War on Want, the poverty relief charity, has accused the government of manipulating aid charities and buying their silence in return for funding a major campaign.
The IF campaign was set up to lobby the government to stick to its pledge of ring-fencing overseas aid at 0.7 per cent of gross national income. The campaign was presented to the government by an umbrella body called the British Overseas Aid Group, which comprises international aid charities ActionAid, Cafod, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children.
According to The Sunday Telegraph, which ran the story this weekend, the charities collectively received more than £60m from the Department for International Development in the financial year 2011/12.
But memos obtained by War on Want, using the Freedom of Information Act, show that plans for the campaign were drawn up during meetings between the five charities and an aide to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2011 and later cemented in further meetings with the then international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell.
The plan was to use the 2012 Olympics as a launch pad for the campaign and culminate in an event at the G8 summit last month.
But War on Want refused to take part in the IF campaign because it would have involved the charity pledging not to criticise government policy.
John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, said: "The internal documents reveal that, for two years, the government has been planning with the aid agencies to use the IF campaign to promote the Prime Minister as a leader on the global stage. The thing that concerned us was that there was a requirement that anybody who was joining the campaign would have to be silent about the problems being caused by the British government."
An extract from an internal DfID memo, dated 14 September 2011 and released to War on Want, reads: "BOAG are planning a campaign on hunger/nutrition over the next few years. Fits with the Secretary of State’s preference for a ‘golden moment’ on food security in 2012."
A spokeswoman for the BOAG said its critics were confusing talks with the government with a conspiracy and denied that its members had been silenced by the government. "These charges are simply not true and are not supported by the evidence," she said. "Both the campaign and many of the charities have been repeatedly critical of the government when we have disagreed with them or when we felt the government was stalling or backsliding on its promises.
"It is just not true that members of IF are not allowed to criticise the government – it seems to have a ring of a conspiracy theory."
DfID was not available for comment by the time of publication.
Last year, the think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs published a report in which it claimed that the state funding of charities creatd a "sock puppet version of civil society" because they were, in effect, given money by government in order to build support for government policies.