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Refugees and displacement

Carolyn Miles: Innovative solutions for improving the lives of children

More often than not there is a solution, but the fundamental problem lies in how that solution is delivered.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

If Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children USA, had the absolute authority to design lifesaving development programming from the ground up, she wouldn’t focus on health, education, or protection: She would focus on all three, all at once. “A child is not a ‘health child,’ or an ‘education child,’ or a ‘protection child.’ Obviously — it’s one child,” she told Displaced hosts Grant and Ravi. Integrated programming — targeting indicators like maternal well-being, the age of marriage, equal access to quality education, child labor, and global health supply chains, all at the same time — is the key to reaching children like the 5.6 million children who died of preventable causes in 2017, Miles said.

Save the Children USA is the largest branch of Save the Children International, a $2-billion organization delivering services to 56 million children in 120 countries. Miles has risen to the top of the outfit, but her path there was far from conventional. Before joining Save USA in 1998, Miles studied animal behavior at Bucknell College, marketed credit cards to a rising Asian middle class, and founded a coffee company in Hong Kong. Since then, she’s overseen the nonprofit’s controversial child sponsorship campaign, managed relief efforts in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and spearheaded a drive for greater collaboration among humanitarian organizations that culminated in the Global Emergency Response Coalition, a shared platform for aid groups to raise funding for under-served causes

Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children USA

Intuitively, the logic of a suite of holistic interventions makes sense. But what many people outside the humanitarian and development sector don’t know is that in general, nonprofit CEOs like Carolyn rarely have the ability to design the programming they implement from the ground up. Large donors, including governments and philanthropic foundations, that fund the vast majority of humanitarian and development activities, usually dictate where and how their money is to be spent. Of Save International’s $1.2 billion in revenue in 2016, only 1% came without restrictions on how or where it was to be spent. That aligns with trends across the sector — of the UN’s humanitarian funding, for example, only 1% is unrestricted.

“The fundamental insight that resonates with me is that for a lot of solutions, particularly health, we know what the actual solution is. We know how to solve pneumonia. We know how to reduce child mortality,” Carolyn told Grant and Ravi. “The fundamental problem is designing the way that we deliver the interventions, the way that we increase uptake and compliance and change behavior norms, to actually make them work.”

On this episode of Displaced, we spoke with Carolyn about why she’s working with mothers-in-law around the world to have a positive impact on their grandchildren’s health, how the way we define what a child is changes how we think about child labor, and why partnering with the private sector needs to go beyond assisting people negatively affected by that industry to develop interventions that use people’s competitive and profit-seeking motives for good.

Education ... is not a luxury for children. It is ... the most important thing in helping kids get back to this sense of, ‘something is normal about life.’

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Related reading

Improving Humanitarian Aid: How to Make Relief More Efficient and Effective — Foreign Affairs, David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy

Cognitive Dissonance in the Development Community — Devex, Patrick FIne

Why Billions in Foreign Aid Failed to Prevent Ebola Outbreak — PBS, Sophie Harman

EU to spend 10 percent of humanitarian aid on education in emergencies — Devex, Vince Chadwick

When Restrictions Apply: Why General Funding for Nonprofit Organizations is the Future of Innovation — Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jocelyn Wyatt

From War to Sweatshops for Syria’s Child Refugees —The Guardian, Patrick Kingsley

The Best Story in Development — The Economist


Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.