Friday 30 September 2016

Scandal fatigue: we're sick of having our generosity taken for granted

Published 12/08/2016 | 02:30

'The sheer number of charities is also a concern - in the suicide prevention and awareness area, there are nearly 50 and informally even more - as is the slowness to develop a vigorous regulatory system and oversight.'
'The sheer number of charities is also a concern - in the suicide prevention and awareness area, there are nearly 50 and informally even more - as is the slowness to develop a vigorous regulatory system and oversight.'

Despite some recent reports, Ireland has generally been a welcoming place for immigrants, and that is probably because we were ourselves were so often immigrants. Likewise, we have a reputation for giving generously to charities. Again, this is undoubtedly due to our troubled past and the trauma of large-scale famine.

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However, after a string of scandals and revelations about salaries and top-ups, the Irish public is fast running out of patience with our charity sector. This is not just donor fatigue but scandal fatigue, and people must now be wary about throwing money into a bucket on the street or signing up for a direct debit with a pleading chugger.

The sheer number of charities is also a concern - in the suicide prevention and awareness area, there are nearly 50 and informally even more - as is the slowness to develop a vigorous regulatory system and oversight.

Last week, it was revealed that millions in aid has been withheld from the overseas aid agency Goal pending a US government investigation into alleged fraud.

The US Agency for International Development (USAid) has held back €6.2m from Goal until it investigates alleged bribery and bid rigging, and now the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is also withholding funds.

In fairness, the allegations only concern a small part of Goal's work and occur close to a chaotic war zone where such activity might occur, but the charges will make the public sceptical about reaching into their pocket for Goal's work in this region. There will also be concern that Goal failed to inform DFA officials in Dublin about the suspension of US funding before it appeared in the media.

Given that the Department of Foreign Affairs presides over a huge development aid budget of €660m annually, a sceptical public must be resigned to the fact that corruption is always imminent, especially in Africa, where almost all of the department's aid goes.

In 2010, it was revealed that government officials in Uganda had diverted millions of Irish aid, via the prime minister's office. DFA froze the programme until the corruption stopped but it was never confirmed if the diverted monies were paid back. Many aid experts scoffed at the concerns expressed, given that the monies were dwarfed by the huge sums that some of these countries had spent on armaments and State 'facilities'.

The former president of Malawi, a major recipient of Irish aid, spent €12m on a new government jet and €3m on a wedding to his tourism minister. In 2010, the Ugandan military spent almost €670m on new war planes, almost the entire Irish aid budget. This is a figure which has come down, incidentally; before the crash, we were giving almost a billion annually.

In this context, the Goal agency stands out for its humanitarian and crisis-specific work. The organisation also came out of a period of earlier controversy surrounding the departure of its founder, John O'Shea, an often inspirational figure but one who was too often seen as running the charity as a 'one-man show'.

And this is a major public concern about our charities: that many of them are run by strong personalities, who are well remunerated, and without sufficient oversight by either a national regulator or an organisational board or executive. When people part with their hard-earned cash, they want to know exactly where it's going.

In just a few weeks, we have had revelations about Paul Kelly, the high-living boss of suicide charity Console, where some of the directors didn't even know they were on the board.

Before that, we had the controversy about the salary of Angela Kerins, the former head of Rehab, and then there was Paul Kiely, the head of the Central Remedial Clinic, who got a secret top-up which brought his retirement package to €740,000.

Again, it was the secrecy surrounding these payments that was shocking and also the fact that the monies could have gone to the excellent and necessary services that these bodies do.

And what was shocking was that this was often supported by those in our political landscape who saw such personal remuneration as part of a culture of post-Celtic Tiger entitlement.

As it is, many would feel that executive salaries in our charity sector are too high, and would question why, when there is a funding shortfall, much-needed services get hit before executive pay. This happened recently with the Irish Cancer Society, although the society quickly amended this after a public outcry.

The feeling is that the Irish public's honourable reputation for generosity is being taken for granted and that the very many charities we have feel they are above normal questioning and scrutiny; a high number of charities have actually refused to divulge their executive salaries. This is simply not good enough.

Nor is it good enough that each time a new controversy comes along, certain charity experts tell us that the real issue is that charities have to do the work the State used to do or should be doing. This is a questionable argument and raising it is a too convenient distraction from the questionable behaviour and arrogance in the charity sector itself.

The public also needs to know why we have so many often overlapping charities, which not only compete with each other but use their valuable resources to do so. The whole charity sector needs to be seriously looked at closely and it cannot just lurch from one controversy to the next.

The Irish sense of generosity deserves as much.

Irish Independent

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