Interview: Danny Smith co-founder, director, Jubilee Campaign

14 February 2014

'If we can get the facts in front of people, they will respond'

Family photo: Danny Smith in India with his late daughter, Jessica

Family photo: Danny Smith in India with his late daughter, Jessica

I've tried to help people who've had problems. Some have been persecuted for their faith, like the Russian Christian rock singer Valeri Barinov, or the Siberian Seven.

Since 1992, our focus has been on children at risk.

The Jubilee Campaign is registered as a charity now, with a handful of staff and many volunteers. In the beginning, we were a lobbying group. We were one of the first to use the political system to lobby, setting up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Street Children in 1992, and gaining consultative status at the United Nations.

We've raised key campaigns before they become bigger issues. As a result, we've been able to work with the international media and help the issue on to the global stage for others to take forward. This has happened on several campaigns: the plight of street children, the killing of children in Brazil and Guatemala, child prostitution, sex tourism, kids behind bars, child sacrifice (in parts of Uganda, where people think this ritual can increase their chances of health and wealth).

We're pleased that several organisations and networks are now taking up these issues. We helped to establish such networks as the Consortium for Street Children, ECPAT, and the Human Trafficking Foundation, and took a leading role in promoting Anti-Slavery Day.

I don't consider myself a "do-gooder", and haven't picked issues out of a newspaper. I'm not a professional campaigner trying to right every wrong. Most of the campaigns I've been involved with have come as a result of someone asking me to help - a personal relationship. Often we've become close friends.

We campaigned for Alexander Ogorodnikov, when he was near death in the Soviet Gulag prison camp. After his release, we helped him set up the first free food kitchen in Moscow. It was a joy to be reunited with him in February 2013, when a book about his life was published and he visited the UK.

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In May last year, the blind Chinese human-rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng and his wife Yuan Weijing visited the UK as the guests of Lord Alton. We met him because we'd been campaigning for him when he was in prison in China. We connected deeply, and spending time with Guangcheng and Weijing was inspiring.

We wouldn't just rush out and launch a campaign just because something is wrong. When a friend called and asked if we could "do something" about children being sacrificed in witchcraft ceremonies in Uganda, it seemed unbelievable that this could be happening on a wide scale. So we sent someone to research the issue, alongside our Ugandan partner. We published a detailed report documenting such cases, launched a campaign and petition, signed by people in over 90 countries worldwide, and worked with the BBC on a television investigation that was nominated for an Emmy in 2012.

This is a campaign that doesn't have any quick fix, because it's about changing attitudes. Equally, it's clear that we couldn't stay silent when we had objective facts, and a local partner on the ground who needed help.

We always try to obtain first-hand research, and learn from experts who have already gone ahead of us. Our Kids Behind Bars campaign was launched after extensive research by Fr Shay Cullen in the Philippines, and also drawn from the leading documentary film-makers True Vision, who produced a film on this issue.

I think it is important to measure success, otherwise we wouldn't know if we had made any difference. I've tried to design campaigns around an issue, and each campaign has had a specific, accessible objective. I'm not trying to save the world. Our objective has been to bring change and to ensure that things, something, will change as a result of action we have taken.

As a result of the campaign against child prostitution in the Philippines, we saw the law changed in the UK, and the introduction of extra-territorial jurisdiction, enabling sex tourists who abuse children overseas to be prosecuted when they return. We campaigned to stop children being imprisoned in adult jails, in the same cells as rapists and murderers in the Philippines - again with Fr Shay - and, after a few years, the law was changed to stop this happening.

The sex tourists must be stopped. They have allowed their compulsion to overcome their awareness that their action involves hurting young children. Many of the tour operators we investigated here in the UK were driven by profits, with the full knowledge that children would be exploited. We have a new campaign aimed to raising awareness about child sex exploitation around the World Cup in Brazil, in conjunction with Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre, a National Crime Agency command, and supported by the Metropolitan Police.

I don't think evil will ever be eradicated on planet earth as we know it. The capacity for evil runs through the human heart. Each of us has the ability to do good and to do evil. I think I became aware early on of people's ability to inflict terrible damage upon others. This covers tyranny on a wide scale, but it can also be true of people caught in abusive, violent relationships. Sometimes we just can't stop ourselves.

But there's a lot of goodness in the world. If we can get the facts in front of people, they will respond. Also, I'm pragmatic: people can't respond to every case, every issue, every problem, every campaign. These days, there's a greater awareness on social issues and good causes, with a mechanism to respond.

I've seen things change as a result of direct action we've taken. Thisis fulfilling and inspiring and energising. It convinces me that I have to keep doing what I do. My lifehas been enriched by getting to know some remarkable people, and these friendships bring encouragement.

I've rarely got up in the morning thinking, "Oh dear, I've got to go to work today."

In some ways, everything I had done previously prepared me for this. I had worked in journalism and PR, and quickly learned that these were important skills to be employed in campaigning.

I'm an Anglo-Indian, and grew up in India as an only child. My parents separated before I was born, and my mother worked all hours to give me a good life. I had a happy childhood, blissfully unaware of anything other than Elvis. Today I live in Surrey with my wife Joan. My daughter Rachel and her family live nearby. My son Luke studied computer-games technology at university, and built an app for the Taken eBook we launched recently at the Hard Rock Cafe.

In 2007, Jessica my eldest daughter passed away, aged 22 years. This was like an earthquake in my heart. It was a life-changing event for me, and has come to redefine my life. The answers to some of these questions may have been different before 27 December 2007.

Some wonderful people have influenced my thinking: George Verwer of Operation Mobilization, Lord Alton, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International.. . . The book that I always name-check is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Éxupery.

Once there was always music around: Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan. The only music I can listen to these days is black Gospel, by people such as James Cleveland, F. C. Barnes, Todd Ledbetter, Kirk Whalum. This music reaches out of the past and moves me.

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I had an unforgettable holiday with Jessica in India, and earlier another wonderful holiday with Luke in Memphis. I've travelled a lot, so visiting unusual places has lost its grip. I'm fine with Joan choosing where we go.

I like to read or watch movies, some television shows. There's nothing better than The Wire.

These days I can't find any state of happiness, because this sense of Jessica's loss is always with me. I'm heartened to have family and friends who understand and are with me.

I do pray. At the moment, I'm praying for strength for the day.

As for being locked in a church, I don't get to see family and friends as much as I'd like to, so I'd choose as many as I could cram into the building.

Danny Smith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
His book, Shouting into the Silence, is published by Lion Books.

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