In my last post I asked what you'd like me to look for during my forthcoming trip to Nepal - and one question recurred: Where is the aid going? Is it reaching the people who really need it? (This elephant-in-the-room word is corruption.)
I think it's impossible to approach such questions without clarifying my own ethical position regarding aid in the Developing World, and where it might end up. So here, for what it's worth, are my views on the whys and wherefores of 'corruption'.
For starters, let's unpick the word. If 50 tents arrive in Kathmandu and only 25 reach the people they're meant for - that is corruption? Or theft? In India, millions of tons of grain - set aside for the poor - goes missing every year, and nothing happens. Corruption? Or theft? In the Congo, poorly paid workers refuse to drive a machine that will haul a huge tractor from a trailer without a back-hander. Bribes? Or a tip that recognises they have so little and can barely feed their families.
In the West, the banks steal millions of pounds of our money, and nothing happens. Corruption? Or commerce? The government sells Royal Mail for next to nothing. Corruption? Or foolishness? The local town council grants planning permission for the mayor to build an extension to his house while refusing it to a neighbour. Corruption? Local politics?
I think we need to be careful before we point fingers at the Developing Countries. We live in a world where there are many who will exploit the miseries of others. This doesn't make it right - but let's not pretend it doesn't happen just as much in the First World.
So - what do to about it? We can, of course, jump up and down, point fingers, complain - and it's right that such abuses are talked about. It is global ethical issue, and needs a global discussion.
And we can refuse to give to aid organisations, for fear that our cash will end up in someone's back pocket and not where we want it to go.
But who does that actually help?
Let's just say you've donated money for two tents for the destitute of Kathmandu. One will get through - so there will be one family who have shelter who were in the rain last night. The other tent 'disappears' - and will be sold - to whom? The aid agency? There may be a few links along the way, a backhander here and there, but eventually your tent will probably make it. Money, of course, 'disappears' more easily than tents. But some will make its way back into the economy.
Personally, I prefer to support small organisations (at home and overseas) - often run by people I know and trust. That doesn't mean there is never a little 'leakage' but many tiny NGOs rely on passing donations just to keep a roof over heads. They are more likely to be run by local people in response to local need - and so not dictated to by First World agencies with western belief systems.
The bit I feel most strongly about is our collective responsibility to do something. If we simply wring our hands about corruption, allowing the knowledge that our entire contribution might not reach its destination to cripple our thinking, we abandon those in real need. We might not like some of the shenanigans between us and them, but that is not their problem - and it is one we can do nothing about.
There is no point in a fight you can't win. It is right to questions, challenge and condemn those who exploit the vulnerable. But we should not let a preoccupation with them paralyse us, nor stand in the way of our compassion. The destitute still need us.