Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The business of charity and how it affects us.

I am in awe of the British public. I heard Lenny Henry say that Comic Relief and Red Nose Day had raised a record £82M for charity this year. Anyone watching the videos could not help but be moved by the plight and fortitude of those featured, young or old, in both the UK and Africa. They need our care and support.

Sceptics will argue that much of this money may be wasted on administration or fall into the wrong hands. My answer is simple, only comment when you have first hand experience.

For a short period in 2009, I was involved in a project advising on the restructure of a $35M charity in Asia. I visited refugee camps in the jungle. I saw how people live on a diet of rice and herbs and in “temporary” bamboo huts. I spoke to some elderly people who had escaped across the border 3 miles away, often scarred mentally and physically by their experiences; still worried that marauding militia will come and take their young away. Meeting these people and seeing their resilience affected me deeply.

Because we were looking at the financial, budgetary and organisational aspects of the charity, we gained significant insight and access to the charity’s operations at all levels. We saw how a group of only 79 personnel could acquire and distribute food and shelter to over 160,000 people year in, year out. How they had set up camps and trained refugees to manage their own affairs locally. How they co-ordinated their work with 18 other charities to ensure the efficient delivery of all aspect of education, health and many other disciplines necessary to ensure the smooth running of the camps. These individuals do this within a framework tolerated and closely scrutinized by the local government. Life for them can be difficult, politically sensitive and sometimes dangerous. While we were there, we sat in on a meeting to discuss what to do with an extra 5,000 souls who had just arrived. UNHCR will not recognise this new influx of refugees for several years, but they still need shelter and food even thought they officially do not exist on any international records.

When people in the western world worry about where the money goes, I would simply point them to the high standard of financial reporting and waste-free budgeting operated by this charity. I would invite them to chat to the dedicated personnel who achieve so much with so little. I am delighted that we helped them develop their budgeting, SORP accounting, re-structure their organisation, distribution and develop succession processes for key personnel. The Pyramid ODI team, in addition to my contribution, included an in-country financial expert and a specialist with years of experience in international rescue.

Our efforts may be small in comparison to the size of their task, but here is a final thought for you. Many of these refugee camps have been in existence for more than 20 years. Residents do not have the right to leave or to seek work to improve their circumstances. In many cases, parents of the newborn were also born in the camp.

Here in the UK, our local authorities could learn a great deal on how to budget and prioritise – this charity is “Big Society” in operation. When I think of our challenges, our circumstances, the recession, I think how lucky we are to live in a democracy. Yes, the quality and cost of our social services and education systems may be open to criticism – people should have the right to march peacefully and make their views known. Anarchists, however, have no right to destroy other people’s property, as they did in central London last weekend. They seem to have no idea how lucky they are. Those wonderful people who have given £82M to Comic Relief do.

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