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Interview: Patrick Watt, chief executive, Christian Aid

02 December 2022

‘Climate change is a huge challenge because it requires a level of co-operation we haven’t achieved before’

Christian Aid

Since May, I’ve been leading Christian Aid, the development and humanitarian organisation of the British Churches. We work in 26 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, with funding from our supporters and from institutional donors. We work with people of all faiths and no faith, through partnerships with national civil-society organisations. It’s one contribution in a broader movement for justice and against poverty.

I was attracted by the ethos and grounding in the gospel message of love and hope at Christian Aid,
the commitment to asking the difficult questions about the underlying causes of poverty, and its history of working in partnership with others.

What we do is similar to other NGOs,
but why we do it, and how we go about it, is distinctive, because we believe every person has innate God-given dignity, and we flourish in relationship to each other. It’s the first organisation for which I’ve worked that has love as its cornerstone value. We love because of who we are, not in spite of it.

Then there’s the “Heineken effect” of faith-based NGOs.
They reach parts other NGOs cannot reach, especially in areas like South Sudan and Afghanistan, where churches and mosques are often the only functional locally led institutions, and command great respect in communities.

I read theology at Cambridge,
development studies as a Master’s at LSE, and started at Oxfam in 1997. I’ve always worked on poverty issues, mostly in NGOs, but the choice was to concentrate on domestic issues or international ones. Most recently, I was at Save the Children International.

It’s possible to end extreme material poverty,
and there’s an awful lot less of it today in the world — but that’s only one dimension of poverty. If poverty is relative, and about control over your daily life, it’s more widespread and a bigger challenge, because it supposes a greater level of equality than we have today.

I don’t think there’s any one cause.
Poverty is to do with environment, conflicts, governance, and global factors like trade arrangements and climate change, and historical factors like landlessness, often stemming from colonial history. But decent work, good governance, and access to essential services are pretty crucial pre-conditions to its cure.

Climate change is a huge challenge,
because it requires a level of co-operation across and within societies that we haven’t achieved in the past. The direction of travel to a lower-carbon economy is the right one, but it’s too slow. Major impacts are already happening, and the people most affected are least able to withstand the shocks, and contribute least to carbon emissions; so richer countries must realise there’s a greater responsibility to take action.

Ending poverty isn’t a zero-sum contest between people with power and resources and people who don’t have that.
Flourishing depends on a degree of commonality and a sense of the common good. One way or the other we’ll all win, because we’re living in a more harmonious society. We need a shared vocabulary about what matters to us as a world and society. We have the UN, and we’ve seen what the world was like when we didn’t have such a space to work through these issues. US and China are not talking to each other enough at the moment, but co-operation between major powers on these issues is really important.

I joined Save the Children International soon after it was established,
and worked through eight years of structural and cultural change as the members combined forces and transferred programme management to the new organisation. Over that time, it grew from 40 staff to 18,000. Change didn’t happen perfectly but there was a great deal achieved, and it was very good experience for me.

My faith helps me to put challenges into perspective,
and anchors me emotionally. Family life with my wife and three daughters helps, too. Being a parent makes you confront your limitations, and teenagers keep you honest.

The thing that’s surprised me most at Christian Aid is the depth of engagement from our supporters.
It’s qualitatively different. People who give to us take campaign actions, pray for our work, and feel a genuine ownership of what we do, often spanning multiple generations, about their family’s or congregation’s support for our cause — that’s inspiring and humbling.

In the past three years,
we’ve seen a steady recovery in income after a decade of decline, but we’re starting to see the effect of the cost-of-living crisis. Some people gave less to Christian Aid Week in 2022 because they felt they’d already given all they could afford to the Ukraine appeal. And one of our biggest challenges is recruiting the next generation of supporters.

I hope that this recession will be relatively short and shallow,
both for the sake of people who are struggling to get by, and for the people we want to help. Our supporters give sacrificially, and even if some of them may have to cut back their giving, very few will want to stop it entirely because Christian Aid’s work is so important to them.

We’ve a duty to make the greatest possible impact with the money entrusted to us,
and it’s right to pay a fair wage to our colleagues, many of whom work in some of the most fragile countries the world. That said, I’m determined to double our flexible grants for programme partners because they support some of our boldest and most innovative work around issues of power and accountability. That means doing fewer things better.

The most difficult thing is where there’s an obvious need
— but deciding not to engage because we’re not best placed to respond. We chose not to take funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee in response to the floods in Pakistan, for example, to focus on our existing humanitarian responses in East Africa and in Ukraine.

The most rewarding thing is spending time with extraordinarily resilient, creative people
in communities and partner organisations. It’s critical that we recognise it’s the people in affected communities who are the first and last responders to crisis, and they’re the most significant actors in the struggle to end poverty.

I’ll spend Christmas with family,
and cook the Christmas lunch. I’m also planning to see my team, Nottingham Forest, play Chelsea at the City Ground on New Year’s Day. I’m looking forward to taking a break and seeing family and friends. At other times of year when I take leave, I’m away on holiday; so I enjoy being off but at home over Christmas.

Time with friends and family is what makes me happiest,
especially when we’re walking in the hills of Wales, northern England, and Scotland.

I grew up in rural Lincolnshire, as one of six children.
My father worked in agriculture, and my mother for a number of charities, including Scope and NSPCC. Faith was central to family life, and I’m grateful to my parents for that. I was brought up to believe that everyone is my neighbour, and that we’re called to follow Christ’s example.

I met my wife at Cambridge where she was studying English.
We now live in Oxford with our two younger daughters — the oldest is away at university — and a small and disobedient Norfolk terrier.

I feel anger where power is abused to exploit and abuse others.
Anger’s a double-edged sword and should be handled carefully; but the history of struggles for justice shows that controlled anger can be a powerful driver of change in the world.

My father’s a keen and knowledgeable ornithologist.
I’ve inherited little of his knowledge, but he passed on to me a love of birdsong.

Hope is a Christian virtue which we’re called to practise and embody.
I have a lot of hope when I see the proliferating ways in which active citizens are coming together to work for a better world, whether it’s at the community level or on national and global issues.

I do pray regularly,
although, as I approach my 50th birthday, I feel like an amateur when it comes to prayer. I pray for forgiveness, for God’s guidance, for people in my life, and for the world. I’m trying to spend a bit more time reading scripture, and often find myself coming back to St Francis of Assisi’s prayers.

If I was locked in a church with anyone for a few hours,
I’d choose Oscar Romero. He was a man of great courage and Christian witness, but he didn’t set out to be that, and was surprised by the journey on which God took him.

Patrick Watt was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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