Charities: has the halo slipped?

Saturday 13 October, 10:0011:30, ConservatoryMoral matters

The aid sector is in crisis. From sex scandals to questions about spending, charities are in a panic as donors stop giving and public opinion turns sour.

In February, The Times revealed that Oxfam staff posted to Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 had used prostitutes, some of whom, the newspaper claimed, may have been under age. Moreover, The Times claimed that the scandal had been covered up and other aid organisations had not been made aware of the conduct of the staff members involved. Similar allegations then surfaced about Oxfam’s earlier mission in Chad. The scandal forced Oxfam to withdraw its request for funding from the Department for International Development (DfID). A leaked UN report showed that alleged abuse and sex-for-food scandals had been known to aid agencies as far back as the 1990s. In the UK, former Save The Children boss and Unicef CEO Justin Forsyth was forced to step down after being accused of sexual harassment by his colleagues.

But the aid sector is hardly a stranger to scandal. Long-standing questions around fundraising have meant that public trust and confidence in aid has been falling. Disquiet about the ways in which large charities operate is of particular concern, as well as the protected billions (0.7 per cent of GDP) that Britain spends on overseas aid. Only 15 per cent of this is spent on humanitarian aid, and much of the rest is spent on keeping NGOs running, rather than reaching the pockets of those in need.

What does this crisis in confidence mean for charities? The UK’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, plans to establish new, world-leading safeguarding standards for any organisations DfID works with. This will ultimately determine whether charities receive government funding. Some charities have publicly declared their commitment to righting past wrongs in a bid to win back public support. This has prompted many to defend the importance of the aid sector, arguing that the West has a moral duty to offer help to developing countries.

Scandals aside, there is a deeper cause to the crisis in the aid sector. Some claim that aid-generated dependency has fuelled a ‘white saviour’ complex in the West, with charitable giving benefiting those who give more than those who receive. But others argue that the recent #MeToo-style mess-ups shouldn’t overshadow the large amount of good that charities can do in developing countries.

What is the future for the aid sector? Is there a dark side to aid? Have the widely publicised sex scandals wrongfully skewed our view of charities? Or has this crisis been a long time coming?