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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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!

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