Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Disasters Emergency Committee

Walking past my local Oxfam recently I saw their posters advertising the Syria Appeal. The scale of the humanitarian crisis there is immense and almost unimaginable. We should all support the Disasters Emergency Committee in their work supporting over 2 million refugees from the war. DEC is a great organisation, showing the charity sector at its best. It coordinates the work of the great NGOs and shows a united response in order to maximise fundraising. It's a body that deserves the widest possible support.

And yet this great effort was dealt a major blow on Saturday with a disgraceful article in the Telegraph. Front page. Blazing headline, "Charity millions go to Syria terror groups". This sort of story does significant harm; worsened in this case by the fact the story had little hard evidence behind it at all. It was based on one open-ended statement by the Charity Commission Chair, and more tedious speculation by MPs who are hardly new to attacking the charity sector. And it comes on top of the attack on the DEC over August in the same paper. The charities that make up DEC are admired worldwide. They do great credit to the UK as a nation with a superb humanitarian record. DEC deserves the support of the Charity Commission as well as our sector as a whole.

In the chaotic and deeply divided conflict going on in Syria, it is of course impossible for governments, let alone charities, to distinguish all of the "good guys" from the bad and worst. It's impossible to ensure every penny donated is not diverted or stolen. NGOs do their best, but in the balance between the needs of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees and the need to monitor the bad guys to stop aid going astray, the balance must be on meeting need. 

After all, if these charities were massively to increase their auditing and monitoring by diverting resources from actual aid supply, the Telegraph would be the first to trumpet rising admin costs! And might I suggest that in the running of these charities, the need to ensure effective delivery of aid needs strong leadership - professionally paid. 

The Charity Commission has rightly responded firmly to the slur this story peddles. The story is “speculative and certainly does not represent what we know”, they said. Further to that, their Chair himself wrote to the Telegraph to emphasise that "such reporting could undermine the efforts made by charities to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people in war-torn areas like Syria." But the damage is still done. No front page splash on the CC clarification.

I feel bound to ask why such a story even existed in the first place. Granted, it’s hardly the first time the Charity Commission has been unhelpful in recent months. But they seem consistently to be attacking, or being seen to attack, the wrong targets. Rather than the core areas that sap public trust in Charities – like public schools and the Cup Trust scandal – the Commission is content to posture about the somewhat hypothetical threat of ‘terrorist charities’.

We need a regulator that acts firmly to maintain public trust in charity. I hope this latest incident underlines the need for much greater care by the Commission in its public statements and comments from its Chair. A recent Third Sector magazine had an interview with one of the new Charity Commissioners suggesting (after commenting adversely on top pay, charities delivering public services and campaigning) that “charities should stick to the knitting". Perhaps the Commission, instead, should follow his advice? Routing out tax evasion, ensuring annual returns are made on time and investigating bad practises are the stuff of the regulator’s daily job. The sector needs a good regulator and organisations like DEC can do without having their mission undermined. 

Let's hope lessons are learnt. 

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