Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The international role of the Charity Commission.

There is no country in the world with a greater charitable tradition than the UK. It’s something we should be very proud of. And something we should be exporting!

A recent Daily Mail "exposé" has highlighted the international advisory role of the Charity Commission, and declaimed about the outrage of the expense of such activity.

The 1601 Statute of Elizabeth forms the basis of charity law across many parts of the world: Canada, Australia, RSA , NZ and many parts of Africa. It was the only piece of English legislation that was not repealed by Congress after the American Revolution.

At the recent impact Investing Conference I was chatting to a number of delegates from Hong Kong. They are currently looking at their own charity system, which is still based on the English model. Indeed some years back I was asked out to China, with colleagues from the Charity Commission, to advise the Chinese Government on charity law as they wanted to follow the English model for their burgeoning NGO sector.

The issue here ought not to be why Commission staff are going abroad to advice on charity law – this is valuable – but whether we should expand it.

I could see little evidence in the DM article for concern. If staff have followed the proper guidance that civil servants have for such trips then, while moderation would be preferred, this is simply not a scandal. Of course any newspaper can trawl hotel websites and find exotic descriptions of facilities, as did the Mail. And the story was not complete without statutory quotes from an MP ("shocking, outrageous, rank hypocrisy").

The sad thing about this story is if it puts off the Commission from undertaking this valuable work.

We have failed to realise the strength of our tradition and the scope for "selling" advice on charity and social enterprise overseas. Indeed this is not just about exporting intelligence. It’s also about how we support emerging democracies. A strong civil society underpins a strong democracy. And the reverse is true; Russia and the Middle East are areas where civil society has been weak to almost non-existent. So the UK could provide valuable assistance to the development of NGOs. One of the examples of "waste" given by the Mail was Egypt!  How appropriate it was that the CC were there advising on NGO development. Not a cause for censure but applause.

It should however be a lesson to the Chair of the CC to be more careful with his comments in the future, for fear that they come back to bite him and his staff.

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