As some of you will know, for a couple of years after leaving university, I was a volunteer at an Oxfam Bookshop. Oxfam has the scale and capacity to provide the kind of aid which has one, fundamental aim – to save lives in the most desperate situations – making it, in my view, one of the most important charities operating today. For similar reasons, I have helped with collections run by Christian Aid, I have volunteered in Ghana, and I have written about the importance of overseas aid here before.
I know where I stand – my position is clear.
So I have been saddened to learn that staff working for some of our most important charities have been accused of taking advantage of their positions, and of the vulnerable people they should be working to help.
But I will be much more saddened should this scandal be used to attack the principle of international aid.
While I know nothing of the particular accusations, I was not shocked by the revelation. Recent years have seen similar accusations levelled against individuals in almost every institution, from churches and the BBC, for schools, to Parliament. And every institution has failed to properly respond. But that doesn’t mean we have cut funding for the BBC, or education. We still have a government, and people still believe in God.
Some people are deeply flawed, and choose to do appalling things. It is, therefore, not hard to believe that such individuals, when put in chaotic situations with little oversight (the sorts of situations where most aid work takes place), and given charge over vulnerable people, would abuse that power.
Nor, perhaps, should we be surprised that organisations which rely in large part on public generosity and good-will in order to carry out their work, attempt to avoid scandals. Bad press is one of the most significant risks facing charities, and will undermine their capacity to help other people.
Of course, we rightly expect charities to set and meet exhaustive standards. We know that aid organisations are working with people who are already vulnerable, and should do everything possible to ensure those people are not taken abused, but are supported. That is their fundamental mission. Again, to justify their privileged position, aid organisations funded by public generosity must be open and transparent.
It appears that charities have not met these high standards, either in terms of ensuring that every vulnerable person in their care is protected, and in acting quickly and openly when failings are discovered.
It is this second failing which may have the greater impact on international development work; “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”. We have already seen significant negative backlash from across a media landscape which is broadly opposed to the UK’s foreign aid spending. The International Development Secretary, Penny Mourdant, has stated that “any organisation that does not live up to [DFID’s] high standards on safeguarding and protection” will lose funding.
Cutting funding to major charities will not stop people abusing positions of power across society – they will simply move elsewhere. Instead, the ultimate victims of such actions would be the vulnerable people in need of help.
These charities have the infrastructure and experience to make a real difference in some of the worst situations imaginable. Smaller charities might have higher safeguarding policies, but they will lack the capacity to respond to the next natural disaster or refugee crisis. The best way for charities to make amends for their failings will be for them to keep doing what they do to ever higher standards.
Worse still in scale would be if these revelations are weaponised by those who oppose the UK’s commitment to overseas aid. Even if you believe that specific charities ought to be punished for their failings, that does not undermine principle that we should help those most in need, wherever they happen to live. The UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP reaps huge benefits, helping to bring stability around the world, enhance the global economy and boost UK soft power.
I can but hope that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water.