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In the aid world you hear a lot of rhetoric about “transparency” and “accountability”, but both are in troublingly short supply. This is especially the case at some of the powerful mega-charities. So it was good to see this OpEd piece in the London Times by Stephen Pollard calling for more openness in the UK charitable sector.

For those unable to access the piece behind the Times paywall, one key passage reads:

If an organisation is going to enjoy the benefits that society grants to charities, including exemption from inheritance and other taxes, then the rest of us are entitled to at least an inkling of how it spends our money.

Pollard’s starting point is a new reform proposed by the Charity Commission that would require charities to be open about how much money they spend on political campaigning.

It is not surprising that such an innocuous-seeming, public spirited reform might provoke hysterical opposition – as it already has – in the NGO sector.

Transparency would mean that Oxfam and others would have to be honest about where public contributions are really going:  they would have to tell Granny that her fiver isn’t actually going to feed the hungry or provide shelter for the homeless; it’s going to be spent, er, addressing the “root causes” of hunger and homelessness, by campaigning against the Coalition government or against free trade or for higher taxes for large corporations….

Those who run the charitable sector in the UK have enjoyed minimal oversight over the years. They have therefore become accustomed to operating in an environment in which secretiveness and even dishonesty has no downside.  To some degree the shady behavior that has ensued, and the amazingly self-interested and smug attitudes of charity executives and lobbyists is not  their fault. It is also the fault of a political class and a general public that are foolishly and ignorantly dazzled into myopia by the moral glamour of “charity”.

Both charities and those they are trying to help deserve better.

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