Begging for a change

Wednesday 14th February 2018

The Oxfam affair is obviously a disgrace, but others in  the charitocracy have been doing worse on a grander scale for a very long time.

Over forty years ago, I was an innocent graduate with socialist leanings – and after a few stabs into a tight job market, I applied to be Press Officer at a leading charity for old people.

I had no real idea what a Press Officer was, but I’d harboured an ambition to be a journalist, but the prospect of the required indentures at a regional newspaper after having raved around London in the sixties was deeply unattractive. And, besides this job might prove to be a short cut  to Fleet Street.

The ‘job’, explained by the rather weird Quakers in charge, was to be first into every debate and disaster which threatened the old or ‘aged’.

Our rival was an organisation called Age Concern, run by the estimable Frank Field. At all times, we were to frustrate Age Concern’s effort to get the headlines.

So – 1973  and Bangladesh – floods, famine –  wonderful for the care claque. It was decided by the Overseas Department, run by a Sunday school teacher, that it was essential that we sent clothing out and it needed to  be collected as soon as possible. We also needed to beat the rival charities, so going door to door for clothing in West London was the best option as it was on the way to the airport.

I was instructed to fashion a press release boasting that the charity had donated £2m in ‘cash and kind’ to the flooded Bangladesh.

There was very little cash and a lot of ‘kind’. The ‘kind’ was the ‘valuation” of the clothing which was flown in expensively chartered planes, to the deserving nation. Well, to be exact, to some customs shed, in the deserving nation. It turned  out that the ‘deserving’ never got close to the donations. The clothing was all stacked up for plunder by the nearest ‘officials’ who couldn’t believe their luck.

We called it ‘bow ties to Bangladesh’ – the house to house begging in West London had released suits and dinner jackets – and even  bow ties – from a rich widow class that were grateful to be able to ditch their late beloved’s gear to what they imagined was a worthy cause.

It wasn’t just the clothes – it was the assumption that after a flood or a disaster, people needed clothes, straightway. They didn’t – they needed health care, clean water, food and sanitation.

But much worse was the overall motivation. I’ve seen tragedy in drought –  not the deaths, but the idea that it can be reversed. In the Sahel which went very dry in 1973, much as it had  before and would  in the future  – Christian Aid, Cathod and USAid decided to exploit the water table. They did and the wells they dug dried it out even more.  So the agri-experts in USAid decided to plant nourishing vegetation on the edge of the desert. They did and the plants took the moisture and the desert expanded a bit more.

Finally USAid imported cattle to help the locals start a farming culture. Sadly the bovines loved the plants and ate them. The desert advanced even more.

Back to  1973 in the UK , and the five main charities met on the issue of ‘administrative expenses.’ Mine was spending 95% of its income on expenses, which  included a dedicated taxi run to take all its press releases, in envelopes to every possible publication in the London area.

The other charities admitted to similar percentages, and the media was getting hot on their tails. It was agreed that the quoted expense versus income for all of them would be 17.5%. The reasoning was it didn’t sound too little and also not too much.

I took the story to the BBC, but they didn’t buy it – they only wanted a ‘fingers in the till’ story. I told them that many nations had stolen from our goodwill assisted by  the self righteousness and ignorance of the main charities, but that wasn’t a story for them.

I left the charity – and part of me worried that to pursue the story would dent the willingness of the public to give charitable donations.

The UK ’s aid generosity is frequently the second largest in the world in terms of volume – the charities themselves  are enmeshed into the fabric of our lives – from chugging on the streets to black tie dinners and auctions in which the guilty rich show off.

For the charities , the priority still is get the money in and protect the brand. To keep the faith of the donors, that needs to change.

Michael

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