Scandal underpinned by cosy network of the arrogant and ambitious

Published by The Mail on Sunday (25th February, 2018)

When Kevin Watkins celebrated his 60th birthday four years ago, he was joined by the aid industry elite. Guests such as Bob Geldof and Justin Forsyth, then head of Save The Children, sipped champagne until the early hours.

The event was hosted by his pal Baroness Vadera, a former Oxfam trustee and banker once dubbed ‘Gordon Brown’s representative on earth’, at her London home.

Watkins was then head of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think-tank – supported, of course, by taxpayers, like almost everything in the poverty sector. He had much to celebrate after a successful career in the development world.

Although a trustee with Save The Children (STC), Watkins went on to succeed his friend Forsyth as boss of the charity – a move the Charity Commission calls ‘unconventional’. His appointment ensured he inherited a job with a salary higher than the Prime Minister’s.

Watkins is at the pinnacle of the aid industry. Yet now he is caught up in a scandal over abuse of women by development charities and the exits of Forsyth and another old friend, Brendan Cox.

At heart of these sleazy revelations, however, lies a cosy nexus of connections between ambitious individuals in the aid sector, self-serving politicians from all parties, and patsy parts of the media. All failed in their respective duties.

And this scandal exposes the arrogance, the self-aggrandisement and insidious corruption that has left taxpayers shelling out £13.4 billion a year to meet an absurd aid target despite growing controversy over the dodgy cause.

Now step back in time. This saga dates back almost three decades to when a one-time chef called Justin Forsyth joined Oxfam as a policy adviser. His boss was a woman named Dianna Melrose, a former ambassador.

After working at the Department for International Development, today she is a trustee of both the ODI and Save The Children. These people flit around the sector a lot. Forsyth became friendly with Watkins, who spent 13 years from 1991 as head of research at Oxfam, and later with a young press officer called Brendan Cox.

Like others at Oxfam, they became close to key figures in the emerging New Labour, encouraging their new political pals to latch on to aid as an idea and assisting with policies on Africa and development.

So strong were the ties that Forsyth ended up working for both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Downing Street, driving the Make Poverty History campaign. Cox later joined him as special adviser to Brown on development.

Watkins never formally joined the team but he was so close to Brown that the then Chancellor sent a statement, read out by Vadera, when Watkins left Oxfam.

And Watkins was later reprimanded while working at the UN over an anti-Tory article he wrote in The Guardian.

Meanwhile, the aid budget began to surge, doubling under New Labour to more than £8 billion. Barbara Stocking, who was then Oxfam chief and is now at the heart of the Haiti prostitute scandal, was rewarded for her loyal support with a damehood.

So what happened when Labour lost in 2010? Forsyth and Cox resurfaced on hefty salaries running STC, where their friend Watkins was, coincidentally, a trustee – and then cuddled up to David Cameron’s Conservatives to keep the state cash flowing.

Forsyth is a skilled networker. I remember him sidling up at an event and inviting me on a foreign trip, then looking dismayed when I rejected his overture. He easily captured the Conservatives, who were keen to throw off their ‘nasty party’ mantle.

Cameron committed to meeting the UN aid target, his wife Samantha became an ambassador for STC, and the then PM promoted their cause on trips abroad.

Forsyth was so keen to please his political paymasters that leaked emails revealed how he helped cook up the ‘IF Campaign’ to shore up support for the aid target. This cynical stunt – intended as successor to Make Poverty History – duped the public for it was created in collaboration with the politicians who were the supposed target of the campaign.

Meanwhile, Forsyth boasted of boosting his charity’s income by £50 million, which came largely from public funds. And he provoked fury among staff when he rewarded his old boss Blair with a ‘global legacy’ award, despite the carnage caused in the Iraq War.

Now some brave women whistleblowers and this newspaper have exposed abuse and bullying under people like Forsyth and Cox at a major charity taking almost £100 million from taxpayers – and which trustees failed to prevent. Yet is it any wonder it took so long for this scandal to emerge when the tentacles of their network, their well-placed friends and their well-funded cause, reach so deep?

STC is chaired by the well-respected public relations guru Sir Alan Parker, another skilled networker renowned for his friends across the political and business establishment.

There are claims The Guardian newspaper failed to investigate an industry it holds so dear when whistleblowers tried to raise concerns. Note how it earns money from this bloated sector through sponsored pages.

And indeed, how so many other journalists and MPs have allowed big charities to fund trips abroad and determine their agendas.

There are also profound questions facing the BBC, which has treated charities and aid chiefs like secular saints in its reporting. Surely it is wrong that our most influential media organisation spends tens of millions for the Government in aid and promotes a debatable cause through demeaning concepts such as Comic Relief?

Note again the close links between senior BBC figures and the poverty industry. Oxfam is chaired by its former chief operating officer. Comic Relief is chaired by the chief executive of BBC Worldwide. The BBC’s Director of Content is among its trustees.

This scandal highlights questions I have been raising for years over abuse of power and lack of accountability in the aid world, with its reach stretching so far into the political and media establishment.

For if big charities cannot be trusted to care for their female staff, why should they dictate to developing countries and be allowed to care for the world’s most vulnerable people?

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