Bob Humphreys, Finance Director at Oxfam, has responded to our recent report on UK international development spending - Lost Along the Way - in the Times today. To read it in full, read here.
Our comment in response is replicated below:
Dear Mr Humphreys,
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to engage with this debate. Too many NGOs dismiss such concerns out of hand, so Oxfam deserves credit for stepping up to plate and making its case.
As the author of the TaxPayers' Alliance report (mentioned above in your piece), I wish to clarify a few points about the research, and, in my opinion, the argument as a whole. NGOs have a critical role in international development. They provide much of the on-the-ground capacity for the world's efforts to combat poverty, and are directly responsible for saving millions of lives. This is not in dispute. Many reputable and experienced aid practitioners question the utility of certain strategies and projects run by NGOs, but such concerns were not the motivation behind or focus of the TaxPayers' Alliance report.
Our interest was in the costs associated with doing international development. It will never be possible for such costs to be eliminated, nor - I would argue - would we want to. Effective aid depends on proper planning and strategy. However as you acknowledge, there are costs involved, and these need to be explored.
Most taxpayers would be unaware that they are directly financing the work of NGOs, particularly in a non-'crisis relief' capacity. Of those that are aware, many are concerned that their contribution not only goes on projects overseas, but also enables advocacy and lobbying campaigns within Europe. NGOs of course have every right to carry out such campaigns, but to describe them to taxpayers - as you do above - as 'front-line' work is disingenuous.
Our report found that, on average, an NGO dedicates around 20 per cent of its resources to functions that are not frontline. Some NGOs, such as Oxfam, allocate more; up to 30 per cent in some cases. Our report gave a clear explanation for why such costs are incurred, but the simple fact is that of the £313 million given by UK taxpayers to NGOs in 2007-08 (which is a fraction of what the UK public gave to NGOs in that year) up to £63 million didn’t go directly to projects building schools or providing clean water. Nor do I believe, as some have suggested, that such non-front line costs are incurred solely in things such as training staff; like most organisations, that would be considered a 'front-line' cost.
It should be clear that the TaxPayers' Alliance report nowhere criticises NGOs for having administrative and other non-front line costs. Our interest is in drawing taxpayers attention to the facts that: one, taxpayers give a considerable amount of money to NGOs; two, that a significant proportion of that support does not get directly to the front-line; three, that if Government plans for international development spending go ahead, by 2013 over £1 billion of UK assistance will be consumed in bureaucratic and operational functions, about which the public know almost nothing. We do not have be resigned to this being the case. Giving taxpayers greater say over where their contribution goes would be a positive development for instance. We should not accept the official orthodoxy that the answer to the poor worlds problems simply lie in increasing the rich worlds financial contribution. We must always consider how we can make the business of development both more efficient and more effective. The TPA's report intended as a small contribution to that effort.