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How we investigate charities?

Charities I am unhappy with the allegations against charities overseas. Here is an attack on "Restless Development" - a UK charity, I have no idea whether the allegations are true.

When I read the Independent article I immediately wanted to scream "grow a pair". That is unfair. But I do question the sense of taking volunteers into certain areas of South Africa, Africa or the world in general. I especially question taking volunteers who are young into these areas.

In the 90s I worked in Botswana, and travelled to South Africa; it was dangerous. I was scared driving through Johannesburg in case I had to stop at traffic lights, and was robbed. the first couple of times I stayed in a Youth Hostel in Jo'Burg where we were told not to go to certain streets. Some young people thought they knew better. They were spotted as tourists, surrounded by thieves, and quote with menace showing a knife "Is your camera and wallet worth your life?" Sensibly they handed them over. 5 years later I could not stay at that youth hostel, the address had itself become part of a dangerous area. I was scared to travel to the bus station with a backpack in case thieves with knives would slash the waistband and steal my bag. Maybe Jo'Burg is not supposed to be the same now, but if I were going there I would have to find out.

I got a train from Pietermaritzburg to Jo'Burg on my own, and I was scared. In the end I found a compartment with a white man in. We started talking and I felt safe. I have always been an unashamed genuine lefty and spoke about this. He told me he was going up to Jo'burg for a Volksfrontconference, these guys were apartheid, violent and the exact opposite of my political spectrum. I was safe with a fascist bully - the irony. It was an irony that I accepted for being in South Africa at the time; the country was not safe.

I have just checked where Libode is, and I might well have travelled through it with a friend leaving Port St John's. To reach Port St John's, we decided to take the scenic route - I think R61 (maybe not). It was beautiful - a memorable journey. When we had been staying at the Port St John's youth hostel a couple of days we were told that our lives would have been at risk if the car had broken down - white people always took the longer route on the main road (less scenic).

I am sure things have changed but what I note is that the charity organisation issued warnings about areas of Libode not being safe. If I am a young volunteer just leaving home, am I going to listen to such warnings? At the time, 25 years ago, there were stories of whites doing tourist trips in Soweto, and being robbed - or worse.

There are places in the UK I wouldn't go. I don't drink now but getting drunk and wandering through certain estates in Inner Cities would not be wise. We aren't told not to do this, we just don't do it. I am now retired, living outside the UK, and having travelled quite a bit - mostly not in dangerous areas. There's stuff you do, and stuff you don't do. You learn, and you learn hopefully without too many hard knocks. Isn't that one of the purposes of travel? This is why I used the chauvinist phrase "grow a pair".

I was 40 when I first went to Africa. It was dangerous, there were risks, yet there was such a tremendous sense of freedom when I arrived there I will never forget it. To me it is called "experience". It concerns me that parents are the ones who complained - not the volunteers themselves.

I cannot tell whether the experiences being discussed in the article are life or negligence. The first thing I noticed when I travelled in South Africa was that the places richer people lived in were fortresses, has this changed? I live in a relatively-peaceful country and there are burglar bars on my windows. In Thailand I feel comfortable walking anywhere - not something I would say about England, and yet drunk white people have been robbed here.

The point about this is that you have to be circumspect, listen to the advice you are given, and not be a MAWP. When I see white people travelling here (where I live), I do not see evidence of this. If I had travelled in Africa at 22 instead of 42 I would have been too stupid. I suspect the hard knocks would have been too much for me.

If volunteers return home from the school of hard knocks, and parents complain about the charities, that could possibly be totally unreasonable. If a young volunteer in Thailand goes to a bar in Pattaya, gets rolled by one of the girls (prostitutes), is it the fault of the charity?

I also want to discuss this "The charity admitted the students involved were taken back to the volunteers' host homes but claimed no sexual activity took place. It said the pupils were over the age of consent and had not been based at the ICS school." The age of students is different in these areas of the world. Girls might leave school to have children and return to school much older than their "peers". I could conceive of such students from another school being 21 or over, how old were the volunteers? The volunteers were dismissed, was there actually something wrong or were the charity covering their backs? A young volunteer goes out, has a few drinks, meets an attractive 21-year-old, and takes her home. In most situations this is called "lucky" - not a sacking offence. I don't know what happened but I am concerned about the tone of the article. Whilst mentioning the students were over the age of consent, the article does not go into the possible normality of the situation. I don't accept any teacher-student relationship, however old, but students from another school? I recall the sexual activity amongst teachers in Botswana, both local and expat, it was activity not typical of the UK, but cultural difference is not a sacking offence.

What concerns me about this article is the attacks on charities. Whilst there are horrendous institutional problems with charities as discussed by Teresa Hayter in "Aid Rhetoric or Reality" - I doubt if they have significantly changed, there is good work done. Charities need more of our funding - not less. Governments fail to meet the UN targets of 0.7% of GDP, a target which is more than reasonable. I suspect the money for Restless Development is part of this money. Articles like this Independent article just give people more excuse not to give to charity - there are enough excuses already - see book. I suspect it is a move to avoid the 0.7%, following the US example where they avoid paying.

I am not suggesting ignore the allegations but you cannot apply UK standards to situations in the Third World. I have lived inside fenced enclosures, walled enclosures, with security guards. The school has bought cars and given me a driver because it was not safe. I accepted this. I could imagine charity budgets could not run to this. Yet the charity wants to setup schools in rural areas, maybe Libode is such an area.

The article raises questions I immediately want to ask, none of which are properly addressed by the writer. What was the connection between the charity and the school community? Why were volunteers living in unsafe accommodation if the connection was good? Was it appropriate to have a school there? I would suspect that for a local school local teachers would live in a fenced compound with a security guard. I also note that the volunteers had to find ?800. Was the charity involved in some form of financing? What advice was given? What was the age of the volunteers?

There is no integrity in the article. To judge the situation in UK media is just sensationalism. There needs to be government oversight as to the integrity of "Restless Development", I have no idea if that oversight is effective or not - or how UK officials can make such an assessment. This article highlights nothing about that oversight, but merely indicates that there are cultural differences and judges by UK benchmarks. At the same time, with such sensationalism the charity is forced to respond - to appear to be doing something. Worst case scenario - the journalist earns their salary with their sensationalism and a good-hearted volunteer loses their job and vocation - and joins the City.

This article is more concerned with sensationalism, manipulation of readers and misplaced parenting than truth, the danger is that such needed volunteer programmes will be affected by this opportunism.

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