The behaviour of former staff at Oxfam was appalling and will rightly horrify the public. At the time of writing, the scale of the problem is unclear: the Deputy Chief Executive of the charity has resigned, but Oxfam deny any institutional cover-up of events in Haiti took place, and are continuing to explain their position to the media and to those in Government that fund their operations. More allegations are coming out about the organisation, however.
It is not only right but self-evidently reasonable that the Government look at public funding of Oxfam and that the Charity Commission is satisfied that the organisation is being run properly. As a major recipient of public money, politicians and officials have a duty to ensure that the charity is fit to deliver aid projects with the highest levels of professionalism and integrity. Oxfam have a brand to protect, of course, but they also effectively represent the British Government and the British public abroad. It is also an obvious and important policy response to rethink how the actions of charities and NGOs can be effectively held accountable in the places they operate. The Government and policymakers outside should put their minds to this question.
On the face of it, this prompts the consideration of another significant change in policy – a reduction in the aid budget. Long-standing opponents of the high levels of British aid spending will cite this as another example of how money is being misused – and therefore how spending levels should be reduced. Critics of British aid policy have always been able to point to widespread examples of corruption in many countries where aid is spent, but they can now point to concrete examples of bad behaviour of some of those that help implement the actual projects. The attack line writes itself: how can we spend so much on aid, and channel so much through charities, when their staff can’t be trusted to behave in the right way?
There are good reasons to argue that we spend too money on foreign aid – and certainly that the pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP each year is wrong. It’s hard to justify to taxpayers that a set amount of money must be spent per year on foreign aid projects, regardless of the state of the domestic economy and, just as importantly, regardless of the actual demands from developing countries. And, of course, there’s also an extremely strong argument that the best way to raise the living standards of the world’s poorest countries is primarily through free trade.
But critics of British aid policy should be careful about dragging the Oxfam issues into the existential debate on this particular policy change. While very serious allegations are being made about the organisation, which may seriously damage Oxfam, public support for aid charities is high. The public respect the work they do on the ground and the work of volunteers. “Cut aid because of the behaviour of charities” is not a message that will secure much sympathy.
As I’ve written on this site in the past, British public attitudes to aid policy are something of a mystery. While polls show that clear majorities believe the Government aid budget to be too high, they continue to pour their own money into foreign aid charities. While it’s hard to be sure, this suggests that the public have greater trust in aid charities to spend money wisely than they do in Government. (Of course, much of UK Government spending goes to these charities, the public clearly still see charities as being independent vehicles.) Either way, opposition to high Government spending is clearly not simple.
Perhaps things will change. If more stories come out about bad behaviour of aid workers abroad, it’s possible that people will begin to question the merits of aid policy in a big way – and to reduce their own donations along with demands for a serious reduction in the aid budget. But, until that point, critics of aid policy, and specifically of the 0.7 per cent pledge, should be extremely wary of using this scandal to further this cause. They risk looking opportunistic in the extreme.