Accounting for charity


Scandal has engulfed one of the world’s leading international charities. The deputy director of the UK-based charity Oxfam has resigned following revelations that after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, organizers of its substantial aid effort to the stricken island were engaged in serious sexual impropriety. One allegation, revealed by a whistleblower inside the organization, was that a senior official bartered aid for sexual favors.

The outcry over these allegations is the greater because when Oxfam found out about what had been going on, it chose to cover up rather than make a public admission of the appalling wrongdoing. Worse, questions had been raised about the misconduct of some of these Oxfam employees when they were involved in the charity’s relief operation in Chad. After the Haiti revelations, this failure was compounded because, though Oxfam fired the individuals concerned, it did not flag up their behavior. Thus they were able to find similar jobs with other charities.

There is, of course, a wider issue here. Oxfam is part of a large international community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do invaluable work bringing aid and support to communities ravaged by war or natural disaster. They are supported by millions of individual donors as well as funding from governments of leading economies. The tasks they undertake are challenging and often dangerous. With every new crisis, they seek to respond as quickly as possible, in support of the local government and its generally hard-pressed institutions.

But they operate in a vacuum. The very expression “non-governmental” points to the problem. There is a strong degree to which they are not accountable. Because these charities are cavalry, riding to the rescue, they are seen to occupy the moral high ground. They are always the good guys. When they launch emergency funding appeals to cope with the latest catastrophe, their supporters, be they governments or ordinary people, reach deep into their pocketbooks on the completely understandable assumption that this cash is going to be used for nothing but good.

Occasionally, questions are raised about the amount of money spent on administration - in the UK for instance 32 charity bosses were each paid over $275,000 last year. But the charities argue these executives have highly responsible positions and need to be paid a rate equivalent to what they might earn in business or a government institution. This reasoning has been accepted because of the important work that these organizations are seen to be doing.

Now, however, seems to be the moment to think about how better oversight can be put in place to make international charities more accountable, not just for the conduct of their staff, but for the effectiveness of their spending in overseas emergencies. The obvious choice for such monitoring is the United Nations, which in theory has the structures to report on cross-border relief operations. Yet tragically the UN has proven itself to be incapable of even holding its own people to account, let alone observing the conduct of others. Sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping troops in Africa has been investigated and proven. Yet UN headquarters in New York has failed to take any action to enforce its own clear conduct rules let alone punish a single wrongdoer. UN-governable organizations, including the international charities, clearly need to be made accountable at some other international level.