Aid diversion to terrorists: 3 things NGOs need to know

This week I’ve been in Nairobi, Kenya, delivering workshops for local NGOs on minimising the risk of money-laundering and terrorist financing. Preparing the material led me to reflect on some of the conversations I’ve had with NGO managers about reducing the risk that physical assets, funds and stock might fall into the hands of those designated as terrorists, or subject to financial sanctions.

Diversion_11This presents a very challenging issue for NGOs that work in high-risk areas, and one with significant tensions at its heart. These include the tension between minimising the risk of diversion versus disrupting the delivery of aid, competing obligations on the ground, and the wider balancing act between regulation and enforcement versus guidance and capacity building.

It does not help that the international regulatory picture and sectoral response are far from coherent, and subsequently it is understandable that there are widespread misunderstandings. This is not an exhaustive article, of course,  but we’ll explore (in no particular order) some of the most common areas that have popped up in my conversations around the sector.

Audit may be unlikely to pick up incidents.

16811751576_856ea1d5f2_oAudit is a helpful process that assists managers to meet their organisational goals and minimise risks. It is not its purpose to detect financial crime (less than 20% of detected fraud cases are identified this way). That’s assuming, of course, that systematic and independent audit even happens – in remote programmes, conflict zones or humanitarian emergencies, whole projects in some organisations may see little or no independent review at all.

NGO managers need to avoid the errors of assuming that a detection-free audit is an all-clear, or that it is solely the duty of auditors to prevent and detect financial crime, rather than everybody’s responsibility. ‘Protection money’ or ‘taxes’ paid to terrorist groups can be masked as vague costs, such as ‘transport’ or ‘security.’ If identity and sanctions list checks of partners, contractors, consultants, staff and volunteers were not conducted, auditors won’t necessarily pick up positive hits either. Audit may help identify vulnerabilities, but it cannot be relied upon to spot incidents.

Instead, according to FATF, factors that might elevate an NGO’s risk include programmes in close proximity to terrorist groups, and/or those that are ‘service’-oriented; these could include construction and distributions (i.e. operations more likely to involve the movement of physical assets, funds or stock). An NGO in this position needs to ensure that it implements a meaningful risk management cycle, creating space to look for vulnerabilities and taking reasonable precautions. Risk assessment is only a bureaucratic ‘tick-box exercise’ if we let it be – it can be a powerful method to spot what could go wrong and do our best to prepare for it.

Transferring all the risk to local partners isn’t fair.

afghanistan-90761_1920In my book, I suggest that a chain of unbridled risk transfer from back-donors to INGOs to local partners has the opposite effect of protecting funds – it increases the risk of fraud and corruption. In the end, too much risk derived from decisions taken in coffee-laced, air-conditioned meetings in Brussels, London and Kabul sits on the shoulders of one Afghan worker standing in the sun at a checkpoint in Badakhshan. This is poor risk management, poor partnership-working, and poor diversion prevention.

The flow needs to be inverted. Rather than just responsibility flowing from back-donor to local organisation, communication about the nature of the risks needs to flow the other way, and provoke increased investment in capacity-building and shared responsibility. There are difficulties with reconciling programmatic objectives and terrorism risk (‘what if we really can’t access that population without a payment?’), but we will not start to address these if agencies hide behind risk transfer to avoid the conversation.

Relying on assurances of non-prosecution is dangerous.

getoutofjailIn 2015, the UK government issued guidance describing the risk of a prosecution for a terrorism offence as a result of involvement in humanitarian efforts or conflict resolution as ‘low.’ This was encouraging in terms of the British government’s recognition of the vital need for humanitarian work in conflict zones and the difficult circumstances in which it occurs. However, we need to be cautious about how we respond to this in terms of our investment in minimising the risk – we might have been here before.

In 2010, the Bribery Act led to a flurry of compliance activity amongst NGOs keen to avoid prosecution for failing to prevent bribery. According to some, however, unnamed British officials apparently indicated to nervous NGOs that their organisations were not the focus of this legislation and appeared to imply that they would not be paid much attention. Some perceive that, sadly, this well-intentioned move contributed to a dwindling of effort amongst some NGOs in developing meaningful compliance frameworks. (Ironically, in this regulation with strong ‘prevention’ requirements, it is the dwindling of effort and its consequences that could potentially elevate the chances of prosecution!)

Save_the_Children,_Westport,_CT,_USA_2012Implied assurance of non-prosecution is always caveated, is not always made by those with the correct authority, and might not relate to that which is perceived. The British guidance note, for example, does not indicate whether it is referring to placing resources in the hands of terrorists (potentially s15-18 Terrorism Act offences), failing to have sufficient systems to prevent sanctions breaches (potentially a s34 Terrorist Asset Freezing Act offence of neglect), failing to report a suspected funding offence (s19 Terrorism Act), or some of those, or none – and so on. In any event, any decisions would be made on the basis of the prevailing circumstances of the case and it is worth noting that Save the Children International were investigated by the Metropolitan Police for allegedly failing to report a suspected incident of theft by a terrorist group in Somalia.

This situation also comes with an ethical choice – if we are not to be prosecuted, is it okay to commit the offence? Our donors and supporters may have something to say about that.

Assurances of the low probability of prosecution are not literal Get Out Of Jail Free cards. Instead, a pragmatic response for NGOs might be to continue to do all that is reasonable to comply with regulations, invest in proper systems to reduce the risk of both incidents and non-compliance, and maintain dialogue with authorities on the implications for humanitarian operations generated by the intricacies of their regulatory regimes. And there is no substitute, of course, for professional legal advice.

Conclusion

As with many of the corruption risks facing NGOs, the issues are complex and difficult. NGOs require the understanding – and patience – of the public, their donors and host governments. However, there is much that NGOs can do to reduce these risks.

Many of the systems and approaches that minimise the risk of diversion represent good governance and management – creating space for proper planning and monitoring of operations, ensuring that open internal communication channels exist, investing in the coherent verification of outputs, the diligent management of third parties, and so on. Getting these things right in areas where we are more able to do so reduces overall exposure, allowing us to focus our problem-solving on the areas where things are more challenging.

Improving transparency – or, in old money, having the conversation – will start the ball rolling.

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Going local: Could national NGOs prevent more fraud than international agencies?

Last year, UN investigations into several small, local partner NGOs in Somalia resulted in estimates that up to 79% of disbursed funds (in the region of US$3m) could have been stolen, with suggestions that some of it could have fallen into terrorist hands.

The local partners of international agencies vary widely; the term encapsulates an enormous number of diverse organisations, from grassroots collectives to municipal authorities, educational institutions, and local (or ‘national’) NGOs. The relationships themselves are also diverse.

Working with partners is crucial, offering international organisations deep insights into the localised causes, enablers and solutions of the issues that their missions tackle, as well as (often) heightened access to beneficiaries. Helping to establish, grow and support local civil societies is also vital to the future of global development.

file0001839386335.jpgBut there is a tension. Case studies such the UN’s experience in Somalia support a perception amongst many in the sector that, generally speaking, working with local partners represents an elevated fraud and corruption risk. A range of reasons are commonly cited for this, but the most common perhaps is where partners carry lower capacity and capability in finance and wider management by comparison to that of the international agencies, or donor expectations.

Another way to look at it

In the current global development paradigm, the perception of this risk may be accurate. But not only shouldn’t it surprise us – research suggests that across all sectors, smaller organisations are the most vulnerable to fraud – it also isn’t the whole picture, and rather belies the role played by international actors, including NGOs, institutional donors and development agencies, in perpetuating this vulnerability.

Ways in which these agencies leave the relationships open to fraud and corruption, and can inadvertently help to maintain the vulnerability of local organisations, can include:

  • Failing to assess or adequately build capacity, or issuing funds in excess of that assessed capacity;
  • Failing to operate in a true partnership – instead treating the partner as a sub-contractor, irrespective of its fundamentally different nature;
  • Unbridled and unmanaged risk transfer – sometimes down a long funding chain;
  • Failure to follow a proper engagement cycle (including strategic planning, assessment and selection, effective engagement and monitoring, and objective evaluation and review) which includes the consideration of fraud and corruption risk at each stage;
  • Cultural insensitivity, failing to factor in cultural differences around the perception of things like contracts and transactions.

But things could be different. In fact, there are some ways that local organisations could be better at deterring and preventing fraud and corruption than their international agency partners.

 1. They have local, contextual knowledge

Somgirharcon1The first is the very reason international agencies often work with them in the first place – they understand their local environment. They know where the risks are, and are in a strong position to evaluate how to reduce them. This can mean more informed planning (how long does it take to get that permit without paying a bribe?) and risk management, if the space is given to it.

2. They are closer to the action

flower-768504_1920Whether in remote programme management or not, local partners are often physically closer to project delivery or able to more efficiently move around and interact. This is a substantial advantage for monitoring, and the detection of red flags.

3. They might be part of local accountability systems

gambia-239849_1920Development expert Jennifer Lentfer tells a great story of an encounter with a Liberian village elder in which he described ‘hot money’ and ‘cold money.’ It was an illustration of how local accountability systems exist, but development money might not connect with them – denying it the investment of local communities necessary for greater oversight. Carefully-selected local partners may be part of such systems in a way that international agencies might not, presenting opportunities for greater deterrence of fraud and corruption.

4. They’re increasingly assisted by technology

mark-516277_1920The global coverage of telecommunications is expanding as fast as its costs are declining, meaning that much humanitarian and development work is happens underneath its umbrella. This means that innovative software and hardware solutions to manage and monitor programming are increasingly available and affordable.

So what?

So how can international actors respond to this – reducing the role that they play in perpetuating the cycle, and instead helping local civil societies to unlock this counter-fraud potential?

1. Actually build capacity

IMG_4460
Counter-fraud workshop for local NGOs underway in the Philippines

However many project proposals mention capacity-building, it often does not happen, or if it does, it does so without the clear assessment of need, a plan, and an evaluation phase that are so important for it to actually have effect. Where the capacity and capability of a potential partner is assessed pre-engagement, this should provide the basis for a capacity-building plan. What can we live with, and how do we need to help the partner to grow?

As international NGOs challenge themselves to look for ways they can devolve responsibility, funding and power to local civil societies, helping them to improve their resilience to fraud and corruption would be a great start.

2. Consider the risk of fraud and corruption at each stage of the partner engagement cycle

Fraud and corruption risks vary as a project progresses. At the outset, kickbacks and nepotism can cluster around selection processes. Towards the end, as short-term employment contracts expire, theft of funds and stock can begin to climb in likelihood. At each stage, both partners should give space to identifying the risks and how best to protect the partnership.

3. Seek their advice, and that of national staff

It should be uncontroversial to point out that expat workers are not local experts. And local experts are available – in the partner, and in international agencies’ national staff. Agencies need to take the time to actually ask these reservoirs of knowledge about how best to squeeze fraud and corruption out of this work, and do so in sufficient time that the information can be applied. When I conduct counter-fraud awareness workshops, it is always exciting to hear local participants’ innovative and contextually-relevant ideas.

Conclusion

friends-1027840_1920There are corrupt local organisations out there, of course, who have the sole or corollary aim of gaining access for their principals to international agencies’ funds. But the vast majority of local organisations whom I have encountered have been full of passionate people doing amazing work in difficult circumstances. Robust selection processes are needed to ensure that these are the partners who are taken on.

There are other necessary changes of course – Mango currently champion universal financial management standards for NGOs, which would significantly improve transparency and accountability. But for now, there is much that international agencies can do to truly contribute to local civil societies – not just write about it in their annual reports.

FFCHGDSFind out more about the risk that fraud and corruption pose to humanitarian and global development organisations, and how they can better deter, prevent, detect and respond to it, in my book! Click here to get your copy of Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector from the Routledge website or Amazon!

Going round in circles: Do NGOs and fraud hide from each other?

In the Foreword to my book, Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector, fraud expert Jim Gee mentions the ‘un-virtuous’ circle of fraud detection in the third sector.

I thought I’d draw up what this circle might look like. The starting point, as previous blog posts have mentioned, is that fraud and corruption hide. So, in essence, the un-virtuous circle means that NGOs, nonprofits and charities can lose physical assets, funds, and stock regularly and in potentially significant quantities without any red lights appearing on management’s dashboard. It is fuelled by a fear of the consequences of detection – the potential impact on public reputation, donor relationships, staff morale, and project delivery.

The un-virtuous circle might look like this:

Slide1

water-783355_1920Another way to think of this concealed drainage is like corrosion under your car – unless you go looking for it, you won’t ever realise its presence, scale and danger… until your car falls apart in the middle of the motorway. You may fear the consequences (e.g. costs involved) of detecting the corrosion and needing to deal with it, but these costs in the long run are less than those that the motorway incident might involve.

Concealed drainage vs squeezing every drop from our resources

background-906145_1920As public scrutiny of the sector rises, together with increased recognition of the scale of fraud and corruption risk facing such organisations, we need to move to a virtuous circle, fuelled by a desire to secure donor, public and staff trust by evidencing accountability and transparency. A virtuous circle might look like this:

Slide2

In this circle, global development organisations invest in a counter-fraud framework that detects incidents, allowing them to take an evidence-based approach to developing ever-more effective counter-measures and therefore reduce their exposure to fraud and corruption.

Improving the detection of fraud and corruption

‘But what if my organisation really doesn’t have any fraud?’ one might ask. Possibly, but given the scale and nature of the risk factors affecting humanitarian and global development organisations, wider under-detection is a better explanation of low detection.

A holistic approach means that countering fraud and corruption is not just about detecting suspicious matters, but detection is an important strand. In addition to effective and embedded detective controls (such as inventories and reconciliations), key detective methods for humanitarian and global development organisations should include:

  • Clear ‘overt’ reporting mechanisms for staff and third parties to raise concerns with line management;
  • Confidential reporting mechanisms for staff and third parties to report with an expectation of confidentiality and safety;
  • Dedicated work to build trust in ‘overt’ and confidential systems amongst staff, and to communicate and promote these systems;
  • Beneficiary feedback mechanisms;
  • The use of electronic systems to identify ‘red flags’, anomalies and patterns;
  • Proactive examinations of records (‘fraudits’);
  • Information-sharing with third parties, such as other INGOs or information exchange services;
  • Methods to provide early-warnings of incidents, or rising risk, in local partners;
  • Investment in the wider components (deterrence, prevention, response, strategic management, cultural development, and enabling activities) of a holistic counter-fraud and corruption framework that support the detection agenda.

FFCHGDSFind out more about the risk that fraud and corruption pose to humanitarian and global development organisations, and how they can better deter, prevent, detect and respond to it, in my book! Click here to get your copy of Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector from the Routledge website or Amazon!