Regulation with Rosie: foreign subsidiaries

Rosie Chapman on the accountability of charities' foreign subsidiaries.

Most trustees think they have a fairly good idea of what accountability means. But for some of the 13,500 charities working internationally, taking accountability to its logical conclusion has brought new dilemmas.

The move by some of these charities to relocate their staff from the northern hemisphere - the UK - to the southern hemisphere - where they mostly work - is visionary. It is, quite literally, miles away from old models whereby the world's poor had things done to them via western benevolence.

Different charities are going about this in different ways. Some are creating country-based affiliates, devolving fundraising and governance to the local level and helping facilitate the emergence of incredibly high-quality board members and staff with real knowledge of local issues. This takes time and is a serious investment in future development - a 20-year vision. Risks are closely monitored before brand names and country programmes are completely devolved.

Others have gone for decentralisation: moving regional departments overseas. This raises issues about accountability to UK-based donors. If a regional department messes up, can the UK board hold it to account, firing those responsible or withholding funding? If the answer is 'no', greater risks are being taken. If the answer is 'yes', what does it say about the charity's bureaucracy and delegation of decision-making?

Being accountable is a particularly complex issue for these charities, which have to consider their accountability both to beneficiaries overseas and to supporters and funders in the UK. The Charity Commission's guidance Charities Working Internationally provides some grounding in these issues, but some charities are mapping previously uncharted waters.

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the Charity Commission.

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