International Development is Under Attack: We need a new approach

Global citizenship is under attack in the UK. Attitudes are hardening towards those living in poverty overseas, and it is becoming increasingly common for members of the public to suggest cutting the foreign aid budget as an easy way to generate revenue for public services. Watching any episode of Question Time or reading the comments below any online newspaper article on the subject provides ample evidence of this attitude shift in action.

It’s not just the assistance provided by the British government which is under threat; the entire international development sector has come under sustained attack by the right-wing press in recent years. Some of this coverage has been legitimate, taking aim at unscrupulous and aggressive fundraising tactics which bring the entire charity sector into disrepute.

However, much of the coverage has perpetuated misconceptions about international development work, and criticised overseas aid charities for such heinous crimes as having the temerity to pay their staff salaries in accordance with the market rate of the work they do. For instance, this article in the Daily Mail bemoans the fact that ‘Oxfam has rewarded senior executives with banker-sized salaries and benefits.’ The publication’s underlying assumption is clear: those who devote their careers to combating global poverty are of lower social value than those who work in a sector responsible for crashing the global economy in 2008.

The ways in which some international development charities have responded to this increased scrutiny of their finances have often been counter-productive. Charities now battle it out over who spends the largest proportion of donations on ‘charitable activities’ and the lowest proportion on ‘administration’. Surely this misses the point – is it not the impact that charities have which is the most important factor, rather than the proportion of donations which are spent on frontline work? Would a charity which spends 100% of its donations on the frontline but achieves nothing be better than one which spends 75% on administration but manages to eliminate malaria?

Water Aid’s Donation Pie Chart explains exactly where there money goes | Water Aid

It’s admirable that charities want to be transparent with their supporters. However, oversimplifying their public accounting to the binary of ‘charitable activities’ and ‘administration’ (or something along those lines) perpetuates the idea that back-office staff are leeching off of supporters’ generous donations; that the work done by charities’ HR departments is less valuable than that done by aid workers, when both are vital to the functioning of the charity.

Some overseas aid charities have attempted to show a direct link between donors and beneficiaries – the ‘donate £3 to give a family a goat’ kind of model. Again, oversimplifying the work done by these charities is highly damaging. Amongst other factors, this type of marketing has created the widespread impression that international development charities are primarily a cash transfer scheme. The idea being that when supporters donate money, that money is directly sent to (or buys something tangible for) people in a developing country.

Seen like this, overseas aid charities appear to be nothing more than middle-men, taking their cut of donors’ cash before sending it on. The proportion of donations spent on ‘administration’ seems to be waste expenditure at best, and at worst as downright fraudulent.

World Vision’s must have gifts page | World Vision

The impact of this prevailing narrative has been to undermine public trust in international development charities. Because these charities are seen in the public imagination as cash transfer schemes, the proportion of their funds spent on staff wages does not seem to be compatible with the proportion they claim to spend on ‘charitable activities’. Despite this discrepancy being easily explained by the perfectly legitimate overlap between staff wages and charitable activities, it has nevertheless resulted in numerous scandals.

The right-wing press have been able to portray international development charities as dodgy and self-serving because the public fundamentally misunderstands the work that they do. The international development sector partly has itself to blame.  When you’ve boiled the issue of poverty down to ‘these people are poor; they need your money’, it’s very difficult to justify employing an entire office building’s worth of staff. In reality, global poverty is much more complex and deserves to be portrayed as such.

At this particular political moment, when insular and regressive politics are on the rise, it is more important than ever that those of us who believe it is right and just to help those living in poverty overseas make our voices heard. International development charities need to make a concerted effort to raise awareness of the work they do, restore public trust in the sector, and build public support for overseas aid and international development work.

Feature Image: Oxfam’s Donation Page

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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