The third sector: once bitten, twice shy?

Six months in, and 2018 is proving to not be one of the best of years for international aid organisations. If we cast our minds back towards the start of the year, we find that mistrust, doubt and complete and utter exploitation of vulnerable individuals were part of a wider vocabulary used to describe the so-called ‘Oxfam scandal’. This was revealed in an investigation by The Times back in February, which concerned the behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake which suggested that aid workers had commit acts of sexual abuse.  

Since then, it created somewhat of a frenzy in what appeared to be an inevitable catalyst for inquiries into several other organisations for questionably similar activities. Now, with aid workers of Medecins San Frontiers’ (MSF, or Doctors without Borders) making more headlines, one is left to question what this means for the culture of the third sector. Is the public losing trust in the work of international aid organisations and, as a result, are reputations staggering? And what does this mean for the future of foreign aid? 

Indeed, a report by nfpSynergy revealed that ‘trust in charities had dropped by 6% from 60% last Autumn to 54% in February this year’. Also, ‘compared to a year ago, trust in most sectors has remained stable except for ‘overseas aid and development’ (a statistically significant 40% to 36% decline)’. Clearly, there has been a noticeable increase in public distrust – where scepticism on how foreign aid is used already exists. However, writing in The Telegraph in the height of the Oxfam scandal, William Hague, former Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs, believes that ‘the case for an aid budget is going to get stronger, not weaker, in the years ahead.’  

That the actions of a small percentage of international aid organisations can create a rippling effect on the sector as a whole irks me. We must not overlook the fact that there is an unthinkable amount of charities that do truly amazing, life-changing work, and show absolute integrity, professionalism and a strong moral compass. It is, by and large, the work of a handful of senior individuals who abuse their positions of power by putting already vulnerable people at more risk.  

Power imbalances have therefore been highlighted both externally: between international aid organisations providing aid to overseas beneficiaries, as well as internally: within the organisation itself. Media efforts to hold charities accountable for their actions and misconducts demonstrates that there are still a lot of improvements to be made in the way in which charities conduct themselves. As Hague reiterates ‘There is, therefore, an overwhelming strategic, as well as moral, imperative to deliver aid to the world’s poorest people. But the public needs to know that it is being spent properly and carefully. That means being able to show that there is indeed a strategy agreed across the Government and that agencies like Oxfam are held to the highest standards.’   

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