Published on March 12th, 2013 | by Tara Gould

The Ethical Issues at the Heart of Charity: Interview with Development Expert Alison Dunn

Within a corporate environment ‘ethical’ is a word that seems to exist on a spectrum. We all know at root what it means, but it carries a variety of different implications for a multiplicity of businesses and organisations within diverse areas of industry.

Over the coming weeks, as part of an ongoing exploration into what it means to be an ethical business or organisation our writers at Ethical Business will be posting up a series of Q & As with professionals who are experts in their particular field, and who have something important to add to the debate.

In this, the first of the series,  Tara Gould asks international development writer, consultant and NGO expert Alison Dunn about her work, and the ethical issues at the heart of this sector.

1. Can you describe your work and how you got involved?

I work in international development, mainly with Non-Governmental Organisations (not for profit) and research institutions. I edit a magazine for community health workers in developing countries. I also write publications, web articles, reports, policy briefs in the area of health and sometimes governance. I work a lot with researchers to translate research findings into publications for non-academic audiences. I spent years working in NGOs, but I am now a freelance consultant.

I became involved in development fifteen years ago, when I went to work for a local organisation in rural Burkina Faso. I stayed there for three years, working with women’s groups, disabled people, children in schools and a theatre company. I was motivated to do this because I thought that poverty in developing countries was appalling and I wanted to do something about it.

2. Is it important to you to do meaningful work?

For me, it is very important to do meaningful work, and this motivates me every day. It is difficult to work on a project that I know is not achieving much (they can’t all be successful after all. Over time, my understanding of what constitutes ‘meaningful’ has changed. I now realise how hard it is to make a difference, and sometimes, you have to be satisfied with very small changes, which may or may not be a result of what you have done yourself. Often significant changes take a long time and you don’t see them when you are closely involved at the time. I would not work for a company that existed purely to make profit. I enjoy working with other people whose values and political outlook are similar to my own. There is a sense of solidarity among people who work in development, even though there is competition for funding and there are differences of opinion.

3. What are the ethical considerations central to the work a charity or NGO does and are ethical values kept aligned with action and ways of working?

Different NGOs have different ethical considerations. I can only speak about situations in the NGOs where I have worked. A major consideration is where the funding comes from. Is it acceptable to take money from a company that claims to have corporate social responsibility and gives grants to NGOs, but which at the same time employs practices which are really harmful to poor people? There have been endless debates about whether it is ok to take money from X company, whether it might damage the NGO’s image, or whether rejecting the money would be more harmful to poor people. What would poor people say? Would they reject the money simply because they didn’t like the source?

This relates to another ethical issue for NGOs, which is how to make sure that your work and projects really do address what poor people want. The best development practices, in my opinion, are about working with local people, listening to them and supporting their choices in the best possible ways. But working in such a close and attentive way is often time consuming and expensive and involves smaller numbers of people. In contrast, donors and funding agencies have policies and guidelines about what they will and will not fund, and often want to hit large targets of ‘beneficiaries’, see clear impact and demonstrate so-called value for money. So it can be difficult if you work with local people who say they want X to happen, but the donors actually prefer to fund something else, or do so in ways that the local population do not choose. It is sometimes hard to balance meeting the needs of donors and meeting the needs of local people in developing countries. Some donors, of course, are exceptional and fund really brilliant and innovative work.

Most NGOs have a set of principles and agreed ways of working about many things, and this helps them to stay on track. But it is often easier said than done.

4. Is it a challenge for NGO’s and charities to ensure funding and support reaches those who need it?

Not really. Many UK-based NGOs work directly with amazing local partners in developing countries and you really get a sense that these local organisations benefit from core and project funding. They are best placed to work directly with local groups and individuals. They are very professional and accomplish a great deal as they know the local context intimately. It is sometimes challenging when those local organisations do not have good financial systems in place to manage the money, and money transfers internationally can be difficult. But there are NGOs who work with local developing country organisations to strengthen financial systems and accountancy.

5. Could you estimate what percentage of money donated reaches the recipients of the aid work?

It is not as simple as that. Some organisations when they fundraise promise that 95% of the money goes to developing countries, and this is really great. A lot of development money tends to circulate in the ‘development industry’ for offices and salaries of people (like me) who work in industrialised countries in the field of development. It is not always a good balance. I once worked on a project where only 20% of the funding actually reached the developing country offices, and I really struggled with this reality. Having said that, a little bit of money can go a long way in developing countries, and do much more than it could here. Giving a lot of money to a project or organisation is not always healthy if it is more than they can cope with. Also, developing countries often need technical assistance. This means skills and knowledge from people who are experts in their field. These experts are often in industrialised countries and are on high wages, and therefore cost a lot. It is appropriate that development money is spent on their expertise, as if they work alongside partners in developing countries, it can help build capacity and do a lot of good over the long term.

6. Do you think it’s possible to maintain a healthy balance between charity and business?

Many NGOs operate as ‘businesses’ in the sense that they have to control and predict their income and expenditure. They have to be accountable to a Board, to the public and to the people they work with in developing countries. Staff are all highly professional and well trained, many of them also highly educated. It is just that their business is ‘not for profit’. NGOs like to have a healthy bank balance or ‘reserve’ to see them through hard times, and this is really necessary in today’s climate of global financial difficulty. NGOs exist to fulfil a mission that has nothing to do with making a profit and paying shareholders money; this distinguishes them from other ‘profit-making businesses’. But I would certainly say that NGOs are business-like.

Having said that, we do not operate in a vacuum. NGOs realise the influence of the private sector on the world in which they operate, and many development projects are increasingly trying to involve private companies. For example, if you want to work to make medicines more accessible to poor people, you probably need to somehow work with pharmaceutical companies, even though your values may be worlds apart.

7. Are there areas that trouble you in the sector where you’d like to see improvement or change? (e.g obstructive government policy?)

Much of development seems to me to be about changing obstructive or harmful policies either at international or national developing country levels. Most projects that I work on have an element of advocacy, where you use the results of a project or piece of research to try to change a government policy or practice. Many times, it is the local partner organisation or NGO who advocates at national level, and international NGOs or researchers try to influence decisions in global arenas such as the UN bodies. Many NGOs campaign hard on issues and are able to influence top-level decision making with their sophisticated strategies.

Alison has worked in international development as a professional writer and communicator for sixteen years. Her areas of expertise are health, participation and communication. She believes in the importance and power of writing both as a tool to communicate and as a method of reflection and learning. She provides writing training to help professionals write with more confidence, creativity and ease. She also writes creatively, both poetry and prose.

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