Letters to a Sister : 18

Okay, so I have a problem. A church/christian related problem, but I guess it could apply to work or schools just as well. It’s about Aid Agencies/Charities.

Now, I think you’ll agree, there are a lot. Wherever you go, there seems to be an opportunity, if not almost an obligation, to give to poor people. When there is a disaster, like the earthquake in Nepal, the High Street is full of people with buckets or selling sad looking cakes, all eager to part you from your money and send it to those in need. The motives behind all this bucket waving are undoubtedly good. My problem is, are the agencies that actually receive the money the most efficient?

I started this saying it was a church problem because from what I’ve seen, churches are chock full of well meaning people who want to help alleviate suffering (which is good) and so start a charity. Not so good. Most people do not have the first idea how to best run an aid agency, however well motivated they are. I have laid out my feelings about this very clearly in the article ‘How to Choose an Aid Agency’.

My problem is that when someone, who is very nice, very Godly, very caring, comes to church and gives a plea for money, what should we do? My gut feeling is that I should stand on my seat and shout, “Don’t give him any money! He’s a nice bloke but a large percentage of the money will be wasted.”

I have learned, over the years (with much help from my family) that following my natural instincts is not always right. So I don’t. I sit there, fuming as I hear how his tiny organisation is working in 57 different countries. And I do nothing. I do not stand on my chair. I do not even approach him afterwards and ask him just how, exactly, his little charity ever checks that the money is being spent appropriately – does he live on an aeroplane travelling between countries, looking for fraud or misspent cash? Nope, I do nothing. Because I am not really sure what the appropriate response should be.

You see, these people ARE good people. They see a need and want to help. They probably do help a lot of people. My point is, if the same money went to a bigger, better run agency (like Tearfund or Oxfam, someone part of the DEC) then so many MORE people would be helped. By asking for money, they are diverting that giving from other places. They are, in effect, costing people lives. Yes, they might help 100 people. But if Tearfund could save 150, they have wasted 50 lives. It makes me angry. Too angry to trust myself to tackle it actually.

I know that God sometimes uses the people who are available, rather than those who are the best. However, there ARE good agencies out there. There are people who know how to provide aid in developing countries. To set up a small, inefficient agency is not kind, it is short-sighted. To continue running one, rather than handing it over to a larger agency, becoming part of something better, feels egotistical.

Imagine this: Someone comes to church and during a hymn they fall over, having a heart attack. I feel desperately sorry for them, I want to help, they are in a lot of pain. I also have my ABC first aid card. So I rush forward and offer to help. I don’t really know exactly what to do, but I have some knowledge and I want to help. Plus, I am better than nothing. There is a doctor at the back of the church. The doctor also begins to walk to the front. But my friends say, “Don’t worry, Anne is helping him.” The people know me, they know I am kind, so they want to support what I am doing. They ask the doctor to stand back, so I have room to work. They help to pass me the things I ask for. But at some point, shouldn’t someone say, “Get out of the way Anne, there is a doctor here and they are better at this than you are.”

At what point is it right to criticise a person or a charity that is making mistakes? Yes, they are kind, yes they are Godly, yes, they are honest. But if there are better, more professional options out there, shouldn’t we lovingly tell them to butt out? I honestly don’t know. What do you think?

Take care,
Anne x

The full version of this can be read at: https://anneethompson.com/christian-tearfund-materials-and-poems/a-problem/

The link to my article is:


Letter to a Sister: Brazil

Monday 22nd June
Yesterday was a day off, which was good. Had hotel breakfast: melon, cake and something like a set egg custard. Not unpleasant.
Saw a capuchin monkey in a tree in hotel garden. Very cute. Then had lazy day. Drove around town, did very little. Didn’t go to a church as they were all a distance away and started at 7pm and Tearfund has a policy that you shouldn’t drive at night in developing countries for safety reasons. It gets dark really fast here. Dawn is 5am, dusk is about 5pm and it’s pitch black by 5:30. Same all year round. No seasons, except that June and July have more rain.
Today we drove to see three rural projects. The charity tends to work with women and teenagers. This is partly because there is a lot of domestic abuse and it helps to empower the women and girls if they have a trade, are not at home all day completely dependent. It helps them have a sense of self worth, have rights ( at the very least the right to not be abused.)
They have also found that when a woman earns money, she tends to use it to improve the whole family. If men earn money, they tend to get distracted and spend it on alcohol, gambling, etc.
The first project was a small farm. Originally it had provided food for just the family, sustenance farming. This left no safety net if crops failed, more money needed for improvements, etc. The charity provided knowledge and tools. The women now produce enough to provide for their families and also sell some. We saw a warehouse where they were preparing the food – fruits, bread, honey – for sale. Some goes to market, some is sold to the government for schools and hospitals and the proceeds then ploughed back into more charity work in the community.
We went to see Rosa ( so wish I could show you a photo of her house but cannot figure out this machine!) We sat on brightly coloured furniture in her little sitting room. The walls were bright red, strewn with pictures of Jesus and photos of her grandchildren. There was a large tele with a statue of Father Christmas on top ( wondered if her grandsons have the same sense of humour as my boys and they were ‘gifts’ or if she had chosen it.) The internal doorways had no doors, just curtains. There was no ceiling and you could see up to the roof tiles ( which had big gaps in them.) It wasn’t a bad house – as long as it didn’t rain. Not quite sure what happened to the tele when it did.
We went off round her garden. Saw lots of the normal crops ( onions, marrows) and also bananas, cashew nuts, medicinal herbs. Her kitchen had huge freezer where the produce could be crushed, bagged and frozen ( the charity had given her the crushing and bagging machines and helped sort out the irrigation system. It was a really dry area.)
Drove to next project. Saw big expanses of arid land with a few shrubs and tall spindly palm trees. Also saw lots of donkeys pulling carts of stuff and even two oxen pulling a cart of logs. Would be SUCH a cool photo. I have lots of blurry ones. Mainly of trees. Lots of animals as we drove: goats, hens, cats and dogs everywhere we go.
Went to San Jose do Egypt, which translates as ” Saint Joseph from Egypt”. They had never heard of the Technicolour Dream-coat musical and were somewhat bemused when Barbie started singing it to them (so were we.) Went to cafe for lunch. Everywhere much cleaner than I was expecting it to be. We were advised to not eat the salads, which was a shame as they looked fabulous.
Went to a bakery. Charity had again provided equipment and education. It was MILES. From anywhere. Was so glad they had a toilet ( very bumpy track to get there.)
We got out the van and the heat from the sun was boiling, so hurried into the bakery. Then we nearly melted. Was like entering a furnace. They keep the door shut so the flies stay out but opened them when we arrived ( so it immediately filled up with flies. Glad they don’t make currant bread.) Two girls and a teenaged boy worked there. They showed us how all the machines work, made some bread and cooked some rolls in the wood fuelled oven. We then ate warm loaves and coffee. The best coffee ever, even in a disposable plastic cup that burnt your fingers. Hot, black and sweet.
Luiz translated for us. We asked him to ask them what they had for lunch. Not bread. Bread is for dinner, pasta is for lunch ( was not the silly question we had all assumed.)
Drove to a bee farm. Luiz now censoring our questions. When David asked him to ask the Bruce Springsteen look alike farmer what instrument he played, he checked with me first if that was a serious question ( it wasn’t.)
Looked around the farm. Tearfund had provided funding for wells to be dug so production could increase ( it’s a semi arid area, lots of cacti) Saw the bees. Saw turkeys ( which really do ‘gobble’!)
Then had one of those horribly awkward moments when the granny on the farm called us all into her house and sat us down for drinks and snacks. She had prepared vats of juice for us, all prepared with local water which would have made us ill. Luiz had disappeared, she had gone to a lot of effort, we didn’t want to offend her nor be ill all night. I used my best Portuguese and apologised that we couldn’t drink it because….. had to mime last bit, my Duolingo app never taught me how to say that! Thankfully Luiz came back and explained a bit better. Felt bad. Difficult situation. Escaped to car.
We drove for miles on unmade tracks. Passed lots of small farms. They have no address, no street names. Also the area is about to be flooded as they are building a huge dam. All the farmers will have to be rehoused. (Our bee farmer and fruit juice granny will be okay, are out of range.)
Drove back to Ant Hotel.

Take care

Anne xx

Letter to a Sister : Brazil

20th June

Showered, breakfast then left Cult Hotel in Recife. Was glad to survive shower, which has electrical wires coming out the top, was hard to relax when using it. Also left the room with some added duct tape, which David had used to seal the massive gap around the aircon unit. It worked – we got no mosquitoes ( which was important as they carry dengue fever here) but I’m not sure the bright red tape blended very well with the dingy brown decor.
Apparently all the electricity is slightly weird in Brazil. Was certainly a challenge to bring the correct power adaptors, as the plugs seem to change from region to region. ( If you plan to visit, bring a range!)
We also left the rather sexual art displays at the hotel. On the first evening the team leader led us in a time of prayer. It is the first time I have ever prayed next to a large statue of an erect phallus, while sitting below a painting of a naked woman ( who definitely had not had ‘a Brazilian’!) Tearfund trips are always unexpected.
Drove for a couple of hours to Coqueral. Interesting drive, passed lots of small communities, people driving horse and carts, big lorries. Rained hard a few times.
Coqueral is a small farming town (1,500 people.) The area did not really support that many farmers, the town was off a track beyond a track, most people were unemployed and on benefits. The pastor told us they were ” less poor in money” than the people we saw yesterday but ” more poor in the mind”. I don’t think he meant they all had ‘special educational needs’, more that a sense of hopelessness pervaded the town.

They had a lot of knife crime and alcohol addiction. We didn’t see any teenaged drug addicts though, which is good as I found it very difficult to just walk past them yesterday and leave them in their mess ( and I just know my family would be cross if I arrive home with a selection of drug addicted boys – never mind that I wouldn’t have the first idea how to help them.)
It is StJohn’s festival time ( seemed like our harvest festival but is cultural, not religious.) The children at the mission hall had decorated the hall with plaited banana leaves and dressed in costumes and make up. They danced for us, a bit like a barn dance. I certainly didn’t feel the display was too short. We then joined in, which they thought was hilarious, especially as most of us were wearing the ‘aid worker’ sensible outfit of long sleeved shirts, long trousers and massive walking boots ( look really ugly and no good for dancing in but when you’re wading through raw sewage in the slums, fashion doesn’t seem so important.)
We had lunch there, which was a bit unusual. They seem to eat a lot of carbs here ( I had spaggetti and rice for my lunch, as salad might be washed in local water and I didn’t feel like eating meat.) They also have a fizzy drink, which is everywhere and has a picture of something like cherries on it but isn’t cherry. Was comfortingly synthetic. Barbie stuck with coke.
Drove for about 5 more hours. Someone put a religious CD on. David ranted at length about the quality of the music ( for the length of the song in fact.)
Arrived in Afogados. Staying at Hotel Brotas, which is quite like a motel. Room full of mosquitoes and ants ( will use lots of deet while here.) D busy rigging up a mosquito net to sleep under. Am hoping it doesn’t involve anything too structural.
Take care,
Anne xxx

Which Aid Agencies Can I Trust?

Which Aid Agencies Can I Trust?

     Everywhere I look, people are collecting money for Nepal. Facebook, television, even kids in the High Street. But are all charities worth giving my money to?

     I recently heard of a US based charity who were responding to the devastating effect of AIDS in Africa. Millions of children were being left orphaned when both their parents died of Aids. In response, the charity collected money for an orphanage, which they built and fully equipped. Great, except that it remains empty. Africans do not put their children into orphanages, they pass them to ever distant family members. The charity wasted both money and resources.

     So, if I want to give to a charity, who can I trust? Who will use my money wisely? Here are nine important questions to ask:

     Do they have local contacts or partners in the regions where they work? This is where the charity above went wrong. A charity should have strong links with local people who can direct what the money is spent on. This does a couple of things: It means they will have proper understanding of the people they are trying to help. It also means that it will be sustainable – after people have stopped sending money the local partners will have gained skills and strengths so will be in a better place to continue to be effective.

     How efficient/effective is the UK end of things? Is it a well organised charity?

     How capable is the charity at assessing if a project is a ‘good’ one or a ‘bad’ one? Yes, some projects can be classified as ‘bad’. For example, a ‘bad’ project might use £1,000 to build five toilets in a village. A ‘good’ project will use that same £1,000 to train people from six villages so they can build their own toilets.

     Do they have good governance? Is there a strong, independent board? This is important to check strategy, keep staff accountable, appoint good leaders, etc.

     Do they employ quality staff? Are they properly qualified for what they are doing?

     Do they have a good return on their fundraising costs?

     Do they have a good performance record? So, do they have experience in what good development looks like and are they managing to achieve this in what they are doing?

     Do they measure and monitor what happens to the money? This one is really important. Anyone can collect and send money to an area of need but a wise agency will be checking that the money is spent where it was intended to be spent. Has that new school been built or does the mayor now own a mercedes? Who is actually going and checking what happens to the money?

     Is there good risk management? Places that need aid are usually a mess. There is often civil war, no social infrastructure, not a reliable banking structure, etc. Therefore, to provide aid involves taking risks. There will be a risk to staff (people get hurt/killed/kidnapped) and a risk of corruption. This cannot be avoided if agencies are to work in these places but the risk should be understood and wisely managed. For example, it might be decided that a bloke carrying £5,000 in a carrier bag is actually safer than transferring money through a dodgy bank. Whoever makes that decision needs to have a good knowledge of the risks involved.

So, how do I know where to give my money?

     It can all seem a bit daunting so here are some quick pointers.

     If you are donating a one off, small amount of money, go for a recognised name. I would recommend the members of the DEC. These are 13 UK aid agencies who work together when there is a crisis. They save time and money by making fundraising appeals together and spend it according to which of them is best placed to help. I have listed them at the end.

     For large amounts or long term support, it is worth doing a little research. A good starting point is the charity’s own website. You can also look at their annual reports and accounts (if these are not published, ask for them. If they refuse to send them, do not give them any money!) You don’t need to be an accountant, just look for these things:

     Fundraising percentage – how much of their money goes towards raising funds and how much to the people they claim to be helping? If it’s under 10%, that’s brilliant. 10% to 20% is about normal. Over 20% is a bit too high.

     How many staff members do they have in proportion to how many things they do? Now, you might think (as I used to) that fewer staff meant more aid went abroad – think again. If a small organisation are doing lots of different things, they cannot be checking effectively. Where is that money actually being spent? If an agency has ten or less people working for it, it should only be working in one country. A charity with ten staff members working in twenty three countries are merely campaigning and raising money. They cannot possibly be monitoring, checking how the money is being spent, building relationships, etc.

     Check the small print on the donation part of the website. Does your money go to where you think it does? You might be sending money for Ebola relief but actually, a percentage will go to administration or to other work in that region or be ‘unrestricted’ (which means the charity can spend it where it wants/needs to.)

     Now, all charities have overheads, workers have to be paid. But you should know how much of your donation goes towards overheads. Under 10% is excellent, 20% is reasonable, 30% is too high and shows they are inefficient.

     If you really want to help a charity, sometimes the best place to give money is straight to the ‘general/unrestricted fund’. Then when they raise money for specific appeals they can send all the money raised to the area of need.

     I would like to finish by requesting that you think carefully about where you give your money. Some charities have what I think of as the “Father Christmas” factor. They will show lots of emotive photographs of small children receiving gifts and you think “Ahh, how lovely.” However, does that work really help the people receiving the aid or does it mostly just make the donor feel good? Do we give so that we feel like Father Christmas, or because we want to help?

      Also, be aware that there is only so much money that is given to charities. If you give to a charity that is not wise, a charity that wastes a high percentage of the money by not checking how it has been spent, buying inappropriate goods, etc, then in effect you are taking that money away from a charity who would spend it wisely.

     Please give to people in need. Please give wisely.

DEC Agencies: Action Aid, Age International, British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief, Oxfam, Plan UK, Save the Children, Tearfund, World Vision.