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The Problem with Charities

The Problem with Charities

Editorial by Andrew Cates, CEO of SOS Children UK

Last year was not a good one for the reputation of international charities.

First, the BBC reported that three World Vision employees in Liberia defrauded that charity's donors and sponsors of more than $1m. Their Vice President told the BBC's Network Africa programme that they could only establish that 9% of the food aid sent to Liberia after the war had reached the intended recipients. The Associated Press carried reports that 34 of the towns listed as helped did not even exist.

Then Zambian Dambisa Moyo wrote a significant and well argued book "Dead Aid" questioning whether foreign aid as a whole has been bad for Africa.

This year however looks worse for charity repute. 

In March this year the claim aired by the BBC that Live Aid relief money had been used to pay for arms and prolonged the war and famine upset Bob Geldof who hit back with a charge of "disingenous posturing". Dutch writer Linda Polman took the accusation further earlier this month in her book "War Games" accusing Aid of having a negative role in all three of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Afghanistan.

Then less than two weeks ago three people originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were jailed for defrauding UK charities  of half a million pounds. Six other defendants were convicted of fraud in four previous trials. Between them, the nine people defrauded charities of more than £1m. The £1m was originally all given to charities including Children in Need and Comic Relief in good faith by the public who made sacrifices to give to children abroad, but then the grant-making charities paid it to a small gang of form filling fraudsters.

Concern about charity trust looks justified

At the same time public trust in charities, according to the charity commission survey just out is third behind only doctors and the police. However, the public are not duped. The survey said the main public concern was "ensuring that a reasonable proportion of a charity’s income reaches the end cause" versus previous surveys which had "making a difference" as the main concern. If I had been surveyed that is exactly what I would have said. The issue of charities using funds for things which donors do not understand and would not want is one I need to return to another time, but here we are discussing crude fraud and theft.

SOS Children cannot rest on its laurels

It is tempting to be a tiny bit smug about this. We have been saying for a long time that "big Aid" (especially aid given to governments) does not have a good success record whereas "little Aid" (aid spent directly by a charity in a local community) is harder work but better, and Moyo seems to agree with us, as apparently does Linda Polman. We have been complaining about the amount some charities spend on Direct Mail and TV ads rather than on good causes for years. I agreed when Intelligent Giving said that there is no logic in giving to Children in Need unless you think they are wiser at choosing charities than you are, which looks less likely when they made grants to a group of people where detectives found "no evidence of genuine charitable work being done, but ample evidence of the suspects using the funds to finance their lifestyles".

But the World Vision case was more troubling. World Vision is not one of those "big Aid" charities (and there are many) who hand money over at a national border to a third party or to a government agency. World Vision is a hands-on charity which runs proper projects in Africa themselves, and seeing this kind of fraud is worrying. Certainly, our projects are more "people intensive" (because we employ more than 5000 SOS Mothers across all of our projects, because the projects are generally "high impact per child" projects) and more people on the ground means more eyes and more communication lines. But we are also moving increasingly into projects like family strengthening where only a relatively small number of field workers can put faces to the names of children we are helping stay with their family.  Our new fraud guidelines have just been put in place, none too early.

The UK public have increased their contributions to us some 400% over the last five years and we think we know the reasons why. But trust which is put in us must make us more diligent, not complacent, diligent in ensuring every possible penny goes to our work and diligent in ensuring our work is the best possible for the children.