Save the Children accepts £15m 'tainted cash' donation from Qatar

Save the Children accepts £15m ‘tainted cash’ donation from Qatar – despite charity bosses admitting the deal is ‘high risk’ and calling the Gulf state’s claim to have axed slave labour a ‘stunt’

  • Charity postponed one donation from Qatar to avoid ‘forensic media scrutiny’
  • But organisation recommended going ahead with other donations from Qatar 
  • It justified conduct by saying such donations have risks but help relieve poverty
  • It comes after a Charity Commission report lambasted STC for ‘serious failures’

Save the Children accepted a £15million donation from Qatar despite calling its claim to have scrapped slave labour a ‘stunt’ and branding it a ‘terror hub’.

The cash-strapped charity admitted taking money from the Gulf state was ‘high risk’ but approved it anyway, a secret memo leaked to the Daily Mail shows.

It reveals how the charity postponed one donation from Qatar to avoid ‘forensic media scrutiny’ and was alerted to ‘repeated criticism that charities in Qatar were being used to finance terrorism outside Qatar’.

But it recommended going ahead with other donations from Qatar while admitting the move would leave it ‘open to accusations of hypocrisy’.

Wealthy: Skyscrapers in Qatar’s capital Doha loom over a traditional boat. Save the Children accepted a £15million donation from the country

Save the Children (STC) justified its conduct by saying all such donations have risks but they help relieve poverty, that Qatar has cracked down on terror groups and that other charities get aid from the country.

The disclosures come four months after a Charity Commission report lambasted STC for ‘serious failures’ over its handling of sex pest allegations against two former bosses. 

Ex-chief executive Justin Forsyth and deputy Brendan Cox, widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, were accused of sexually harassing women staff. They have since apologised. 

The scandal led to a £100million drop in annual income. Current STC chief executive Kevin Watkins joined charity sector attacks on Boris Johnson’s decision last month to scrap the Department for International Development, saying it would ‘hurt the world’s poorest children’.

The leaked 12,000-word STC memo on the dangers of accepting Qatari money is headed ‘Highly Confidential, Save the Children Donation Acceptance Assessment’.

The charity’s concerns are flagged up in red and marked ‘HIGH RISK’ in capital letters. 

Charm offensive: Qatar is to host the 2022 football World Cup

They include the danger of ‘sanctions’ by other nations against STC, claims of ‘terrorism financing’ and ‘reputational’ damage.

The document lists further ‘high risks’ to STC from its plan to take money from Qatar Charity – a thinly disguised branch of the Qatari government – from concerns over ‘human rights and workers’ rights to terrorism’.

In January, STC accepted nearly £15million – the biggest donation in its 100-year history – from a Qatari sheikh who is a member of the country’s ruling family. STC has approved seven other donations from Qatar since 2015 worth more than £10million, including three from Qatar Charity.

The leaked memo says STC could get an extra £60million – or more – over five years from Qatar Charity, which it notes has ‘billions’ to spend.

It says the money could ‘transform’ STC but also points out hazards including the true identity of Qatar Charity, which has a branch in the UK. It says it is ‘technically’ independent but suggests that it is in reality controlled by the Qatari government.

Qatar, which has close links with Iran, has faced long-standing criticism over human rights abuses. Adultery is punishable by death, homosexuals are jailed and there are public floggings.

Recent pledges of reforms are seen by some as a charm offensive linked to the country’s controversial hosting of the 2022 football World Cup.

Save the Children Chief Executive Kevin Watkins, pictured. The cash-strapped charity admitted taking money from the Gulf state was ‘high risk’ but approved it anyway (file photo)

Outrage over the treatment of migrants used to build World Cup stadiums forced Qatar to promise to change its notorious ‘slave labour’ laws, known as ‘kafala’.

But the STC memo, noting the issue as a ‘high risk’ to the charity, says: ‘The kafala system still very much exists; the “abolishment” [sic] was just a public relations stunt, a change in terminology.’

The document also warns of similar dangers to STC from claims that Qatar has bankrolled Islamist terrorists.

The document says: ‘Qatar has a track record of being a hub for terrorism… with repeated criticism that charities in the country were being used to finance terrorism outside Qatar.’

The sex scandals that hit funding

2015: Save the Children chief strategist Brendan Cox, 41, is allowed to leave quietly after he sexually harassed female staff. He was later accused of sexually assaulting a US government official.

2018: Justin Forsyth, 54, the charity’s former chief executive, quits a Unicef post after it emerged he sent ‘sex texts’ to female Save the Children staff.

2020: The Charity Commission accuses Save the Children of ‘serious failures’ in the Forsyth and Cox scandals – which led to a £100million a year drop in STC’s annual income.

2020: The charity’s current chief executive, Kevin Watkins, who was a trustee when the sex scandal occurred, rejects calls to resign.

According to the memo, STC was told Qatar Charity’s aid projects in rebel-held territories in Syria and parts of the Gaza strip run by the Palestinian group Hamas fuelled reports it was ‘funding political violence’.

It could have ‘received donations from the Muslim Brotherhood’, says the memo.

But there was ‘little evidence’ to back the first claim and the second was ‘speculation’. And Qatar had acted firmly to curb terrorist funding, the memo says.

The UK Government regards the militant Islamist group Hamas as a terrorist organisation, but not the Muslim Brotherhood, although Mr Johnson has accused the latter of condoning terrorism.

The risks of media attacks on STC for accepting money from Qatar Charity were ‘similar to those arising from accepting previous donations from Qatar’, says the memo, adding: ‘We will be open to accusations of hypocrisy and failing to abide by our values.’

STC could respond by pointing out the money was helping child refugees, it suggests.

The memo reveals that STC ‘vetted’ the bosses of Qatar Charity – five had ‘not come back clear’ because of alleged links to Qatar’s human rights abuses.

The memo says: ‘It is only technically true that Qatar Charity is not part of the government. Everything on that scale in Qatar is under the influence of the government/royal family.’

It adds Qatar Charity got most of its income in 2017 from £249million in donations but it was ‘unclear who these donations come from’.

A spokesman for Save the Children said: ‘We carry out a robust due diligence process before accepting money from any donor.

‘We have been in discussion with Qatar Charity for several years on issues of mutual interest around child health and education but we have not received any funds from them to date.’

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