Are international aid charities fit for purpose?

They undeniably do good, but many believe good intentions can't hide the fact that the system is 'embedded in white supremacy'. Rebecca Cooney reports

Thousands of international aid projects are changing and saving lives around the world, but calls for reform in the sector have become increasingly loud
Thousands of international aid projects are changing and saving lives around the world, but calls for reform in the sector have become increasingly loud

When Cyclone Bulbul hit Bangladesh last November, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by preparatory work and early warning systems supported by UK aid organisations. In 1970, 500,000 people were killed by the Bhola Cyclone in Bangladesh, but this year’s death toll was just 20.

A year earlier, the 14 UK aid organisations that make up the Disasters Emergency Committee raised almost £30m to help communities in Indonesia after the devastating tsunami that struck the country in October 2018. That money is now helping to support the 133,000 people displaced by the disaster.

On any given day, thousands of projects around the world are changing and saving lives, thanks to the efforts of UK aid charities.

Since 2015, aid from the UK has supported more than 14 million children into education. It has also allowed 5.6 million births to take place safely, saving the lives of 80,100 mothers and 226,000 babies, and it has provided almost 50 million life-saving mosquito nets.

Despite this, the international development sector has experienced a torrid time in recent years. In 2018, it was rocked by the safeguarding scandal, with MPs accusing aid organisations of "complacency verging on complicity" over "endemic" sex abuses. The aid community has also been the subject of furious debate around whether the imagery it uses in campaigns perpetuates "white saviour" narratives.

More broadly, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the international aid model and whether the way money is allocated and spent lifts people out of poverty or merely masks problems.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the British Asian Trust, a UK charity that tackles poverty and hardship in south Asia, believes there is a lot for the sector to be proud of, pointing out that in the past 30 to 40 years non-governmental organisations have helped to raise the issue of international development among both the public and policymakers. "There have been some huge reductions in poverty," he says. "The contribution of NGOs has played a major role in pressuring governments to act and in bringing a lot of people out of poverty."

What UK-based organisations in particular have contributed to international development is the constant focus on poverty, social injustice and social inequality

Girish Menon, chief executive, ActionAid UK

Hawkes cites Bond’s 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, coordinated during his tenure as chair of the international development body, as an example of difference the sector has made. The campaign had a galvanising effect on both the sector and the public, helping to persuade the UK government to commit to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid. The UK met the target for the first time in 2013. Since then, the government has spent £65.7m on overseas aid.

In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the proportion of people in extreme poverty – living on less than $1.90 a day – fell from nearly 36 per cent to 10 per cent, thanks in no small part to the work of aid charities. But Hawkes believes that the aid sector collectively could have "achieved a lot more".

He says: "There have been a huge number of successes, but the potential the sector has is so much more."

Girish Menon, chief executive of ActionAid UK, believes the UK aid sector has done well at driving people to take action. "The thing I’m very proud of, which UK-based organisations in particular have contributed to international development, is the constant focus on poverty, social injustice and social inequality," he says.

The UK sector has also, he says, become "a platform" where people from around the world come together to make their voices heard in politics at local, national and international levels.

Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, agrees that one of the aid sector’s greatest achievements has been shaping global initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the 17 global targets designed as a blueprint for a more sustainable future.

"The SDGs are more ambitious because of the development sector," she says. "The UK sector played a key role in that and is continuing to push for more ambition to achieve those goals.

"We’ve also been at the forefront of the response to humanitarian crises, from the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cyclone Idai, to continuing famines in southern Africa and the 6.2 million Syrian people who remain displaced. The constant there is that our members are ensuring people have clean water, services, healthcare and education, some of which just would not be there if NGOs were not present."

Since 2015, UK aid has supported more than 14 million children into education, enabled 5.6 million safe births, and provided almost 50 million life-saving mosquito nets

Underlying concerns

Yet calls for the aid sector to reform have been growing increasingly loud from within the sector’s own ranks. The safeguarding scandal and subsequent #AidToo campaign brought to the boil concerns that had been simmering for some time.

The row that ensued after Labour MP David Lammy accused Comic Relief of "perpetuating an old idea from the colonial era" by continuing to send white celebrities to film projects in Africa further highlighted concerns about the methods used by aid charities.

Alexia Pepper de Caires, co-founder of NGO Safe Space, which campaigns against misogyny in the aid sector, says the two issues – safeguarding and concerns about white saviourism – are related. "The response to #AidToo was to try telling people ‘everything’s OK: it’s just a few bad men and now we’ve got a piece of paper that’s going to keep everyone safe’," she says. "But there’s a reason for this behaviour. It’s about power and individual power. All sexual misconduct and oppression is about taking power over others, and the sector offers far too much opportunity for that."

Pepper de Caires says she believes the fundamental dynamic of the international development sector – where money is sent by the benevolent and wealthy global north, often former colonisers, to the "deserving poor" in the global south, many in former colonies – creates a power imbalance that undermines charitable missions. The structure has weakened local democracies and made it difficult for people receiving help to hold anyone accountable for how it is delivered, she says: "It just looks like a cover-up for a huge apology we owe the world."

Going local

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Christina Bennett, chief executive of the Start Network, a group of more than 40 aid agencies that is trying to improve the way the sector acts, believes change is coming to international development, whether it’s ready for it or not. "We are witnessing the end of the charity model as we’ve known it," she says.

New technologies and shifts in global power that allow people being supported to have more agency are changing the geo-political and societal environment in which charities operate.

The Start Network is trying to tackle a number of issues in the sector, including slow and reactive funding, centralised decision-making and an aversion to change.

In an effort to drive greater agency on the ground, the group’s members, which deal mostly with small to medium-scale emergencies, are shifting to a model in which local agencies lead the response because they are nearer, able to respond quicker and better understand the dynamics at play, says Bennett.

If other international organisations want to model a similar approach, they need to start investing in local organisations now, ensuring they are prepared for future events, she says.

Some large aid organisations have already recognised the need to evolve their practices. For example, ActionAid UK is trying to give more power to those it supports through a range of measures, including conducting its work through local rights organisations and actively seeking community movements to lead programmes. Community leaders are members of the general assemblies in each country, which make the key decisions about where money should be spent in-country.

"There’s always going to be a power dynamic when you’re a global organisation," says ActionAid UK’s Menon. "It’s about how you bring in other voices to disrupt it."

Some organisations are moving to decentralise aid projects, enabling more decisions to be made locally, and empowering communities  

WaterAid, the UK-based water and sanitation charity, is another organisation increasingly using local partners to lead on projects. Its Twenty Towns Project, which sought to improve a weak water utilities system in Ethiopia that caused 39 per cent of drinkable water to be lost before it reached urban users, is one example.

The initiative, funded with support from Yorkshire Water, offered training and, where necessary, equipment to the towns. Monitoring, mentoring and micro-grants for post-training initiatives were also provided.

A WaterAid report found the project had "made impressive gains" in strengthening water services in the towns. Marcus Missen, director of communications and fundraising at the charity, describes it as a "true collaboration" between communities, local government, WaterAid and Yorkshire Water.

"Our sector doesn’t have all the answers, and shouldn’t think it has," says Missen. "This model of working in collaboration leads to lasting, sustainable change."

In order to move forward, Missen says, the international aid model has to move away from "doing good for people" to "supporting them to change the context they live in".

One reason for WaterAid’s success has been its collaborative work with the private sector, rather than just expecting charities or governments to deliver change. BAT’s Hawkes also believes that the sector needs to be looking to the business community.

"We need to radically change the way we work with the private sector," he says. "That’s because it’s going to be the way most people end up getting out of poverty: not through charity, but through developing strong economies and successful jobs, helping people to sustain their families.

"The voluntary sector can play a massive role by working with the private sector to help create those jobs and strengthen the economy, rather than simply giving handouts and hoping that will solve poverty."

Bond’s Draper believes that the private sector needs to play a bigger role, but warns that any jobs created need to be sustainable. Climate change is already set to make large-scale humanitarian crises more common and more severe, stretching the sector’s capacity. As well preventing the progress that has already been made from being lost, Draper says, the sector needs to ensure it isn’t making the problem worse.

She cites the example of University College London’s Prosperity Co-Lab, which is working with local partners in Kenya to try to build long-term prosperity for communities by creating sustainable jobs that empower people rather than exploit them.

Another project, run by the charity United Purpose, combines environmentally friendly job creation with allowing local people to choose how the money is spent, as well as offering an alternative income stream.

Pepper de Caires believes that, despite all the good intentions, radical reform is needed. She says there is no charity strategy that states "we don’t need 40 or 50 NGOs in Nigeria; we only need one".

She adds: "Every charity believes they need to be everywhere, doing everything."

She’s come to the conclusion that "actually, the system is so embedded in white supremacy that we don’t feel it’s possible for it to be decolonised, because it’s inherently based on a system of extractive power and manipulation of narratives".

Even when organisations appear to be trying, it’s almost as if the mask can’t quite keep itself in place, even though there are a lot of people within the sector who have very good intentions

Alexia Pepper de Caires

She adds: "Even when organisations appear to be trying, it’s almost as if the mask can’t quite keep itself in place, even though there are a lot of people within the sector who have very good intentions."

Instead, she argues, aid organisations should recognise it isn’t their place to strengthen civil society in other countries, slowly withdraw and think of different ways to use their energy. They could attempt to encourage more people in the global north to give money directly to those living in extreme poverty in the global south, she says.

Start Network’s Bennett acknowledges that the sector has tried to change, but says there hasn’t been enough action. "Decade on decade, we have changed the way we use our money, our systems and tools, how we see affected communities and how we relate to them, how we hold ourselves to account and become more professional – usually as a result of crises," she says. "But the system has largely stayed the same: we’ve been rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic."

Hawkes, an outspoken critic of the number of representative bodies in the sector, believes there needs to be more leadership from within. "It’s lacking in the wider charity sector," he says. "There are too many bodies and no clarity about who is bringing it together to think radically about the role of the sector."

Ultimately, he says, each aid charity should ask itself what value it is adding and be prepared to shut down if necessary: "If the sector isn’t prepared to change the way it works and the things it focuses on, then we’re letting people down."

But Bennett believes all is not broken in the aid sector and its work will be needed long into the future. "There is always going to be a need to transfer money from people who empathise with fellow humans, and there will be organisations that can respond to crises where governments are unwilling or unable to respond," she says.

Draper believes the sector is up to the challenge of making the necessary changes and that it has already begun to do so: "We are a sector that is full of amazing people, is committed to real change in the world and is having an impact on the ground.

"We commit time to working together and finding solutions. That really gives me confidence that we can respond to these challenges.

"There’s a real sense that we’re moving away from defending what we do towards championing it, finding the best way of producing change in order to get the best outcomes for the poorest, and ensuring we have a healthy, prosperous and sustainable planet."

Fundraising: From giving to charity to giving to people

The sector’s fundraising model itself presents another well-trodden challenge, with increasing concerns arising about the availability of funding for the sector.
More than half (55 per cent) of Bond’s members identified diversifying income and becoming financially sustainable as their biggest long-term challenge in the organisation’s annual survey, carried out in November 2017.

WaterAid’s Missen says funding concerns are in part fuelled by the public looking beyond traditional donations to support those abroad. "In recent years, the biggest building of momentum is happening outside the traditional structure of charities," he says. "Crowdfunding is a good example of where people who support charities are looking for personal relevance and are galvanising outside the traditional fundraising model."

He argues that crowdfunding platforms collapse the distance between the donor and the person receiving the support, allowing donors to feel they are personally effecting change, while those getting the money have the power to ask for the support they think is the most important. So charities become less relevant, not only to those they rely on for financial support, but also to those they want to help.

Some NGOs are attempting to diversify their income and shift power imbalances through the design of the programmes themselves.

But ActionAid UK’s Menon is sceptical about the potential impact of crowdfunding platforms on traditional charities. Given the scale of the challenges in international development, he says, there is room for all approaches. Crowdfunding is effective for specific, time-bound campaigns, he says, but many entrenched issues need charities’ oversight, expertise and accountability processes over a period of years.

"In the private sector you have disintermediators like Airbnb, but that doesn’t mean Premier Inn ceased to exist," he says. "The same is true for charities."

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