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Monday, 4 May 2009

Raising questions about charities

Guest post by Stuart Hartill

I had a positively surreal experience recently. In effect, I was barred from the local branch AGM of Amnesty International for exercising the right to free speech.

It happened because our Amnesty group meets in the One World Centre, which started as a joint initiative by local campaign groups (Oxfam, Amnesty, Friends of the Earth, etc.).

It appears an ideal “rainbow coalition”, but sadly the involved groups are dominated by Christians who can’t see how a crossover between church and “secular” community work shuts out non-churchgoers. They also assume that membership of one group implies support of all, which rules out critical discussion of individual organisations or policies (e.g. Tearfund or CAFOD).

Another problem is the obsession with “positive thinking”. The OWC have a bit of a party line on this, which has a knock-on effect on our Amnesty campaigning. Their staff only like lightweight, uncontroversial cases – no politicos, no LGBTs, nobody who has been tortured, nobody facing execution. That would be “negative” and “might put the public off”.

The other irony is that, when another secular committee member stepped down, I briefly joined the OWC management committee myself to try to broaden the representative views. But I quickly felt I was there to rubberstamp predecided policies, not ask questions or put other views. After being unable to interrupt the “feel-good” chatter and ask even basic questions at one “blue-sky thinking” all-dayer and another rambling evening meeting, I just gave up.

But I do raise those questions, among many others, on my blog – questions about dubious evangelical activity in Africa, or concerns of East European friends and relatives about the breakdown of civil society and the public sector caused by interfering Western faith-based charities.

It seems obvious to me to ask who vets overseas-aid applications and how. Who ensures our government makes informed decisions, rather than secretive deals with lobbyists?

It is also obvious to suggest people check out “charities” properly instead of dropping guilt money that might subsidise hate into a tin.

Sadly, the OWC seem to take this as an insult, rather than an honest attempt to set people thinking about world issues. So when, as publicist for the Amnesty group, I circulated notice of the AGM the OWC staff refused to open the building if I attended. Our treasurer (another OWC committee member) was told to collect the key beforehand and put it through the letterbox afterwards.

I learnt all this via a phone call from the chairman two days before the AGM. By implication, the price of future cooperation with the OWC was that I should make a 70-mile round trip merely to be told to apologise and censor myself over a matter that doesn’t even involve Amnesty, which isn’t a charity and never takes funds from any government. I see little enough of my family, so I took a very pleasant “day off” with my wife and daughter instead.

But, as an Amnesty member who on principle always campaigns against censorship of evangelical dingbats I would cross the road to avoid in person, I loved the irony.

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