issue 222 - August 1991
Mugging the Good Samaritans
Third World charities are under attack in the UK for being 'too political'.
There is even a public appeal for money to be used on harassing Oxfam and Christian Aid.
NI co-editor, Dexter Tiranti, takes a closer look at the offensive.
What's happening? Bang: The Daily Telegraph editorializes against charities 'for whom left-wing sloganising has replaced philanthropy'.
Bang: I hear on morning radio criticism of Oxfam and Christian Aid for misleading their supporters - too much of the charities' energies are going on lobbying.
Bang: The Charity Commissioners' public enquiry into Oxfam ends after a year, rapping the charity over the knuckles for directly addressing the political causes of poverty.
Bang: Questions are asked in the House of Commons: 'I wonder how many of those donating or collecting or giving up free time to serve in Oxfam shops knew that Oxfam was pouring funds into projects run by the Marxist Government of Nicaragua, including the building of a shower block for a prison...?'
The knocking goes on, with scarcely a murmur in reply. For us at the New Internationalist this nonsense has to stop. How well-fed representatives of the establishment have the gall to hound agencies who are so patently working for the underprivileged, is beyond us. For every smear and every sneer will reduce the funds of the development agencies. And less funds will mean people will stay illiterate who might have read, will stay blind who might have seen, will remain jobless who might have worked, will remain thirsty who might have drunk clean water ... will remain a disorganised mass, who might have made decent self-respecting lives for themselves.
Let's look at the knockers and their motivations. First, The Daily Telegraph. The largest circulation 'serious' daily in the country, yet sometimes difficult to take seriously. Like its most caricatured readers, 'Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells' and choleric retired colonels from Hove, it breathes faded gentility and is partially sighted. While regularly knocking Oxfam as a charity, the newspaper studiously ignores the distortions of the charity laws which favour its own kind. Swept under the carpet are the anomalies which allow public schools like Harrow and Eton to be charities too - thus not having to pay tax on their very considerable incomes.
The radio interview and parliamentary question had a different background. Over the airwaves came the self-confident Ivy League-educated voice of a young American telling us that the International Freedom Foundation, whom he represented, was worried that the British charity laws were being breached. Certainly the legislation is a hotch-potch of archaic statutes based on Elizabethan Acts - and I mean Elizabeth the First. But do I need an American to tell me this? Well possibly. After all it was far Right organizations in the US, geed up with corporate donations, which helped establish the International Freedom Foundation subsidiary in London as well as a spate of right-wing charities like the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies in London during the 1980s. They flourished in a favourable climate - it was the decade of Thatcherism. And they have had access to the highest offices of power. The International Freedom Foundation even provides briefs for Members of Parliament to read out at Adjournment Debates, like the one above.
Borne along on the flood tide of the New Right, charities like The Adam Smith Institute, The Institute of Economic Affairs and the Social Affairs Unit came into being or gained a new lease of life. They sponsored conferences on how to privatize state enterprises, argued for a poll tax, ways to reduce the taxation of the wealthy and how to dismantle the social-welfare structure - the nanny state. To you, all of this might look highly political but not, apparently, to the media or the Charity Commission which oversees the charity laws.
Spokespeople from such organizations have been deliberately adversarial. They echo some of the more strident government ministers in hounding possible liberal or left-wing sympathizers. Progressive teachers have been favourite targets, then have come 'irresponsible' social workers, the 'loonies' of local government, trade union leaders and now we hear noises about the staff of Third World charities. The attack has been on those professions standing against the prevailing ethos of the 1980s.
Frustration with charities who do take on a lobbying role on behalf of their clients, who engage in such 'political' action, is understandable. Because part of the new philosophy of this last decade has been for government to put greater reliance on the voluntary sector to deliver services previous the responsibility of the State. The rationale is that this is more efficient and that charities understand their clients' real needs better. Indeed government grants to voluntary agencies have doubled in real terms over the decade to £293 million ($470 million) by 1987/8.
Given this change of emphasis, the last thing the Government wants is for those same agencies to campaign in the corridors of power on their clients' behalf. Well, some clients are acceptable. Animals, perhaps. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can campaign to change the law and introduce dog licences, to protect the public from American pit-bull terriers. They have done so vigorously and with impunity. Changes to the law? Highly political you might think, but of no concern to those knocking Third World charities.
It is a different matter with Oxfam's campaign on behalf of the Cambodian people. For when they ask for an end to Whitehall's recognition of the Pol Pot-dominated coalition of opposition forces at the UN General Assembly, proper supervision of the UN supplies to the Khmer Rouge-controlled refugee camps on the Thai border and an end to the aid embargo on this small country - then the Charity Commissioners' enquiry censors Oxfam 'for having prosecuted their campaign with too much vigor'. Criticism of Pol Pot - responsible for the deaths of a million Cambodians - should, they say, be conducted with 'balance'.
There is more to come. The International Freedom Foundation, proud standard-bearer of the New Right, is once again warning that it is investigating Christian Aid. No doubt it continues to bridle at the agency's mandate from the former British Council of Churches that the agency should strengthen the arm of the poor until they can stand up to those who so often act against them, until they have the power to determine their own development under God. It may have heard that this agency, together with many other Third World agencies, believe that to remain silent is to be political - since those who are silent are content that the status quo continues. And the status quo does not benefit the wretched of the earth.
Dexter Tiranti for the New Internationalist Co-operative.