Charities: the corruption of goodwill

Men-only charity at the Presidents' Club Dinner
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On 14 June 2017, millions of people, horrified by the sight of a 24-storey London block of flats ablaze with many occupants inside, rushed to deliver aid and donations to the victims of the Grenfell fire. Local agencies, community groups, churches and mosques were overwhelmed by the material aid delivered to the neighbourhood, and millions of pounds poured in. Basic human empathy had been awoken by this dreadful event: people wanted to help. Two months later, the Charity Commission announced that of the £18.9m collected for survivors, only £2.8m had reached them – less than 15% of the total raised. Only small amounts had been given to the survivors and as a group they had not been consulted about how the money would be spent. The Charity Commission, mindful of the effect of bad publicity on donations, stepped in to regulate the distribution of the money. Very rapidly the wholehearted public response was being transformed by very different values: how deserving of help were the victims?

The charity business

There are currently over 165,000 registered charities in England and Wales. Any viewer of advertising on afternoon television would be able to reel off a long list of charitable causes, all of which, in exchange for a commitment to donate £2 or £3 a month, promise to improve the world: end starvation and malnutrition; provide clean water to poor communities; restore children’s sight; provide guide dogs for the blind; rescue donkeys from cruelty in foreign lands, etc, etc. Year on year the plight of the world’s poor does not change, but the list of charities grows longer.

In 2016, the combined income of registered charities in England and Wales was over £73bn, of which £9.7bn came from voluntary donations. This total does not vary much, so charities compete with one another for a share of the income. Large charities devote considerable resources to growth and fundraising, competing with smaller, less popular, more local or less well-resourced charities for income. A few ‘super charities’ dominate the field. The competition goes further. In a society where public services are being privatised, charities compete for contracts to provide services which used to be provided by the state sector or local councils. The pressure to win contracts can result in large charities outbidding local provision and using public donations to subsidise commercial contracts. Essential public services become perilously dependent on the business acumen of the ‘voluntary sector’, undercutting provision and undermining workers’ rights.

Charitable purposes

To become a registered charity, organisations have to pursue one of a list of ‘charitable purposes’, chief among which are: relief of poverty; advancement of education; advancement of religion; advancement of health or saving of lives. Less well known is the promotion of efficiency in the armed forces and police. Anxious to reassure the public who donate to such causes, the government has more recently imposed strict regulation and a requirement for public benefit – although this is nowhere defined – in exchange for considerable tax advantages. The pursuits and priorities of the rich are thereby subsidised from the public purse. In the education sector, for instance, about 1,300 ‘independent’ schools are registered as charities. With the escalation of school fees to astronomical amounts as the sector creams off the wealth of the international super rich who want a privileged education for their offspring, the ‘public benefit’ requirement can be met by offering bursaries to middle-class parents who can no longer afford to pay the full whack.

Historically the most important and controversial of the charitable purposes is the relief of poverty, directed not at the requirements of the middle class, but to ensure that the ‘needy’ do not demand too much. A system of local parish relief dating from 1601 was quickly converted to match the requirements of capitalism in the 19th century. The provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 ensured an emphasis on the role of charity in encouraging moral regeneration and on the virtues of self-reliance and respectability. Charities distinguished the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ poor, visiting homes and interviewing potential beneficiaries. Today, this prevailing ethic underpins the means-tested benefits system and still dominates the work of charities in the 21st century: the treatment of the Grenfell survivors is just one, sickening example.

Imperialism corrupts

The charitable impulse serves the needs of the middle class in many ways. The new year 2018 brought further bad publicity. The Financial Times reported that a total of 360 men from British politics, finance and entertainment attended the annual men-only charitable dinner on 18 January organised by the secretive President’s Club. The business of the evening was not only raising money for children’s charities, but also sexual harassment and abuse of scantily clad hostesses, specially hired for the night: why else would you need a men-only event?

Worse publicity was to follow in February, with the disclosure of sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff in Haiti and the charity’s attempts to cover it up (see below). Far from solving the problems of world poverty or giving aid to the poor and the sick, charity under imperialism is as corrupt as the system itself.

Carol Brickley

Oxfam covers up sexual abuse and exploitation

In February 2018 it emerged that British NGO Oxfam had covered up a 2011 report containing the results of internal investigations into allegations that some of its staff, including its Country Director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, engaged in sexual exploitation, fraud, bullying, intimidation, negligence and nepotism. All this had taken place following a powerful earthquake which hit the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince in 2010, killing 220,000 people and injuring 300,000.

Four Oxfam employees were sacked for gross misconduct and three were allowed to resign, including van Hauwermeiren, who was granted a ‘phased and dignified exit’ in August 2011. Oxfam did not inform van Hauwermeiren’s next employers, Action Against Hunger, Bangladesh, where he became head of mission. Van Hauwermeiren and his team had engaged in similar activities in Chad in 2006 before he went to Haiti.

Britain’s charity regulator, the Charity Commission, said Oxfam had failed to include allegations of abuse of aid beneficiaries in Haiti and potential sexual crimes involving minors in a report to the Commission in 2011. There were 87 cases of alleged sexual exploitation in Oxfam between 2016 and 2017. Hundreds of abuse claims involving other British charities such as Save the Children and Barnados have since emerged, suggesting a much wider problem. Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring responded to the outrage at these revelations by calling it an ‘overreaction’, saying it was not as if staff had ‘murdered babies in their cots’.

Around 7,000 people have stopped making regular donations to Oxfam. Penny Lawrence, deputy chief executive at Oxfam, was forced to resign. Britain’s International Development and Foreign Affairs Committees are investigating. But also at stake is public confidence in the use of ‘aid’ agencies as conduits of imperialist ‘soft power’ globally under the cover of humanitarianism. Oxfam operates in over 90 countries and its total income is £409m, of which £176m comes from the British government and other public bodies.

Soft power

Soft power allows imperialism to work in more ‘palatable’ ways than aggressive military intervention, with claims to have the interests of the oppressed at heart. The British House of Lords Soft Power Committee March 2014 report admitted: ‘British influence and effectiveness in a changed world now requires different methods of exercising power ... getting what a country wants by influencing other countries to want the same thing, through attraction, persuasion and co-option.’ Among Britain’s ‘many soft power strengths, the Report singles out ... its commitment to international development and the work of its non-governmental organisations’.

Obviously, right-wing elements in Britain such as Jacob Rees-Mogg are taking advantage of the Oxfam scandal to demand major cuts to foreign aid. What they dismiss is that ‘foreign aid’ is a key plank of British imperialism. It was the only department untouched by austerity cuts. The role of aid agencies such as Oxfam is not to help countries like Haiti, but to use them as an opportunity to build up themselves and their ‘operations’. Goldring’s salary for 2016-17 was £127,753, plus expenses of £12,006 and pension contributions of £12,818. His deputy Lawrence is on £99,082 plus a £9,941 pension. Eleven Oxfam executives were paid more than £100,000 in 2016-17. Oxfam’s wage bill increased by 48% over the period to £121.9m. In 2006 ActionAid said: ‘Between 2005 and 2006, 80% of all contracts awarded by DfID (Britain’s Department for International Development) went to UK-based firms… in reality, the money remained in the UK.’

These methods are not used by Britain alone. Similarly, following the Haitian earthquake, the American Red Cross launched a $500m programme to build homes for 130,000 people. Yet by 2015, it had built only six houses. Donations to the Red Cross helped the group erase its more than $100m deficit. 9% of the $500m goes on ‘overheads’. Subcontractors have their own overheads too. Red Cross’ management and other costs take an additional 24% of the money. Why is fighting poverty so lucrative? The majority of US assistance to Haiti comes through USAID. Since 2010, USAID has disbursed $2.13bn for Haiti-related work. Overall, just 2% ($48.6m) has gone directly to Haitian organisations. Over $1.2bn (56%) has gone to firms located in the US. Most aid from governments goes to agencies from the donor countries and usually never leaves the donor country.

UN involvement

The UN has a long history, since at least 1995, of covering up and ignoring sexual exploitation, paedophile rings, brothels and sex trafficking by its civilian staff, as well as its ‘peacekeeping’ militarised missions in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Between 2004 and 2016, there have been nearly 2,000 allegations of abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers worldwide: 150 allegations in Haiti alone. Troops from Bangladesh, Brazil, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uruguay and Sri Lanka ran a ‘child sex ring’ in Haiti from 2004 to 2007 (Paisley Dodds, 12 April 2017, Associated Press). French and Georgian EU troops raped boys and girls as young as seven in Central African Republic (CAR) in 2014.1 Over 100 troops from DRC, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Chad were sent home after peacekeepers raped or otherwise sexually exploited eight women and girls in CAR in 2015. UN troops demand sexual favours from desperately poor people in exchange for food and money, and rape women at gunpoint. UN ‘peacekeeping’ missions encourage a predatory sexual culture. In 1996 and again in 2004, Unicef concluded that prostitution and sexual abuse rose rapidly following most UN interventions.

The UN always expresses its ‘shock’ and ‘deepest regrets’ when this is exposed. While it is true that in 2007 the UN was stripped of powers to investigate these troops – responsibility lying with the troop-contributing countries, which invariably fail to prosecute their troops and threaten to withdraw from ‘peacekeeping’ missions – the fact is that the UN’s focus has always been on identifying, removing and discrediting the whistleblowers, while blatantly impeding investigations and/or prosecutions of crimes committed by its staff.

Imperialism destroyed Haiti

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Its foreign debt was mainly run up by the US-backed Duvalier regimes, which killed 50,000 people before 1986. By 1980, 80% of Haitians were unemployed, 40% homeless and 85% illiterate. Malaria, pneumonia and tetanus were rife. A 1991 CIA-funded coup targeted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had won 67% of the vote to become Haiti’s president in 1990.2 Aristide was re-elected president in 2000 but removed in another coup by the US in 2004. The US wanted privatisation and the removal of import tariffs. Haiti, which produced its own rice and sugar, now imports all its rice and sugar. Following the 2004 coup, in exchange for loans, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forced Haiti to accept food imports. The US dumped subsidised rice and sugar on Haiti, destroying much of its farming. Haiti is now a food- and aid-dependent country with little infrastructure. In 2016 some five million Haitians, about 50% of the population, faced food insecurity.

Into this destruction descend the well-paid vultures of Oxfam disguised as helpers and humanitarians, frequently employing many people who think they are helping and wanting to help, unaware they are perpetuating a system of dependence, exploitation and misery. The sooner the aid industry is destroyed the better for the people of Haiti and the world.

Charles Chinweizu

1 See: UN ignores sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, RCG website 5 June 2015 https://tinyurl.com/ybulseql

2 See: Haiti – a history of oppression, FRFI 213, February/March 2010.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018