Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden

On Tuesday June 18, the Governing Body of Murray Edwards College Cambridge met to consider the findings of the Charity Commission into allegations of misconduct by Oxfam’s staff involved in its humanitarian response in Haiti 2011. The College’s President, Dame Barbara Stocking, was Chief Executive of Oxfam in 2011. The allegations were that Oxfam covered up sexual harassment, prostitution and bullying by its aid workers. Murray Edwards College confirmed that Dame Stocking would remain as president.

In the Times of June 18, Melanie Phillips wrote: “The voluntary sector has long appeared to be a kind of musical chairs recruitment game with people moving seamlessly from running one charity to heading another….This cosy club has now expanded to include heads of Oxbridge colleges…The media has provided an apparently unstoppable stream of heads of house…The widening of the pool of college heads away from narrow academia…has widened into a group which is itself bound by narrow assumptions.”

What are these assumptions? They certainly include the view that the lifestyle of a social activist, like that of a politician seeking a senior post, is ethically neutral; that altruism and fundraising takes place in an ethically neutral space. What counts is not the character of the personnel but the outcomes of the programmes and the measure of their success, whether that be securing betterment of livelihoods or securing Brexit.

It has to be recognised that sexual immorality is often accompanied by financial irregularity. If social activists are ready to break the moral code forbidding paying for sex with children, are they going to be morally upright when dealing with finances? The view seems to prevail that social engagement is its own justification and overrides any moral impropriety in the life of the social activist.

The heads of such organisations are credited with impeccable integrity because they are raising large amounts of money and are believed to be spending it properly. They therefore become trusted figures to do the same for some of the countries’ premier educational institutions.

The problem is that the very size of the charities projects an image of reach and effectiveness.. But as in the case of Oxfam, whose reputation Melanie Phillips says ‘is on the floor’, size becomes a liability. We have to ask “Are Oxbridge colleges saying that money and size determines your contribution to knowledge?’ This cannot be a serious proposition.

A second assumption is that autonomous individuals who are motivated to be social activists will not do anything wrong, especially where vulnerable people are concerned. But we cannot assume that if people’s behavior in human relationships is ignored, their integrity in financial and other areas will not be affected. We see here a separation being made between the private and the public that is wrong in theory and dangerous in practice.

Leaders of charitable organisations, small and large are accountable to the people who give £5 a month and who expect proper moral behaviour in those to whom they entrust their money to benefit others. What untold stories of perfidy and financial immorality are also yet to emerge? And when they do, will there be any sense of shame?