Acclaimed Humanitarian Creating Sustainable Change in Conflict Zones

Dr. Samantha Nutt, executive director and co-founder of the renowned international humanitarian organization War Child Canada, wants people to understand what kind of international aid is effective.

Acclaimed Humanitarian Creating Sustainable Change in Conflict Zones

The highly accomplished and educated Scarborough-born medical doctor graduated summa cum laude from McMaster University, earned a master of science in public health with distinction from the University of London and holds a fellowship in community medicine from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. She completed a sub-specialization in women’s health through the University of Toronto as a women’s health scholar.

In addition to her medical credentials, she is an award-winning humanitarian and acclaimed public speaker who has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Darfur and Sudan. Over the span of more than two decades, her work has benefited thousands of war-affected children in dozens of conflict zones around the world. During that time, she observed flaws in how international aid works; in her book Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, she shares her observations about problems with international aid as well as her experiences working in war zones.

One challenge in international aid is that often when a crisis is in the news, people tend to respond with short-term interventions – providing food, water, shelter and blankets – but the aid disappears once the media attention does.

“War usually lasts several years and, in some cases, generations,” Dr. Nutt explained. “Unless you’re investing in things to build a better future, promote peace, stability and self-reliance for people – things that take more time, like skills training, economic development, education, learning programs and literacy programs for adults – we tend to feed a cycle of dependency.”

One of the goals of her book is to encourage people to ask informed questions so that they can make wise decisions with their donations. She urges concerned donors to seek out aid organizations that promote long-term structural change, invest in local communities and have strong connections at the grassroots society level, and that aren’t creating huge, external infrastructures around the world. Moreover, she discourages the “voluntourism” approach to international aid, which she says may do more harm than we understand.

“We often think the answer is to go abroad and do the work ourselves, but in fact there are extraordinary, brave and competent people on the ground who want, and deserve, those opportunities,”  Dr. Nutt said. “The consequence may be that we’ve taken a job or training opportunity away from somebody. If you want to go overseas and experience it, go as a tourist and spend your money in the local markets to stimulate the local economy.”

A big help to aid organizations are donors who give consistently, over a sustained period of time. NGOs must always make sure that they have human and financial resources to generate revenue needed to run programs and extend from those initiatives, and according to Dr. Nutt, organizations can run effective, sustainable programs even if they receive regular, small amounts of money that they can rely on. She insists that the people at War Child Canada do a lot with a little, and punch above their weight.

“We’re a highly specialized organization, working with war-affected children and youth, and we are the bridge between emergency humanitarian interventions and sustainable development initiatives,” she said. “In places where we’ve been on the ground for a sustained period of time – sometimes eight years or more – we are seeing substantive changes in those communities.”

“Through consistent, meaningful partnerships; approaching development from the bottom-up and not the top down; and constantly evaluating our programs and revising them depending on how circumstances change, we have seen tremendous results, whether it’s in Eastern Congo, where we run education and teacher training; Northern Uganda, where we have access to justice programs; working with lawyers and paralegals and training them and bringing cases forward; or with child protection initiatives,”  Dr. Nutt said.

It’s clear that the work of  Dr. Nutt and War Child isn’t done, as she points to current examples of renewed conflict in places like Syria and Mali. War Child has also been increasing its activity in the U.S., trying to reach more people and expand its donor base.

“At the community level, people are really invested in our work, and I think that’s very encouraging,” she said.

Action items:

  1. Visit the War Child Canada website at
  2. Read  Dr. Nutt’s book Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid.
  3. Ask informed questions before making your next donation.


Dilys Chan

Dilys Chan

Dilys Chan is a Toronto-based writer and communications specialist.
Dilys Chan

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