Opinion: Clear information is the public's right

In his bilious broadside against government-sponsored aid organisations, the 1989 classic Lords of Poverty, the journalist Graham Hancock attempted to demonstrate not only that aid doesn't work, but also that it's a bad thing.

The book was "an attack on a group of rich and powerful bureaucracies that have hijacked our kindness", he wrote, but his focus was not on charities and NGOs that didn't get state money - there was no concern about their effective stewardship of taxpayers' money.

Nearly 20 years on, much has improved. But a new transparency issue has emerged: the lack of accountability to the public in state aid agencies has shifted to the finance of third sector bodies, which is equally dimly understood by the public.

Of course we, the cognoscenti of the third sector, can yawn with over-familiarity. We know there are some behemoths out there: 70 per cent of the sector's total income is generated by 2 per cent of charities. We know the state is the biggest funder of charities. We know from the latest data from the Labour Force Survey that the number of paid employees continues to rise. Not so the public. A recent survey by nfpSynergy, for instance, found that 62 per cent of the sample regarded a charity as "an organisation run by volunteers".

Not surprisingly, Hancock was critical of public relations exercises committed to quelling questions and promoting "anodyne, cheerful and uplifting messages" about what a good thing aid was. When aid came under fire, he argued, progress was adduced as evidence of effectiveness and the need to expand the programme, whereas lack of progress showed the dosage had been insufficient and must be increased. "Aid is thus like champagne," he wrote. "In success you deserve it, in failure you need it."

Plus ca change ... Elites may scoff at the public's ignorance, but rarely does our domestic third sector go out of its way to disabuse the common person. Now, as then, the public has a right to clear information. Bureaucracies commonly seek to perpetuate themselves, but charities should not. They should not seek to become the civil service of civil society. They should remember that charities exist to do themselves out of a job.

 - Nick Seddon is an author and journalist. nptseddon@hotmail.com

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