Silent Partners: Are you working with a local NGO that doesn’t exist?

In this guest post, experienced global development finance professional Najwa Whistler describes her experience investigating ghost NGOs in a conflict zone. Names and details have been changed.

roadSome years ago, I found myself investigating events in a program in a war-torn country. The program had been set up to build the capacity of small local NGOs to implement community development projects. The concept was great, the donor funding had been secured, local partner NGOs had submitted proposals and agreements had been signed, transfers had been made and reports had been received. The only problem was that most of these NGOs didn’t exist.

In development sector investigations, one of the first actions upon arriving in-country is to meet with the local program director and understand how the concerns began. But within moments of sitting down with Nancy, I could already start to see how the fraud had arisen.

afghanistan-60668_1920Ex-pat Nancy used to be a teacher in Canada, and this was her first job in an international NGO. She was young, and idealistic, but it was clear that she did not have the relevant skills and experience. A conflict zone is a dangerous and stressful place, often with high staff-turnover, and the international NGO had compromised on her qualifications to find someone willing to endure the hardship.

As I talked through Nancy’s concerns that their local partners might not exist, two things became very clear. The first was that Nancy did not have field trip and progress reports and had not visited their offices.

“Why?” I asked.

“Oh, I can’t visit, it’s too dangerous,” she said.

The second was that, instead, Nancy had relied heavily on a single individual to manage this project.

“Can I see the checklist for the review of the partners’ proposals, and who was involved in the decision making?” I asked.

Nancy nodded. “Raj, the national program manager, reviewed the proposals and approved them – then he prepared the contracts.”

Raj had worked for the international NGO for many years.  In his late forties and a man of few words, he was a hard worker – the first in the office, the last to leave, and rarely took a day off. Nancy delegated most of her tasks to him.

volkswagen-569315_1920When my team drove out to the field to visit the partners and the communities, I went with Malik, a driver, who turned out to be Raj’s brother. The driver tipped off the ‘NGOs’ that we were coming for a visit.

Malik took us to a building consisting of five rooms and a hall way. On the door of each room was a crisp, freshly printed A4 paper with the name of each ’NGO’. In each room sat one man, the ‘managing director’ of each ‘NGO’. Solidarity, cooperation and co-ordination between NGOs at its best perhaps, and rarely seen to such an extent!

Malik was not the only person I met that day close to Raj. All five men came from the same village, and the same kinship group, as the brothers. This was surprising too – as the community development projects were in an area where the majority of locals were from a different kinship group – one with a long history of conflict with that of the brothers.

Over the day, I sat with each ‘managing director’ and asked about the progress of the work, the challenges, their records and their reports. Not one could locate any team members, volunteers or records with whom I could engage.

“I keep the documentation at my house because it is not safe to keep them in this building,” said one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he would not allow us to follow him to his house or wait while he retrieved the documents as the house was ‘too far’.

Unfortunately, this picture is not unusual. But the red flags were visible in this case – and there are things we can do to better spot them and manage these risks.

office-594132_1920Firstly, ensure a realistic and validated assessment of potential partners takes place. More than one person or function needs to be involved in this assessment, and it should compare project proposals. Involve logistics and procurement teams to verify market rates.

Secondly, constantly review your project management approach during its lifecycle. Perform regular visits to the projects when the security situation allows. Ask the team members of the local partner organisation to meet you at your office from time to time.

Thirdly, even in environments where we trust our colleagues, ensure that you take a robust approach to verification. If security doesn’t allow you to physically visit the project, perhaps you can ask for GPS located photos of activities – and do not be afraid to ask for them again if the first ones look odd! Interview beneficiaries over the phone. Talk to donors and other international organisations working in the same area about their experiences.

passport photoNajwa Whistler is a finance director with 18 years of experience working for several international NGOs around the world. Growing up in a small village in Lebanon in poverty during the civil war built her resilience and determination to work in international development. She enjoys cooking and dancing. You can reach her via naj.whistler@gmail.com

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In Rehab: Restoring a team after an insider fraud

When I arrived at my last employer’s headquarters on my first day as their new head of counter-fraud, I did not know that the vacancy had arisen because my predecessor had committed… fraud.

The last person to hold that office had stolen nearly £65,000 using false invoices from fake companies. He had been arrested, would plead guilty at court and receive a custodial sentence. Despite the lurid headlines, the organisation was open about what had happened.

1If a humanitarian or global development organisation gets serious about tackling fraud and corruption, then it will detect cases – possibly in significant numbers. As my organisation invested in counter-fraud efforts, for example, we saw recorded suspicions in its global operations nearly treble in three years (this, of course, reflected a rise in vigilance and engagement rather than incidents).

But what happens after an incident of insider fraud or corruption, when the dust settles?

rippleThe job does not finish with the dismissal or conviction of the suspect(s). These incidents have long tails – there is work still to be done to rehabilitate the project or business unit in which the incident took place. An incident represents a severe breach of trust; workers may feel abused and betrayed. The ripples can spread wide.

How we go about rebuilding a team and restoring a business function depends hugely on the circumstances of the case, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all approach. Although we only have space here for a few pointers, I have learned some lessons from helping teams like mine to overcome setbacks like this – these considerations may be helpful for you too.

First things first

The aftermath of an incident is the time to ask some basic questions: Could this happen again, and are there any other vulnerabilities we can spot?

Startup Stock PhotosHopefully, the organisational response included a lessons-learned exercise, generating changes to implement. This should look beyond the internal controls, also into enabling factors such as culture, communication and awareness.

That said, a fresh and full fraud and corruption risk assessment of the department can be helpful. Are there other vulnerabilities beyond the affected processes? An unexpected further case – just as things settle  – can create more uncertainty for the team if more changes to processes are necessary. Instead, let’s make all the adjustments we need to now (and capture the benefit of a sense of ‘moving on’) rather than risk constant change for the team.

planningNow is also a good time to do some contingency planning. Is the incident serious enough that it could result in regulatory interest, onerous remedial controls applied by institutional donors, or put future funding at risk, for example? We can prepare for these.

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Remember to seek advice. Overcoming an incident of fraud or corruption is a risk-rich activity. Consider engaging with HR, internal communications, legal, any dedicated counter-fraud or ethics or integrity office, staff health and/or other relevant specialists.

Treat people as individuals…

colored-pencils-179167_1920Team members will respond to the matter differently. While some may be relatively unaffected, others may not. It is important to note that where staff have made a commitment to an organisation on the basis of their values – perhaps more common for charities, nonprofits and NGOs than for private sector organisations – a breach of trust could be more impactive. Perhaps there could even be a grief reaction for some team members.

sadLook out for, and respond to, the traditional symptoms of stress, low morale and anxiety. These might include absenteeism, disciplinary issues, a rise in complaints, and disillusionment. An incident can impact upon personal and professional confidence, and colleagues may feel fear, shame or embarrassment. Will the incident create a funding crisis, putting their jobs at risk? Will staff have to justify themselves to an angry public? Consider access to staff support systems, and formal interventions such as counselling and facilitated debriefing.

16404-a-woman-in-a-business-meeting-pvBe a compassionate and responsive manager. Avoid assuming you understand how people feel or why they behave the way they do. Instead, in your one-to-one meetings with team members, explore how they are experiencing the crisis and responding to it. Remember, of course, to make it clear that this is pastoral and not investigative. Similarly, it is important to restore individuals’ sense of control. In a way, employees in whose midst an act of fraud or corruption occurred are victims of abuse. Solicit and listen to their concerns and visibly respond to them.

Accept that restoration may take time. Do not assume that the passage of time, themes in office chatter or improved productivity are signals that everybody has moved on. While these might be positive indicators, look out for those left behind.

…But re-build the team

Teams can be fragile creatures, and discovering that someone was out for themselves can undermine the workplace trust that allows them to function.

gambia-239849_1920Clear communication. Rebuilding trust requires the open communication of reliable content. Low information creates anxiety, more information helps manage our ‘fight or flight’ crisis response. Concealing the matter from the team is, therefore, more likely to sow suspicion and fear than peace and confidence. Be as open as you can about what has happened, and what will now happen, within the boundaries of policy, employment law and data protection legislation. As you describe the future, avoid over-promising – employees need clear and consistent messaging from management. If you cannot make promises, don’t; recognise uncertainty and explain what is being done to reduce it.

Similarly, set the right key messages for staff and stakeholders. Absolutes (‘this will never happen again,’ ‘rogue employee,’ ‘isolated incident…’) and over-reassuring can be risky for expectation management.  More sustainable messaging might include that fraud and corruption are normal business risks which we can reduce but not eliminate, and that the best way to respond to incidents is to use them to make us stronger.

Allow the opportunity to debrief. Ask staff what the incident has meant for them, and for the team. Consider soliciting suggestions on how to move forward, which can demonstrate management’s ongoing belief in the wider team (despite the actions of one). It also helps to empower the team to claim their status back, and move forward.

Team_Building_LanzaroteFoster trusting relationships. Ensure that teams meet as regularly as possible, in person or via teleconferencing. Consider holding team-building events, reflective away days and/or ‘how are we doing’ agenda items in meetings. These measures can improve understanding, interaction and trust between team members.

Arrange a good-quality fraud and corruption awareness workshop. This will not only help reduce the risk of incidents, but will also help staff to feel empowered; the best workshops help to generate a sense of solidarity and support amongst the honest majority. Be cautious not to let it feel remedial.

beautiful-day-1374424_1920Lead by example. We know that employees look to the behaviour of their managers to determine their own. So be present; you cannot role-model behaviours and attitudes if you cannot be seen by anyone. Be positive and show how you treat what has happened constructively, managing risk, avoiding blame, taking care of your colleagues (and yourself), and using the incident to make the business unit stronger in the future. As one casualty of a fraud or corruption incident is honesty, ensure that you are (and are seen to be) authentic. So, for example, if you feel hurt, vulnerable or confused, consider sharing those feelings with the team. This helps to normalise these emotions.

Avoid blame. This includes the narrative that we create around the perpetrator. It is tempting to turn them into the catch-all receptacle for all that has gone wrong, but this risks helping to foster a blame culture that can trip us up later. Furthermore, it can help us to move on from a crisis if we are able to see that there are things we could have done differently.

Get back to business-as-usual as quickly as possible

roadReaching project milestones or completing tasks puts clear blue water between the incident and the present, assisting both staff and stakeholders to move on. It also, of course, ensures the progress of the project or business unit. Embed, as rapidly and effectively as possible, any changes to processes to reduce the risk of a recurrence.

Remember the big picture – the goals and values of your organisation. Trust may have been betrayed on this occasion, but a refocus on why we all come to work in the first place can assist everyone to work hard towards recovery.

Thanks to Liz Crowe, Wellbeing at Work Specialist, for her contributions to the content. Liz tweets @lizcrowe2, or visit her website at LizCrowe.org.

FFCHGDSTo read more about how to deter, prevent, detect and respond to fraud and corruption in humanitarian and global development work, make sure you pick up a copy of my book, Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector (Routledge, 2016). It’s out now and packed with relevant material!

Kangaroo court: Why do NGOs need to get fraud investigation right?

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NCA headquarters, London

Early in my training at the Serious Organised Crime Agency (now the National Crime Agency, NCA), my colleagues and I shuffled into a classroom for a presentation on an old case – the 1975 murder of Lesley Molseed. That morning, however, was not about the case’s tragic victim, but about its tragic conviction. Stefan Kiszko, convicted of Lesley’s murder, was innocent – and some refer to it as the ‘worst miscarriage of justice of all time.’

The horror of the Kiszko case presents a litany of police and legal failures that resulted in an innocent and vulnerable man going to prison for 16 years, where he was physically assaulted, became mentally unwell and died soon after his eventual release. Its inclusion in our training was to help us appreciate the importance of getting investigation right – particularly the boring bits. And it worked; as some of my later colleagues would grumblingly attest, my passion for investigative detail, precision and order has burned ever since.

Median detected fraud loss by sector, 2016-2Scarce resources make it even more important to steer clear of avoidable mistakes. Recently, the ACFE’s regular study of detected fraud worldwide reported similarities in losses between government and not-for-profit organisations – and yet while government departments might enjoy considerable investigative resources, this is often not the case for NGOs. In this article, then, we’ll explore (in no particular order) some common errors that can help turn NGO fraud and corruption investigations into a ‘kangaroo court‘. In all cases, of course, local legal advice should be sought.

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Rushing the investigation

John_Nettles_(2013)
John Nettles, who played the detective in Midsomer Murders

In my home country, there’s a great TV show called Midsomer Murders. Each week, the dogged detective wanders around an English countryside village chatting to people about a murder, and – after just over an hour – confronts the suspect (who, naturally, confesses in full). Roll credits.

In real life, an internal investigation of fraud or corruption is not like that. It is best thought of as a project which builds a corpus of robust material that can be used to inform decisions that manage risk and improve organisational resilience. It also a project which creates risks as well as minimising existing ones. It takes time, and care, and caution.

Humanitarian or development programmes are often under considerable pressure, but failing to allocate sufficient time to an investigation can mean missed evidential opportunities, employment (or even human) rights abuses, severe damage to trust in the workplace, and inaccurate ‘lessons learned’. In short, rushing an investigation is a false economy.

Not having or following our own policies and procedures

road-sign-464659_1920This includes failing to have and apply lawful and proportionate performance management and disciplinary policies and procedures, internal suspicion reporting systems, and external reporting mechanisms (for example, to regulators). This exposes programmes to an array of risks, including confused or inconvenienced stakeholders, invalidated insurance, and accusations of bias (with the subsequent legal action). Being shown to have failed to follow your agency’s own protocols can be a rapid way to lose a case involving a former employee.

Expecting an inappropriate burden of proof

scales-36417_1280In some country contexts – especially conflict zones and fragile states – a criminal justice outcome for a case of employee fraud or corruption may be very unlikely for an NGO. While we should usually proceed with the intent to take a case to court, we must recognise that sometimes a disciplinary outcome (such as dismissal) has to be enough.

Generally speaking, the weight of evidence required in a disciplinary hearing is lower than that required to convict someone of a criminal offence in a court – and yet NGO disciplinary panels may erroneously expect that heavier burden. Critical concepts like ‘burden of proof’ and ‘circumstantial’ or ‘direct’ evidence might not always be well understood by such panels.

This can mean that NGOs fail to apply the correct sanctions, which can damage the trust of whistleblowers and keep dishonest people inside our organisations (or conversely, punish the wrong people). Ensure that you seek local legal advice.

Inadequate transparency with institutional donors

fence-470221_1920It is easy to see why implementing partners might want to carefully manage what their donors see and how it is framed. Many donors seem increasingly risk-averse, and have a history of unhelpful, disproportionate reactions.

The problem is that this creates a vicious circle; low transparency generates heightened suspicion, and heightened suspicion elevates the likelihood of strong reactions. These might include suspended disbursements, parades of reviews that trample evidence into worthlessness, and onerous emergency controls that strangle programming. It also undermines the NGO’s internal culture of transparency and accountability – how can managers ask their staff to model these values if they do not do so themselves with donors?

Instead, honesty with donors enables them to appreciate the challenging contexts in which their projects are being implemented, heightens their trust of an NGO’s systems to prevent and detect corruption, contributes to our own internal anti-corruption cultures, and may enable us to access more investigative or audit resources through the donor.

Using investigators without sufficient training or experience

Money In God We Trust

In an ideal world, every NGO’s internal investigation would be conducted by dedicated counter-fraud specialists. In reality, large NGOs process more investigations than they have dedicated staff to cover and smaller NGOs don’t even have dedicated staff. Investigation frequently falls to audit, finance, legal, logistics or security teams.

An internal investigation is a serious undertaking that manages a dizzying array of risks to people, the organisation, and itself. Lives have been threatened in the course of such activities. If dedicated staff are not to be used, then NGOs, charities and nonprofits should invest in proper training and development for those charged with investigations, or use third party providers. These things are not luxuries, but part of the cost of working in the modern world.

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!

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