Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Some questions thrown up by the ugly side of charity

The UK Charity Commissioner has published a scathing report following its investigation of complaints of sexual harassment by Oxfam’s aid workers in Haiti. Oxfam has also revealed the critical findings of an independent report it had commissioned. Almost everything in these reports could be written about many international NGOs because the issues are systemic across the aid sector. They arise from the fundamental values that pervade philanthropic organisations and even government aid programmes. Power corrupts and even power to do good can corrupt.

The first question is the purpose of the charitable enterprise. Is it to provide humanitarian aid or development assistance? The objective of humanitarian aid is to give assistance to people in distress caused by natural calamities, political upheavals or perennial poverty. It provides flows of material assistance from those who are fortunate to those who are in need. On the other hand, the purpose of development assistance is to help those who are not yet able to provide for themselves to be able to do so as soon as possible. The dichotomy between relief of distress and the development of capabilities runs through the NGO sector. It also runs through government programmes: writing off the debts of farmers versus enabling them to earn more or providing universal basic income via cash transfers when people can’t earn enough versus changing the system so that people have jobs and earn more.

Charity is primarily a one-way flow of assistance from donors to beneficiaries, but capabilities are developed by sensitive partnerships. Programmes of NGOs and governments, whose primary purpose is charity and humanitarian relief, can be improved with tools of business management to make delivery systems efficient, optimise use of resources and “create more value for money". The drive for more efficiency in deliveries of services by NGOs and governments has led to greater engagements of management consultants by them over the last 20 years. This makes NGOs and governments more “business-like" and enables them to attract more money from capitalists who understand quantifiable concepts of efficiency and returns more than fuzzy, “socialist" ideas of equity.

Changing a complex system’s structure so that it will not have holes is much harder than merely filling the holes. It is even more difficult to modify an existing building to eliminate the causes of the holes when people are already living in it. Vested power structures must be sensitively taken into account while making changes, like the load-supporting beams in an old structure, or the whole house could collapse. Business management concepts of innovation and design are primarily geared to finding missing holes in the system i.e. unmet needs for which a new product or app can be designed and efficiently delivered. Society expects business managers to produce more profits for investors, not to make the world more just—“the business of business must be only business"—whereas the mission of good governments, and good development NGOs, must be to make the world better and more equitable. Thus, prevalent business management toolkits are inadequate, perhaps even inappropriate for development work.

Academic experts in economics and social development use their research tools with people as data to devise solutions to “solve poverty" which will impress other academicians and also policymakers. The experts want to administer prescriptions for poor people. Dr Abhay Bang, who has won global acclaim for path-breaking work in public health work that his wife Rani and he have done in one of India’s poorest districts, points out that researchers apply their skills to do research for their peers, not for the community. They do research “on the people", rather than research “for and with the people".

A fundamental difference between charity and genuine developmental support, such as Rani and Abhay Bang have provided to the people in Gadchiroli for decades, is the relationship between providers and beneficiaries. Charity flows from patrons with wealth and power, while good development partners are “allies" who work alongside.

The UK Charity Commission’s report ends with an admonishment that “charities must never lose sight of why they exist and must demonstrate how their charitable purpose drives everything they do". It alludes to the conundrum of the purpose of the enterprise that I began with—is it humanitarian aid and charity, or partnership for development? Deborah Doane, commenting on the Commission’s report in The Guardian (12 June 2019), says that the charitable aid system is built on a power imbalance. “Money and power are the cornerstones of exploitation and rich donors have both," she says.

People listen to money and power: money and power do not listen to people. In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade Of Changing The World, Anand Giridharadas explains how money and power, and the egos that grow with them, shape ideas ruling the worlds of philanthropy and charity. Even among NGOs, those who have bigger budgets and brands, and whose practices have been shaped by good business management precepts, are considered leaders; rather than the un-business-like precepts of Rani and Abhay Bhang’s tiny organization “of the people, by the people, for the people" in Gadchiroli. In the world of development, small can be more effective and beautiful too.

Arun Maira is chairman, HelpAge International

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