The Big Questions: How should we chose which Philippines typhoon charity to support? Should Cameron have gone to Sri Lanka?

This week's questions answered by former chief executive of Oxfam Barbara Stocking


From the point of view of a former chief executive of Oxfam, how big a challenge do charities and aid agencies face in responding to Typhoon Haiyan?

The challenge is huge. Currently roads are strewn with wreckage, and until this can be cleared by heavy machinery there are many areas that cannot be reached. Also the local government infrastructure has gone in many places, making it very difficult for them to operate – hence the complaints about government not delivering. The needs are going to continue for the long term too. Agriculture has been destroyed and people will need to be supported to get that under way again. If Haiyan was not bad enough, the Philippines has just been hit by another typhoon and the rains are making the suffering worse, and the ability to reach people even more difficult.

How should the public decide which charity to give its money to?

If in doubt give to the Disaster Emergency Committee which covers the 14 most experienced disaster agencies in the UK. It has robust systems for sharing the funds and for monitoring how the money is used. If you have a charity you already support or know what you want your money to be used for, go straight to the charity, for example water and sanitation at Oxfam. Please don’t give blankets or clothes; it is money aid agencies need. The shipping costs of goods are too much and it is best to buy locally so that economies are stimulated.

Is the criticism that too much of charities’ income goes on its own admin still valid?

Speaking based on Oxfam’s statistics, every 16p in every pound is spend on support and running costs (9p) and on fundraising (7p). The rest of the money is used on emergencies and development, with 5p in the pound on campaigning to change the world with and for poor people. These sorts of numbers would be similar for other agencies. What is delivered for the amount of money is staggering. In an average year, Oxfam will provide water and sanitation in emergencies or post-conflict situations for about five million people.

Has the charity sector grown too big?

People set up charities because they have a passion for a cause or see an unmet need. All the time and money that people give make a huge difference. Sometimes I think there are too many different charities, but then we don’t want to lose that passion. The big issue is about connection. People give to want to feel connected to the people who benefit. This is difficult in international development and sometimes leads people to set up things which are not sustainable. It is no good building a school unless there are teachers, and that means being well connected in local education systems.

You recently became the president of Murray Edwards, an all-women Cambridge college. Why is that exclusivity important for women’s progress?

I feel passionately that women across the world are still not equal. That means there is still so much that young women today are going to have to challenge. A women’s college can help to build the aspiration and the confidence to do that. In Murray Edwards the young women have mixed lectures and practicals as part of the university, but the supervisions are in college. We can encourage young women to speak up, give their views and take more risks. Often women don’t do that especially if men are taking up all the air time! We can also focus on their personal development and show them the range of careers they can have. A lovely job!

As a former senior executive in the NHS, what do you make of this week’s Keogh report into emergency care?

Excellent. It has been understood for a long time that you simply cannot have so many A&E departments all trying to deliver the most complex care. We do not have the number of specialists, but even if we did they would not be able to maintain their skills at the level necessary outside a centre with highly specialist facilities. Other A&E departments can still treat patients requiring less specialist care. I know we all wish we could have a highly specialist A&E very close to us but that simply is not possible.

What do you think of charity chiefs’ offer to provide volunteers to help prevent elderly people “blocking” A&E?

The key challenge is to get appropriate care for elderly people which often means in their own home. This means more accessible GP services especially out of hours and better social care. There is already a huge contribution made by volunteers to help support elderly people at home but this needs to grow. I am not against volunteers in A&E, but they must be aware of the boundaries of their role. That would take a lot of support.

Should David Cameron have boycotted the Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka?

At the time when atrocities could have been stopped and lives saved, the international community did not act. That was a huge failure. It is probably better now to be in Sri Lanka to find out what is happening and to influence events. Overall, I am supportive of David Cameron’s attendance. It might have been different if the whole Commonwealth had decided to move from Sri Lanka but that is not the case. Of course, being present means being very clear about what sorts of behaviours are unacceptable and emphasising the human rights standards that we have all signed up to.

Should there be a film classification-style rating system for pop videos?

Information that helps the public to make choices is a good thing. In this case the rating would help people decide what they want to see and, most important, what they want young children to see.

Dame Barbara Stocking is president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, and a former chief executive of Oxfam

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