When NGOs break the law: Consequences for fraud risk

The 1986 movie Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, opens with a fantastic scene of aerial derring-do.

In this fictional scenario, American planes are engaged by a rival power’s ‘Mig’ aircraft, one of whom activates its missile lock on an American aircraft. The pilot calls out to Tom Cruise’s character to ‘get the [guy] off’ him. As I understand it, what Maverick apparently should have done was to fly behind the Mig and engage his own missile lock, deterring the Mig from firing at his comrade. Maverick doesn’t do that. He’s got his own plan.

4It’s a great scene, and we celebrate Maverick’s daring heroics. But let’s be clear, this wasn’t what he was supposed to do. It was dangerous. We only celebrate because Maverick pulled it off. If something had gone wrong, Top Gun wouldn’t be a heartwarming movie about a young pilot’s quest for meaning, love and success. It would be a dark political thriller about a world on the brink of nuclear war following a mid-air collision caused by a reckless American pilot.

From time to time in my work with NGOs, I’ve caught glimpses of internal cultures where compliance is not as valued as one might expect. When the organisation’s overall aims are moral, getting away with non-compliance might even attract honour. But just as would be the case with Maverick’s airborne antics, there are consequences if risk catches up with reality.

PASSPORT 5Some international NGOs are tempted to break the laws and regulations of their countries of operation, registration, or both. Here we don’t so much mean situations where legal authority is unclear, or regulations and obligations are ill-defined or differently interpreted, or laws which violate human rights. Here we’re focussing on a situation where an NGO wilfully or negligently breaks legitimate, clearly-defined and communicated local laws and regulations. Temptations might include, particularly:

  • Breaching immigration, tax or employment law;
  • Procuring on the black market;
  • Conducting projects outside the authorised parameters;
  • Breaching NGO regulations or directives (e.g. reporting).

INGOs do complex work in complex places. Common reasons why staff or managers may take this action (or indeed, inaction) might include:

  • A tension between the time it takes to negotiate labyrinthine or contradictory local bureaucracies versus their urgent humanitarian objectives or donor expectations;
  • A disconnect between headquarters expectations versus local realities;
  • Failing to invest in the preparation and planning necessary to properly identify relevant regulatory factors and formulate organisational responses to them;
  • Failing to maintain proper oversight to ensure that staff are delivering objectives lawfully – sometimes potentially deliberately (‘don’t ask, don’t tell’);
  • Internal cultures where ‘getting the job done’ is valued more highly than compliance.

This exposes an international NGO to a wide array of risks. Now, this is not a legal blog and I am not a lawyer, but I do note that some possible consequences of non-compliance might affect an NGO’s ability to reduce its risk of fraud and corruption. In this article we’ll suggest three such areas.

The impact upon responding to fraud incidents

file2831269190184When an incident of fraud takes places in a project where the NGO was working unlawfully,  managers may then be incentivised against taking civil or criminal justice action for fear of drawing attention to the project’s own misdemeanours. This may significantly hamper the prospect of redress (getting our money back), and impact upon the available sanctions for a perpetrator. This, in turn, could damage the NGO’s ability to deter fraud and corruption if a potential perpetrator knows that such an outcome is unlikely.

The impact upon counter-fraud culture

My book suggests four characteristics of such a culture, one of which is that ‘all commit to, and participate in, reducing fraud and corruption to an absolute minimum.’ It is not hard to see how the toleration of unlawful activity can contradict this. As a previous blog post has mentioned, how can we ask our employees to role-model accountability and transparency if the managers of our organisations are not doing it?

file4081251141923The risk goes even further, however. While international staff may be able to hop on the next plane home if things get too hot with local authorities, local staff can’t press that escape button. They may therefore bear the greatest risk of consequences like prosecution. This outrageous burden is hardly helpful to the positive workplace relationships necessary to help deter corruption and promote whistleblowing.

Similarly, we need to consider how expecting or allowing workers to break the law, or breaching their employment rights, might disenfranchise them. A breakdown in the relationship between employee and employer – particularly where an employee feels wronged – might, in some cases, contribute to the rationalisation of occupational fraud.

The impact upon preventing fraud and corruption

Operating unlawfully could contribute to a country’s wider crime problem and undermine the legitimate state. In this sense, we help to sustain the environments of complexity and injustice that make transparent and accountable work so difficult – not alleviate them. In turn, this helps to maintain the risk of fraud and corruption in our operations there.

DSC06922An area where this ‘do-no-harm’ themed risk is particularly evident is where NGOs procure from the black market, an option that can arise during scenarios such as the recent fuel crises in Yemen and Nepal. Doing so makes an NGO part of an opaque supply chain and financial flow – where did the product really come from, and where is your money really going? The transparency of your contacts is in no way incentivised, and they are unlikely to volunteer to whom or what they are linked (think Six Degrees of Separation).

Subsequently, an NGO could easily appear in a network that features terrorist groups or those subject to financial sanctions, or in which the financial flow benefits those involved (or ultimately supports investment) in other forms of state-destabilising serious organised crime. Being a black marketplace buyer can make an NGO part of a network in which its donors and supporters might be surprised to see it.

How can these organisations claim to help the nation’s development when, through corruption, they weaken the rule of law? How can we deal with this hypocrisy?

Ingrid Nanne, What happens when NGOs break the law?

Conclusion

Humanitarian and global development work is complex, and programmes are often under pressure from multiple sources. However, operating unlawfully carries a range of risks, and the crystallisation of some of those might damage a programme’s resilience to fraud and corruption.

Managers need to take these risks seriously. This means avoiding the blanket application of a ‘humanitarian need’ trump card to all their operations, and instead ensuring that a nuanced and considered approach to business planning and risk management identifies and caters for foreseeable tensions with legitimate local laws and regulations. The days of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ need to be a feature of history textbooks, not modern programme doctrine.

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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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!