"We have a budget of four hundred million pounds. People want that to be well spent."Suraj Makwana

I met Mark Goldring at Trinity College, before his talk hosted by 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can. Goldring has had a formidable career in international development – from education to disabilities, working for commendable charities such as VSO and Mencap. A law graduate from Oxford, Goldring has dedicated his “entire life to making people’s lives better”.

We sit in a bare and gloomy room, only furnished by two very low chairs. It seems the recession has hit even Trinity.

Recent statistics released by Oxfam state that, by next year, one per cent of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99 per cent. In a time of recession, with falling standards of living among the poor, how come the rich are increasing their wealth so greatly? “If you start with money, you have power; you help make the rules, and you make more money. That doesn’t mean that rich people will never lose money, but it puts them in a strong position to keep it. The recession is not hitting them in the same way as the poor”.

Goldring is spot on. The rich have assets to invest. They can move their money around. Because they have assets, they might be temporarily hit by recession, but they hang onto what they have until things get better. After some contemplation, he notes:

“They’ll be the first to benefit from the fruits of growth. By contrast, the poor lose everything and it takes a very, very long time to get it back.”

The economic power of the one per cent can also be explained by failures in global taxation regimes. Forbes suggests that a third of the billionaires in the world have inherited at least some or all of their riches. Do we need tougher inheritance tax laws in the UK? “I think we should have stricter taxes across the board, not just inheritance tax,” he argues. “It’s not about punishing people for wealth; people should be able to earn money. We need a taxation system that stops people moving their money.”

Goldring supports “stricter laws” on inheritance tax rather than an actual increase on the rate of tax, which many people advocate: “It’s not about taking a higher proportion, it is more about preventing people from taking advantage of legal technicalities to avoid paying the existing rate.”

Goldring clearly has strong views on the balance of power between government and big business. From this perspective, do big businesses like Apple hold more power than governments? “There is a distinction to be drawn between power and influence”, he notes. “Barack Obama has more power, but Apple certainly has more influence. Obama can take the big life or death decisions – ‘do we bomb Iraq?’ kind of decisions. However, in day-to-day life, especially with a dysfunctional US government, Apple is allowed to have more influence.”

Oxfam itself is considered to be a highly influential organisation. But is there a point at which philantropic work is hindered by the saturation of charities?

“Yes. If you look at cancer charities, if you look at ex-service people’s charities, they would be two very strong examples. That normally happens because people have a very specific passion; they have lost a loved one, or want to start up a charity in their local village. A lot of these charities are successful, but those that aren’t pull the rest down. We need more charities to come together and merge.”

During his tenure, Goldring has also been the subject of controversy, after revelations in the press about his perceived ‘excessively’ high salary. Are six-figures salaries justifiable in the charitable sector? He is quick to defend the figure.

“My salary is the same as a senior headmaster or doctor,” he argues. “It doesn’t compare to big business – nor should it. I believe that my salary is pitched at just the right level”.

Money seems to be a recurring and contentious theme around Oxfam. How does Goldring respond to the criticism that Oxfam is spending too much on administrative costs?

“Oxfam spends about 82 pence in every pound directly on our work... We must have well managed campaigns. We have a budget of four hundred million pounds. People want that to be well spent. That means we have to invest in our company’s infrastructure. We could always donate more directly to the campaigns, but we think that we have struck the perfect balance”.

Controversy around the work of Oxfam extends beyond its finances, however. Last year, Scarlett Johansson quit her role as an Oxfam ambassador as a result of a “fundamental difference of opinion” between herself and the charity over the Israeli company SodaStream’s operation in the West Bank. What is Oxfam’s position on Israel’s intervention in Gaza?

He thinks for a second or two before adopting a very formal tone. “Oxfam publicly called an end to the blockade in Gaza, and we called for a ceasefire during the war last year. Oxfam does not advocate a boycott of Israel, but we don’t support Israeli investment in the Palestinian territory.” He continues, “It is done on Palestinian land without their consent. That is where we differed with SodaStream – they had a built a factory with Israeli permission, not Palestinian.”

After relaying the ‘company line’, he adds: “Interestingly, they’ve now closed the factory – I’m sure public opinion had some part to play in this closure.”

Much of the developing world is said to be living in the extra-legal sphere – outside the reach of the law. Oxfam has made some general suggestions about fiscal and legal policy in its latest report. Do you not think we need a more localised approach first before we can make sweeping reforms? After joking that “I could give you an essay on that,” he says “we [Oxfam] advocate grass roots approach just as much as we call for big structural reform.”

With this in mind, he tells me about his recent trip to Sierra Leone and Liberia to learn more about the Ebola crisis. The most effective response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone came with the mobilisation of thousands of volunteers living in the worst-hit regions: “We set out to educate, inform, support, and treat people with Ebola, and link them with the health services that were miles away. That was a real grass roots movement tackling structural issues.”

Goldring studied Law at university, a subject he found problematic at times due to its propensity to ignore the bigger picture: “I never cared much for the procedures involved in making a will”.

I laugh at this. Given Goldring’s work with Oxfam, it is clear to me that he has the bigger picture very much in mind.

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