How many registered charities in England and Wales operate overseas?  And in which countries do they work?  Historically it has been hard to get a feel for the shape and geographical scope of the voluntary sector because of a lack of available data.  Thankfully this context is changing because newly available data provide opportunities for research on these themes – including NCVO’s valuable work which describes the scale and scope of the voluntary sector in the UK.

A newly published article in the Journal of Social Policy describes the results of ESRC-funded research which examines, for the first time, the ‘international charitable connections’ between England and Wales and overseas.

It makes use of newly available administrative data from the Charity Commission on the country of operation of each registered charity.  It also makes use of other country-level data – including the Worldwide Governance Indicators (which provide measures of political stability and of control of corruption) and the recently developed Multidimensional Poverty Index (which provides the number of people living in poverty in a country) – to help us understand the patterns in charitable operation that we observe.

The paper shows that around 16,500 charities registered in England and Wales operate in at least one country or territory outside the UK.  This includes many of the well-known larger charities, including Oxfam and Save the Children, but also a large number of smaller organisations – many of them quite recently formed, and many of them working in a small number of countries.

This figure represents a significant proportion – about 10 per cent – of the population of c.163,000 registered charities in England and Wales.

There are more English and Welsh charities working in India, with a very large population and historical colonial links, than in any other overseas country.  There are also particularly high numbers of English and Welsh charities working in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.

Compared to countries in other regions, English and Welsh charities are most likely to work in countries in South Asia or in Sub-Saharan Africa.  They are less likely to work in countries that are considered the least politically stable, or where corruption is considered to be the least under control, than in other countries.  It is very clear that countries with historic Commonwealth/colonial ties to the UK tend to have higher numbers of English and Welsh charities, but it is also clear that there is significant variation in charitable operation even between those countries with historic ties.

These findings are interesting sociologically but they also have practical uses.  For example the results – and the underlying data providing information on the charities that operate in each overseas country – will be of interest to grant-making bodies looking to fund organisations working in a particular country.  They will also provide a basis for information-sharing where there is often limited knowledge about other organisations working in the same country context.

While it is the large development charities that are household names, the results also help to illustrate the ‘small-scale’ charitable activity that links people and places internationally.

The Journal of Social Policy article upon which this post is based has been published as Open Access and is therefore available free of charge in perpetuity. Follow this link to read the article.

David Clifford, University of Southampton and an Associate of the Third Sector Research Centre.

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