Ben Jackson is Chief Executive of Bond. Bond is the UK membership body for organisations working in international development representing over 400 members ranging from large agencies to smaller, specialist organisations.
Recent media stories about the salaries paid to some international
development CEOs have raised an important debate about NGO transparency and
accountability. But the heated exchanges focusing on this issue in isolation
misses an opportunity for more important conversations with the public about
what charities really do, how they work, the challenges they face, the mistakes
they need to learn from and how they can deliver the greatest possible impact
for people living in poverty. Any discussion of salaries needs to take place
with reference to these issues of effectiveness, and the good that organisations do.
Justine Greening, International Development Secretary, is
right to call on NGOs to be transparent, but her comments might be taken to
suggest that UK NGOs are not doing anything to respond to this challenge. This
is not the case. Take, for example, the International Aid Transparency
Initiative, the global standard for publishing data about where and how aid
money is spend. Of the total worldwide number of organisations that have
published to this standard, 91 per cent are UK NGOs.
Of course, this is just one way NGOs
can be more transparent about where their money goes, but it demonstrates an
important practical step to be more open and accountable to the British public and
those they work with in developing countries. Bond is a champion of this agenda,
and we have been working with our members since 2011 to support them to publish
their data and disclose project, governance and performance information as part
of Bond’s Effectiveness Programme. We know there is more to be done; but UK
international development NGOs have made important progress.
While we have made significant progress in the fight against
global poverty, immense challenges remain: one in eight people go to bed hungry every
night, and 57 million children do not attend school. UK NGOs are at the coalface
of responding to these challenges, and every day they work hard to save and
improve lives in some of the most difficult places in the world. The stakes are
high; failure can lead to further suffering. For example, providing basic services after a
humanitarian disaster involves complex, logistical and practical challenges
which do not reach the media headlines. We mustn’t lose sight of this reality
amid the media flurry. UK aid saves
lives every day, and as a nation we should be proud of the work our UK NGOs do.
That said, charities – like all other institutions – are not
above criticism. We recognise that we
need to constantly earn the trust and respect of both the public who fund us
and the people and partners with whom we work across the world. The public is
right to think that charities should model best possible behaviour, just as
they expect from all institutions that receive tax payers’ money and benefit
from the generosity of the public’s donations.
UK NGOs must get better at explaining the reality of running
large global operations in some of the most challenging environments. To
deliver this work, these organisations must hire trained, skilled staff who can
deliver, monitor and be accountable for multi-million pound programmes. It
would be impossible to deliver the results that UK NGOs do every day if they
were run by well-meaning amateurs. The nature of this work demands the highest
standards and the public should expect no less. This means sound governance,
good financial systems, professional management and processes and staff that
are both committed and competent. That is what value for money looks like. To achieve
this, NGOs need to remain driven by a passionate vision coupled with the highest
professional standards. They should not need to apologise for being passionate
professionals – indeed, it should be public expectation that they are.
We always welcome constructive discussion and debate about
how we can be better at what we do. These issues need to be aired but this
recent one-sided attack on charities is unhelpful, and ultimately does nothing
to genuinely address issues of transparency and accountability. It also fails
to help the public understand the nature of charities and the work they do.
Most importantly, we must never forget why NGOs exist in the first place – to
save and improve lives every day.