The last few weeks have seen huge controversies surround Oxfam and Save the Children. In both, senior men have been accused of acting inappropriately; in the case of Oxfam involving the grotesque spectacle of Haitian disaster survivors being sexually exploited.
It didn't take long for this to become a political football. Elements of the right, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, called for the UK international aid budget to be revisited, while former international aid secretary Priti Patel tried to link her enquiries into Oxfam when she was a minister to people in her department plotting her downfall. Left-wingers rallied to the defence of both charities and alleged a right-wing media plot to undermine organisations which increasingly stray into the political.
None of this had been helped by the responses of both charities. Oxfam's current chief executive Mark Goldring has often seemed bewildered in his public utterances about the storm in which he has found himself. He has misspoken several times, including a painful interview in the Guardian where he said that the backlash was as if 'we murdered babies in their cots,' and that 'anything we say is being manipulated' – hardly striking the right tone of contrition.
Similarly, Save the Children's senior staff have been slow to wake up to their, at least perceived, collusion in what went on under their name. Underneath all of this lurk difficult, thorny issues without easy answers. One concerns the effectiveness and purpose of the international aid industry that has become a mini-empire and is hence driven by maintaining its existence and status. Then there are the attitudes and cultures of some aid workers and staff who go to work in developing countries; many are committed and passionate, but some are shaped by a paternalist, even evangelical attitude that they know best. These missionary attitudes have been exasperated by the cult of leadership in many big charities, the prevalence of managerialism, and the adoption of modern business practice.
It isn't completely accidental that the Save the Children crisis enveloped Justin Forsyth, its ex-head, and Brendan Cox, its second-in-command and husband of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Stories of their inappropriate behaviour to female colleagues were legion, but were hushed up when they worked in the organisation and even when they left, despite several formal complaints.
One Save the Children former insider writing under an alias in 'Open Democracy' spoke of the widespread 'bullying culture' under Forsyth and Cox, with the leadership culture stating it was 'their way or the highway,' and people who brought complaints dismissed as 'moaners'. This was simmering for several years: the Guardian was approached by people with allegations, but in a response with echoes of Newsnight and Jimmy Savile, they turned it down. Even when the story broke, senior media figures such as the BBC's Andrew Marr and Sky's Adam Boulton publicly defended Forsyth and Cox.
Forsyth and Cox were products of the New Labour era of spin doctors and advisors. This was an age where arrogant, abrasive men believed that 'The Thick of It'-style operations meant they could get away with almost anything, were not accountable to anyone (but their ultimate political masters), and had few limits on their behaviour. This was a culture, after all, which produced Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride. It did not stop there. People like Forsyth and Cox felt that the skills gained in the black arts of New Labour were somehow transferable to nearly any situation. Hence, people like them were parachuted into senior positions running complex national and international organisations with large staff and budgets. In many cases, they had previously run nothing but a New Labour media operation, but felt this was enough to give them a culture of entitlement and limitless possibilities.
An even bigger conundrum raised by these controversies is the thorny subject of what exactly in the modern age constitutes a good organisation. For years, charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children have scaled up into huge multi-million pound businesses operating across numerous countries, continents and situations, while competing against each other for government contracts and the public's money. Once upon a time many of us were sure we knew the answer to this. Good organisations included most public services – from the council to education, health, law and order and the BBC. Now we aren't so sure even of the public sector, although the NHS still has – in both Scotland and the rest of the UK – high records of trust and satisfaction.
Big voluntary organisations have become in many cases extensions of the state and reliant on government contracts, but still command confidence: a recent Scottish survey giving them 73% trust rating, down from 83% the previous year. But perhaps the biggest shift in trust and legitimacy has happened to big business and corporations in light of the banking crash and the sheer insensitivity and brazen self-interest of too many of those at the top of business.
Last week, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which is 70% owned by the public, produced a profit for the first time in 10 years. Ross McEwan, its chief executive, has earned an astonishing £3.48m in the current year, and has still not learned how to adapt to the new world of how bankers are seen, in not apologising for the past errors and deceptions of RBS. The story of recalcitrant masters of the universe and where it takes us is clearly not over, and how it evolves will depend on the public mood when more difficult economic storm clouds emerge.
This sort of flat-earth thinking has poisoned large numbers of public institutions that the public used to respect. One example much in the headlines has been that of universities and the pay of vice-chancellors. The new vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University, Peter Mathieson, identified as the most highly paid in Scotland, will pocket an impressive £342,000 plus £42,000 in pension contributions and £26,000 in relocation costs in his first year. Previously that honour was held by Jim McDonald, vice-chancellor of Strathclyde, who earned £360,000 alongside such goodies as a £1.18m townhouse with a £300,000 refurbishment.
Even this only touches the surface of what is going wrong. Glasgow Caledonian University for example has spent £11.5m of public monies on their white elephant New York operation which has taken years to get US certification and has only a handful of students. Typical of the age we live in is the attitude of that once respected and loved organisation, the Open University, with its head, Peter Horrocks, saying that he deserved his £360,000 salary because he had to sack so many colleagues. It isn't very surprising that such insensitive, self-serving attitudes raise the ire of the public and produce popular backlashes.
This cannot go on indefinitely, partly because in the cases of university heads, their salaries are taxpayer-funded. But even in the case of private enterprise such as banking (leaving aside RBS being part state-owned), these organisations are ultimately accountable to us, and if they lose respect, people will eventually take their custom elsewhere.
What exactly are the characteristics which make a good organisation in this present climate? I think we know such bodies when we come across them, and they are often grassroots initiatives with a strong sense of place and locale, and of mission and founding leadership. Examples that spring to mind include the inspirational Galgael in Govan, aiding long-term unemployed to learn craft, carpentry and ancient shipbuilding skills; and Govanhill Baths on the city's southside, which took back the building from the council and turned it into a thriving, vibrant community centre.
There is the example of the Sistema project with the Big Noise Orchestra which began in the Raploch estate, Stirling, and now works in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. And there is the much lauded work of the Violence Reduction Unit, beginning in Glasgow but now national, which tackles gang and knife crime, and also offers mentoring and support.
What unites these examples (and there are many more) is how human, adaptable, and difficult to pigeonhole, each is. Each began as a reactive response to a set of local circumstances, and emerged because there was a problem, a need, or a vacuum. The leadership that emerged in each wasn't traditional, nor was it shaped by the cultures that have taken over too many charities and voluntary organisations. It was less status-driven and formal, instead mobilising – often with a cathartic element. Maybe several of the above examples will morph into something different as they grow older and more established.
The rolling out of business speak and practice across organisations – from the ubiquitous MBAs to discombobulated language and salaries and perks at the top – hasn't enhanced the performance of the customer-facing side of such bodies, whether private, public or voluntary. While this can all be seen as manifestations of the economic spirit of zombie capitalism, there is also the problem of how to challenge, speak out and break the silence, particularly when the organisations are seen to represent a greater good.
In the cases of both Oxfam and Save the Children, there were concerted attempts by senior management to keep these controversies out of the public eye and to defend their reputation and good work. This comes close to believing in your own virtue and the dangerous quicksand of moral bargaining. And it shows that being an organisation doing good is never on its own enough, and that the notion of good has to be lived, stated and restated every day, holding your actions up to accountability and public scrutiny. It was ever thus, but such basics seem to be beyond people at the top of too many of our biggest organisations.