I recently attended a discussion with some philanthropists and the conversation turned to how they decided upon which charities to support. All agreed the decision was a personal one and between them they supported a hugely diverse set of causes. However, one thing they all had in common was they did not support large international charities (INGOs).
I was surprised to hear this, especially as further discussion revealed the cause was not the issue but that the group perceived INGOs as potentially corrupt, bloated and inefficient, spending too much of their resources on administration. As chairman of one, Mercy Corps, I felt the need to come to their defence.
One of the greatest curses of the fragile developing world is corruption. According to Oxfam, as much as 30% of African financial wealth is estimated to be held offshore, costing £10 billion in lost tax revenues every year. Corruption discourages investment and leads to embitterment and a strong sense of exclusion among populations which in turn feeds radicalisation and terrorism.
INGOs need to operate in corrupt countries however it does not mean they themselves are corrupt. Indeed, in the light of the places they operate, they have the most robust anti-corruption policies and must inculcate a culture against corruption throughout their organisations. The world’s major institutional donors absolutely insist and compliance failure will result in closure.
Neither are they bloated. I am frequently assailed by stories of fleets of 4x4s pulling up outside hotels to take aid workers to work each day. The reality is most aid workers live in the field, often in very basic and sometimes dangerous conditions. The type of vehicle they use is dictated by the terrain they operate in. I’ve been on a number of field visits and I’ve yet to set foot in a white Toyota Land Cruiser. Again, major donors simply wouldn't fund such spending.
With regard to inefficiencies, I question whether the right yardstick against which to measure a charity is how much it spends on administration. Surely what matters is the positive impact it has on the lives of those it seeks to help.
I have huge respect for smaller charities who operate in difficult places. They do great work and make a big difference to the lives of those they engage with but it is the INGOs who do the really difficult stuff. Countering tribal violence and extremism; fighting injustice and supporting the hundreds of millions of refugees displaced by human conflict and climate change. The ‘administration’ involved in such work is vital to its success.
INGOs, though not perfect, are the best placed third sector institutions to work in partnership with world governments and businesses to try to tackle these 21st Century global problems. If they fail, we will all be the worse off for it. Please don't forget them.