The scandal which has overtaken Oxfam yesterday impelled Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, to declare: “If the moral leadership at the top of the organisation isn’t there, we cannot have you as a partner.”

She is right, but although it is easy, and even pleasurable, to condemn the grotesque misbehaviour of some Oxfam staff, that on its own will not promote moral leadership. It might well encourage the development of a bureaucracy run by timid apparatchiks whose main aim in life is to protect their own posts, and their public funding, by conveying the appearance of an irreproachable morality, while avoiding anything in the slightest bit risky, and especially anything which might result in a bad headline in The Times or The Daily Mail.

This points to a wider problem. Any reader of this article over the age of 50 will be able, without difficulty, to think of half a dozen major British charities which seemed more reputable a generation ago, and more in touch with the philanthropic impulses which led to their foundation.

In A Bridge of People: A Personal View of Oxfam’s First Forty Years, published in 1983, Ben Whitaker described, in words which have now acquired a greater resonance, its modest beginnings:

“nobody at the first meeting of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief would have anticipated its future. It was far from a large gathering, and went scarcely noticed during the Second World War. Half a dozen people, having planned it in the Friends’ Meeting House at Oxford, met in the Old Library of the University Church there on 5 October 1942. The minutes, written in a battered threepenny exercise book, describe its objectives as being the relief, to the extent that the law for the time being permitted, of famine and sickness arising as a result of the war. The founders included Professor Gilbert Murray, OM, the classical scholar and humanist; Rev T.R.Milford, the Vicar of the University Church, who became Chairman; Cecil Jackson-Cole, an idiosyncratic businessman who became Honorary Secretary; Dr Henry Gillett (the first of many Quakers to shape Oxfam), then Mayor of Oxford; and – completing a recognisable Oxfam mix – Sir Alan Pim, retired from the Indian Civil Service, who became Honorary Treasurer.”

Their aim was to arouse public concern about the plight of starving civilians, and especially of children, in occupied Greece and Belgium. Through the Quakers, they had heard that many people were dying of hunger, partly because of the Allied blockade. The difficulty was that sending food might help the German war effort, and for that reason they were refused permission to send food to Belgium.

In Greece, however, the Greek Red Cross was still functioning, and in 1943, the Committee started to channel help to civilians through it, including the £10,700 raised in Greek Famine Relief Week in Oxford. A shop which was opened for that week to sell gifts raised another £2,300.

When many Germans were found, after the capitulation, to be near starvation, the Committee debated whether to include Germany in its relief programme. Would that put people off helping, and if the Committee gave more, would the Government give less? They decided to take those two risks and launched an urgent appeal for food and medicines for Europe “where the need is greatest”.

Money and clothes continued to pour in, and in 1948, the Committee decided against closing Oxfam down just because Europe was on the road to recovery. Instead, Oxfam’s objects were widened to “the relief of suffering arising as a result of war or any other cause in any part of the world”, of which in succeeding decades there was to be a vast amount.

In the 75 years since 1943, Oxfam has relieved great suffering. But how different its modest beginnings, with everyone working for free to meet an immediate need, from the huge organisation, with large numbers of paid staff, which exists today.

To some extent, one has to accept such changes as unavoidable. One of the penalties of success is to become larger and richer, and no doubt new Oxfams – small charities set up to meet urgent needs – are even now being founded by anxious committees of morally engaged citizens.

But it is a great pity that so many of our most famous charities now rely so heavily on government funding. As a donor, one no longer feels the direct responsibility one once did for helping to fulfil a particular charity’s purposes. If Mordaunt wants to show moral leadership, perhaps she should look at this question. Perhaps the withdrawal of public funds would be the best thing that could happen to some of these organisations, which would then have to think much more carefully  how they spend their money.

And perhaps the charities themselves should value their independence more, and wonder whether public subsidies might not lead, once some great organisation’s original stock of moral capital has been expended, to public indifference or even to public scorn.

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