lives changed by your support and that of the donors who fund ECW. Even more than that, you’ve won the argument and won it forever – I don’t think anybody will ever again be able to say with any credibility that providing education in emergencies is either not necessary or not possible. You’ve broken open the imagination of the global system and given everyone the confidence to think they can do this – now that’s proven we can’t ever go back.
ECW: ECW’s multi-year resilience programmes are built to bridge the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. How can we ensure whole-of-child education responses meet whole-of-society challenges, provide children with the mental health and psychosocial support they need to recover from displacement and violence, and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Kevin Watkins: The whole challenge around mental health provision strikes me as similar to what we were talking about before. It’s not enough for everyone to decide it would be good to support children with mental health programmes, or to investigate it when appalling crimes have been committed, we need to have decided it far enough in advance that the qualified people are there to do the work.
At Save the Children we’ve been working in Jordan to develop something called the Child & Adolescent MHPSS Diploma to help skill up mental health professionals in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, because we know there is a pre-existing regional shortage of mental health professionals, particularly for paediatric care.
We’ve also been working with Imperial College London on a toolkit for treating blast injuries in children and one thing the lead researcher on that always says to me is ‘remember children aren’t little adults’. In other words what you need to do to treat a child’s shattered skeleton or shattered heart for that matter is different to how you’d do it for an older person, and we always need to design and invest in services and programmes that are specifically for children. I would love to see more investment in mental health and psychosocial support across the board, but I’ll always argue for it being targeted and tailored if we want it to work for a whole generation of children who in some cases have known nothing but war and exile.
ECW: ECW celebrated its 5th anniversary on 24 May 2021. We’ve reached close to 5 million children and youth left furthest behind in crisis with quality education, and an additional 10 million children and youth in response to COVID-19. Yet, much more needs to be done now. What message do you have for current and potential new public and private sector donors to ensure we leave no child behind?
Kevin Watkins: Happy birthday! What’s been achieved to date is fantastic. We’re very proud to be partnering with you and would definitely recommend ECW to others. This work is vital, urgent and we’ve got the stories and data to show that it works, so come and join us!
ECW: Climate-induced disasters are impacting the education of more children every year. This year the United Kingdom hosts both the G7 and the global climate talks (COP26). How can education in climate change-related disasters and crises contexts be leveraged more effectively to build more sustainable development pathways and support achievement of the Paris Agreement targets?
Kevin Watkins: One of the strange things that’s happening at the moment is a tendency to pitch one issue against another – so should we prioritize action on climate change or COVID-19 or education? When you put children at the center and start from their perspective, this is even stranger. All these things matter to a child, and they are heavily interlinked. By educating a child today, you are helping to set them up for a more secure future, with more chance of a decent livelihood and better health so they will be less vulnerable when crises hit in future. This is even more important for children living in areas that are already vulnerable to climate risks like floods or droughts, or children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s vital that we do more to help vulnerable communities to build their resilience and adapt to what’s to come and education is a vital part of that.
It’s also worth noting that it’s young people around the world, including school children, who are showing the most leadership right now on the climate emergency. They know their future is at stake and are rightly calling on us, as the ‘grown ups’ to get on with it.
ECW: ECW puts girls first in everything we do, and girls represent 50% of those we reach, with our affirmative action targeting 60% girls. How does Save the Children support girls’ education, and education for other vulnerable populations such as children with disabilities, and what more needs to be done?
Kevin Watkins: Save the Children is a child rights organization, founded over 100 years ago to fight for the rights of children – especially those who are being left behind because of inequality and discrimination, wherever they are in the world. This commitment applies across all our work, which is focused on three ‘breakthrough’ ambitions: that more children survive, get the chance of a quality education and are protected from violence, underpinned by action to tackle child poverty and defend child rights.
I’m proud that in 2020, across our global movement, we supported 14.7 million people through our education interventions, including many women teachers and nearly 6 million girls. We know that education is one of the best investments out there and girls’ education stands out as particularly transformative – for the girl, her family and wider community.
We’re also stepping up our focus on children with disabilities as an area that needs far more attention. We did a global survey with children and their parents on the pandemic and this brought out clearly the extra challenges faced by children with disabilities, including in education.
This work must be grounded in the local context, working with local partners and families. For example, Save the Children’s partnership with UWEZO in Rwanda works with 137 youth volunteers with disabilities in a project called ‘Mureke Dusome’. This is helping the parents of more than 2,200 children with disabilities to support their children’s reading. In Kosovo, since the Covid pandemic started, Save the Children has supported 69 families with disabilities to access the internet, including by providing 250 children with tablets and 308 children who’ve been giving education toolkits so they can keep learning even when school is not open.
ECW: We’d love to learn a bit more about you on a personal level. Could you tell us what are the three books that have influenced you the most personally and/or professionally, and why you’d recommend these books to other people?
Kevin Watkins: Last year Save the Children’s Executive Leadership Team committed to regular learning and reflection days on diversity and inclusion, so I’ve been reading up (and acting on) issues of allyship and anti-racism. I would recommend anything by Layla Saad, Reni Eddo Lodge or Ta-Nehisi Coates, who are all brilliant and insightful writers.