Written evidence submitted by Ben Nicholson to the International Development Committee inquiry regarding the philosophy and culture of aid


I would like to propose that addressing the issue of power imbalance should be a central focus of this inquiry, as it lies at the heart of many of the ideas brought up in the opening oral evidence session. For example, we heard about racial and colonial power dynamics, gender discrimination, the global north INGO/southern CBO divide, urban versus rural dynamics, and competition versus collaboration.


The context in which aid is delivered is one in which the most extreme imbalances of power are evident and yet at the same time, the mechanisms of accountability are extremely weak. Whilst the sector speaks the language of empowerment, transparency and accountability, the reality is often the exact opposite.


Whilst there have been some recent improvements at the Charity Commission, it remains unfit for purpose and unwilling to demand appropriate transparency from the charities it regulates. For example, when I asked for feedback after reporting concerns about an international development charity, I was told,If charities thought that we routinely made correspondence public, it could inhibit them from providing us with information and being open and frank with us. All charities benefit from public funds, either through direct funding from government or tax relief on private giving, and hence should be expected to be open and transparent. This attitude by a senior employee of the Charity Commission implies a culture which lacks rigour. As such, it provides false confidence regarding a sector which is increasingly finding itself in the media for the wrong reasons, corroding public trust.


The ongoing failures of the sector, seen most devastatingly in various sexual abuse scandals, cannot meaningfully be addressed in the absence of an independent and robust ombudsman. Attempts to drive up standards in-house, whilst positive for technical sectors, have not been effective in curbing the abuse of power. Since 2018, the number of complaints handled through the Core Humanitarian Standards Alliance (CHSA) and Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI) complaints mechanisms can be counted on one hand. Neither organisation, both recipients of UK taxpayer funds, has ever found in favour of a complainant.


Whistleblower protection and preventing the misuse of non-disclosure agreements have already been identified by the IDC as important factors in addressing the imbalance of power in the sector. I would urge the Committee to further examine these issues if they want to affect change in the culture of aid.


My experience of trying to hold charity leaders to account has shown that the only effective way of getting real engagement is by involving the media. This comes at great personal cost and risk to the individual and inevitably damages the public perception of aid in the process. As a sector, it is imperative that we get much better at putting in place mechanisms to prevent the inevitable imbalances of power from being abused with impunity.