When the Taliban swept into Kabul they sparked a frantic and dangerous scramble to escape. Tom Dannatt was thousands of miles away in Norwich – and desperately close to the agony of Afghanistan.

Tom is chief executive of the charity Street Child, which has 1,000 staff in the country, bringing education and emergency aid to some of the poorest children in the world.

“I felt off-the-scale helpless,” said Tom, who lives in Eaton, Norwich, with his wife Lucinda and their four sons.

“By definition, in the places where we work, there are many problems and extreme situations but normally I can help. I’ve got some experience, some suggestions, I can free up some extra budget, there’s a range of things I can do.

“But I could do nothing but give kind words. People were feeling pure fear and I could give them nothing but kind words.”

In the first chaotic days Tom wrote letters trying to get people on to evacuation flights but not one was able to leave.

Instead they went back to work.

And, to be able to continue helping the children of Afghanistan, Tom and his team had to make the difficult decision to work alongside the Taliban.

The charity deliberately employs local people, so almost all the staff were Afghan. They had already been operating in Taliban-controlled areas with official agreements to safeguard their work providing basic education, where there had previously been nothing, for girls as well as boys.

“When the Taliban took power in the late 1990s they could implement what they wanted. Now they have no chance of being seen as a legitimate authority if they don’t work to provide some degree of access to education for girls and boys,” said Tom.

Street Child trains female teachers and social workers too, equipping local people to run makeshift schools in homes or tents or mosques, and distribute basic supplies to near-destitute families. “Children are coming to our learning centres without having eaten in the morning and without knowing whether they will be able to eat in the evening,” said Tom. “There is so much terrible about life in Afghanistan at the moment.

“Of course, a lot of things the Taliban are doing to women and women’s rights are having very negative consequences but the worst thing right now is the collapse of the already very weak economy, and there is a massive need for aid, just to feed children. It is incredibly cold and the level of hunger and extreme poverty right now is enormous.”

Eastern Daily Press: Winter is very hard in Afghanistan where the international charity Street Child, led by Norfolk man Tom Dannatt is providing food and basic education for girls and boysWinter is very hard in Afghanistan where the international charity Street Child, led by Norfolk man Tom Dannatt is providing food and basic education for girls and boys (Image: Street Child)

Eastern Daily Press: Educating girls in Afghanistan in 2016Educating girls in Afghanistan in 2016 (Image: © 2016, Children in Crises/Street Child)

Much of the charity’s work in Afghanistan is funded by the United Nations. “The UN liked the way we worked, very grassroots focused, working with local people,” said Tom. “The day of the ‘white saviour’ is gone. Empowering local people is the way forward. Our whole philosophy is to be as locally rooted and devolved as possible. Our Afghan senior management and head of country who run 99pc of the operation.

“The discussions we were having in August and September were about, practically, how do we keep going when we can’t get money into the country, when for a while female charity staff were forbidden from working? All of our discussions were about how we got round those issues as opposed to whether should we carry on.

“The lower key it is and the more transparent you are about what you are doing, the lower the risk. We just do primary education. Our goal is for more girls and boys to be able to read, write, add up and take away than previously. Children are probably only going to get two or three years in one of our learning centres so we have got to make those years as good as possible.”

Tom and Lucinda set up Street Child in 2008 to help the poorest people in the poorest places in the world, beginning in Sierra Leone. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic their experienced local staff were invaluable in getting health information out to people. “We turned our teachers into Ebola educators. To my mind it was one of the big factors in bringing the outbreak under control,” said Tom.

He wondered whether the emergency-response skills gained could be used elsewhere and links with Nepal led to Street Child rebuilding hundreds of classrooms after the 2015 earthquake and helping more than 100,000 children caught up in conflict in Nigeria.

Today Street Child runs projects in 20 countries.

“The charity we’ve become is focussed on helping children in the most extreme situations in the world. That’s our mission and focus and so when things get tough or complex, bizarrely we are more attracted to a situation because we know the needs will be greater,” said Tom.

“There are two core messages. One is the situation in Afghanistan is awful but the good bit is that there are some charities, and particularly this one, which are on the ground and have got the structures and personnel to deliver relief and bring some hope to people. And with enhanced funding we can do more.

“Every single pound people donate makes a massive difference.”

Asked whether potential donors fear money might go to the Taliban, Tom said: “It’s a worry that lots of people have. The way our work is set up that is minimised to the fullest extent. We have strong structures in place and we have made our position clear to the Taliban that we can’t and won’t provide funding to them.

“The British government and the UN in particular monitor our work very closely.”

Tom himself will never be able to visit. His father, Richard, is The Lord Dannatt and was head of the British Army. Even before the Taliban seized power Tom was told he would put staff at risk if he travelled to Afghanistan. His mother, Philippa, is Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk.

“This year in Afghanistan we are aiming to work with around 100,000 children,” said Tom. “As I walk around Norwich I think it is a city of not many more than 100,000 people and that shows you the scale of it.

“For anyone working in humanitarian aid or development you make your peace with the fact that you can’t solve all the problems. Then you become spiritually and emotionally liberated to be able to focus on doing what you can, doing as much as possible. That’s the path to sanity and sustainability.”

Street Child continues to help families in Sierra Leone and this June sees the return of its fund-raising Sierra Leone marathon (and half marathon and five and 10km runs) called the world’s ‘craziest and most worthwhile marathon’ by Runner’s World magazine.

From Tom’s determination to help the poorest of the poor, Street Child is now one of the world’s fastest-growing children’s charities. “It has been extraordinary,” said Tom. “But we are very practical and focused on doing our work well in the places we happen to be at any given time.”

To donate to or fundraise for Street Child, or find out more visit street-child.co.uk