After the Oxfam and Save the Children scandals what does it take to be a good organisation?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 28th 2018

The last few weeks have seen huge controversies surround the charity organisations Oxfam and Save the Children. In both senior men have been accused of acting inappropriately; in the case of Oxfam, involving the grotesque spectacle of Haitian disaster survivors being sexually exploited.

It didn’t take long for this to become a political football. Elements of the right, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, called for the UK international aid budget to be revisited, while former International Aid Secretary Priti Patel tried to link her enquiries into Oxfam when she was a minister to people in her department plotting her downfall. Left-wingers rallied to the defence of both charities and alleged a right-wing media plot to undermine organisations which increasingly stray into the political.

None of this had been helped by the responses of both charities. Oxfam’s current chief executive Mark Goldring has often seemed bewildered in his public utterances about the storm he has found himself in. He has misspoken several times, including in a painful interview in ‘The Guardian’ where he said that the backlash was as if ‘we murdered babies in their cots’ and that ‘anything we say is being manipulated’ – hardly striking the right tone of contrition. Similarly, Save the Children’s senior staff have been slow to wake up to their, at least perceived, collusion in what went on under their name.

Underneath all of this lurk difficult, thorny issues without easy answers. One concerns the effectiveness and purpose of the international aid industry that has become a mini-empire and hence driven by maintaining its existence and status. Then there are the attitudes and cultures of some aid workers and staff who go to work in developing countries; many are committed and passionate, but some are shaped by a paternalist, even evangelical attitude that they know best. These modern day missionary attitudes have been exasperated by the cult of leadership in many big charities, the prevalence of managerialism, and the adoption of modern business practice.

It isn’t completely accidental that the Save the Children crisis enveloped Justin Forsyth, its ex-head, and Brendan Cox, its second in command, and husband of the murdered Labour MP, Jo Cox. Stories of their inappropriate behaviour to female colleagues were legion, but were hushed up when they worked in the organisation, and even when they left, despite several formal complaints.

One Save the Children former insider writing under an alias in ‘Open Democracy’ spoke of the widespread ‘bullying culture’ under Forsyth and Cox, with the leadership culture stating it was ‘their way or the highway’, and people who brought complaints dismissed as ‘moaners’. This was simmering for several years with ‘The Guardian’ approached by people with allegations, and in a response with echoes of ‘BBC Newsnight’ and Jimmy Savile, they turned it down. Even when the story broke, senior media figures such as the BBC Andrew Marr and SKY’s Adam Boulton, publically defended Forsyth and Cox.

Both Forsyth and Cox were products of the New Labour era of spin doctors and advisers. This was an age where arrogant, abrasive men believed that ‘The Thick of It’ style operations meant they could practically get away with anything, were not accountable to anyone (but their ultimate political masters), and had few limits on their behaviour. This was a culture after all which produced Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride.

It did not stop there. People like Forsyth and Cox felt that the skills gained in the black arts of New Labour were somehow transferrable to nearly any situation. Hence, people like them were parachuted into senior positions running complex national and international organisations with large staff and budgets. This when in many cases they had previously run nothing but a New Labour media operation, but felt this was enough to give them a culture of entitlement and limitless possibilities.

An even bigger conundrum raised by these controversies is the thorny subject of what exactly in the modern age constitutes a good organisation? For years, charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children have scaled up into huge multi-million pound businesses operating across numerous countries, continents and situations while competing against each other for government contracts and the public’s money.

Once upon a time many of us were sure we know the answer to this. Good organisations included most public services – from the council to education, health, law and order and the BBC. Now we aren’t so sure even of the public sector, although the NHS still has – in Scotland and the rest of the UK – high records of trust and satisfaction.

Big voluntary organisations have become in many cases extensions of the state and reliant on government contracts, but still command confidence: a recent Scottish survey giving them 73% trust rating, down from 83% the previous year. But perhaps the biggest shift in trust and legitimacy has happened to big business and corporates in light of the banking crash and the sheer insensitivity and brazen self-interest of too many of those at the top of business.

Last week, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) which is 70% owned by the public produced a profit for the first time in ten years. Ross McEwan, its Chief Executive, earned an astonishing £3.48 million in the current year, and has still not learned how to adapt to the new world of how bankers are seen, in not apologising for the past errors and deceptions of RBS. The story of recalcitrant masters of the universe and where it takes us is clearly not over, and how it evolves will depend on the public mood when more difficult economic storm clouds emerge.

This sort of flat earth thinking has poisoned large numbers of public institutions that the public used to respect. One example much in the headlines has been that of universities and the pay of Vice-Chancellors. The new Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University, Peter Mathieson, identified as the most highly paid in Scotland, in his first year pockets an impressive £342,000 plus £42,000 in pension contributions and £26,000 in relocation costs. Previously that honour was held by Jim McDonald, Vice-Chancellor of Strathclyde who earned £360,000, alongside such goodies as a £1.18 million townhouse with a £300,000 refurbishment.

Even this only touches the surface of what is going wrong. Glasgow Caledonian University for example have spent £11.5 million of public monies on their white elephant New York operation which has taken years to get US certification and has only a handful of students. Typical of the age we live in is the attitude of that once respected and loved organisation, the Open University, with its head, Peter Horrocks, saying that he deserved his £360,000 salary because he had to sack so many colleagues.

It is in this context that the strike by university staff has to be seen which is officially about the diluting of pension rights. Recent analysis by the Labour Party estimated that University Vice-Chancellor remuneration packages since 2010 had gone up 227%, whereas basic university staff had risen by a mere 19%!

It isn’t very surprising that such insensitive, self-serving attitudes by those at the top raise the ire of the public and produce popular backlashes. This cannot go on indefinitely, partly because in the cases of university heads their salaries are taxpayer funded. But even in the case of private enterprise such as banking (leaving aside RBS being part state owned), these organisations are ultimately accountable to us, and if they lose respect, people will eventually take their custom elsewhere.

What exactly are the characteristics which make a good organisation in this present climate? I think we know such bodies when we come across them, and they are often grassroots initiatives with a strong sense of place and locale, and of mission and founding leadership. Examples that spring to mind include the inspirational Galgael in Govan, Glasgow, aiding long-term unemployed to learn craft, carpentry and ancient shipbuilding skills; and Govanhill Baths on the city’s southside, who took back the building from the council and have turned into a thriving, vibrant community centre.

There is the example of the Sistema project with the Big Noise Orchestra who began in the Raploch estate, Stirling, and now work in Govanhill, Glasgow, Torry, Aberdeen and Douglas, Dundee. And there is the much lauded work of the Violence Reduction Unit, beginning in Glasgow, but now national, tackling first gang and knife crime, and then spreading out to mentoring and support.

What unites these examples (and there are many more) is how human, adaptable and difficult to pigeonhole each are. Each began as a reactive response to a set of local circumstances, and emerged because there was a problem, a need, or a vacuum. The leadership that emerged in each wasn’t traditional, nor was it shaped by the cultures that have taken over too many charities and voluntary organisations. It was less status driven and formal, but instead mobilising and often with a cathartic element. Maybe in several of the above, they will morph into something different as they grow older and more established.

The rolling out of business speak and practice across organisations – from the ubiquitous MBAs, to discombobulated language and arms race of salaries and perks a the top, hasn’t enhanced the performance of customer facing side of such bodies, whether private, public or voluntary. While this can all be seen as manifestations of the economic spirit of zombie capitalism there is also the problem of how to challenge, speak out and break the silence, particularly when the organisations are seen to represent a greater good.

In both the cases of Oxfam and Save the Children, there were concerted attempts by senior management to keep these controversies out of the public eye, to defend their reputation and good work. This comes close to believing in your own virtue and the dangerous quicksand of moral bargaining. And it shows that being an organisation doing good is never on its own enough, and that the notion of good has to be lived, stated and restated every day, holding your actions up to accountability and public scrutiny. It was ever thus, but such basics seem to be beyond people at the top of too many of our biggest organisations.