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Ben Jackson: Yes, aid charities must do better. But many are doing well. And the good they do is invaluable.

Screen shot 2013-08-08 at 10.14.46Ben Jackson is Chief Executive of BondBond is the UK membership body for organisations working in international development representing over 400 members ranging from large agencies to smaller, specialist organisations.

Recent media stories about the salaries paid to some international development CEOs have raised an important debate about NGO transparency and accountability. But the heated exchanges focusing on this issue in isolation misses an opportunity for more important conversations with the public about what charities really do, how they work, the challenges they face, the mistakes they need to learn from and how they can deliver the greatest possible impact for people living in poverty. Any discussion of salaries needs to take place with reference to these issues of effectiveness, and the good that organisations do.

Justine Greening, International Development Secretary, is right to call on NGOs to be transparent, but her comments might be taken to suggest that UK NGOs are not doing anything to respond to this challenge. This is not the case. Take, for example, the International Aid Transparency Initiative, the global standard for publishing data about where and how aid money is spend. Of the total worldwide number of organisations that have published to this standard, 91 per cent are UK NGOs.

Of course, this is just one way NGOs can be more transparent about where their money goes, but it demonstrates an important practical step to be more open and accountable to the British public and those they work with in developing countries. Bond is a champion of this agenda, and we have been working with our members since 2011 to support them to publish their data and disclose project, governance and performance information as part of Bond’s Effectiveness Programme. We know there is more to be done; but UK international development NGOs have made important progress.

While we have made significant progress in the fight against global poverty, immense challenges remain: one in eight people go to bed hungry every night, and 57 million children do not attend school. UK NGOs are at the coalface of responding to these challenges, and every day they work hard to save and improve lives in some of the most difficult places in the world. The stakes are high; failure can lead to further suffering.  For example, providing basic services after a humanitarian disaster involves complex, logistical and practical challenges which do not reach the media headlines. We mustn’t lose sight of this reality amid the media flurry.  UK aid saves lives every day, and as a nation we should be proud of the work our UK NGOs do.

That said, charities – like all other institutions - are not above criticism.  We recognise that we need to constantly earn the trust and respect of both the public who fund us and the people and partners with whom we work across the world. The public is right to think that charities should model best possible behaviour, just as they expect from all institutions that receive tax payers’ money and benefit from the generosity of the public’s donations.

UK NGOs must get better at explaining the reality of running large global operations in some of the most challenging environments. To deliver this work, these organisations must hire trained, skilled staff who can deliver, monitor and be accountable for multi-million pound programmes. It would be impossible to deliver the results that UK NGOs do every day if they were run by well-meaning amateurs. The nature of this work demands the highest standards and the public should expect no less. This means sound governance, good financial systems, professional management and processes and staff that are both committed and competent. That is what value for money looks like. To achieve this, NGOs need to remain driven by a passionate vision coupled with the highest professional standards. They should not need to apologise for being passionate professionals - indeed, it should be public expectation that they are.

We always welcome constructive discussion and debate about how we can be better at what we do. These issues need to be aired but this recent one-sided attack on charities is unhelpful, and ultimately does nothing to genuinely address issues of transparency and accountability. It also fails to help the public understand the nature of charities and the work they do. Most importantly, we must never forget why NGOs exist in the first place – to save and improve lives every day.


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