A damning 70-page report on fraud and corruption in the aid sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been leaked. The report, partially funded by the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID), has cast a dark shadow not only over the situation on the ground in the DRC— but indeed the entire sector around the world.
The recently-released operational review has unearthed a wide variety of misdeeds in the organisations supposed to get aid to those who need it most in the DRC, one of the worst humanitarian crises on the globe. From the response to Ebola to the treatment of women and girls, corruption seems to be rife in the aid sector—and systems designed to ferret out such fraud seem utterly ineffective.
According to the report, humanitarian organisations— including UN agencies— are riddled with networks of fraudsters carrying out a stunning array of corrupt and criminal practices. The result is an irredeemable laundry list of exploitative behaviours: international aid workers demanding large-scale kickbacks in exchange for contracts, bad actors siphoning donor funds, and women and girls offered work in the sector in exchange for sex.
In effect millions of dollars intended for the DRC’s most vulnerable have been lost over the last few years. According to an internal investigation conducted by American NGO Mercy Corps, more than $600,000 was lost to multiple aid organisations in just a few short months in 2018; one unnamed source for the New Humanitarian estimated losses closer to $6 million in two years.
What’s more, the checks and balances intended to prevent such abuses appear to have resoundingly failed. Systems designed to detect fraud are regularly evaded, and anti-corruption precepts and tools act more as organisational window dressing than as an operational guide. Researchers were told, for example, that aid workers are often paid bribes to submit project assessments that mask corruption and poor performance.
Meanwhile, potential whistleblowers are curbed by a collectively-enforced blacklist by workers at a range of aid groups, with those at UN agencies garnering the worst reputation for malpractice. Those who would report fraud are deterred by “cumbersome and time-consuming” internal fraud reporting processes.
Most concerningly, the DRC report isn’t the only case of the misappropriation of donor funds currently making headlines. Indeed, a troubling situation has recently emerged in South Korea. South Korean lawmaker Yoon Mee-hyang, along with the Korean Council organisation she once ran, has found herself in hot water after accusations that they embezzled donor funds intended for the survivors of wartime sexual abuse.
Lee, one of the few “comfort women” still alive, spent decades attending weekly demonstrations alongside the Korean Council asking for reparations for the sexual assaults she suffered, but is now claiming that the group cruelly exploited her and the other survivors. “I will no longer be used,” Lee revealed in an explosive interview in May, wherein she questioned the Korean Council’s financial transparency. She accused the group of “collecting the money” while wheeling out victims like “bears doing tricks” and claimed that Yoon herself is “filled with selfish interests and desires”.
Among other problems, the nonagenarian survivor raised the issue of a lavish house bought in Anseong with donated funds, ostensibly to serve as a shelter for victims of wartime sexual violence. Lee indicated that instead of serving its intended function, the house—bought for well over market value—had instead become a residence for Yoon Mee-hyang’s father.
Indeed, it seems possible that Lee’s accusations are only the tip of the iceberg. South Korean prosecutors have opened an investigation into the allegations that the Korean Council misappropriated funds and recently raided the organisation’s offices, collecting boxes of documents. In the raid’s wake, allegations above and beyond Lee’s initial claims have cropped up, about both Yoon Mee-hyang and the organisation she headed for years.
The Korean Council, which has failed to disclose its total revenue or expenditures, is suspected of being less than upfront about how it spent the $1.1 million it received in state subsidies from 2016 until present. The fact that Yoon apparently kept donations intended for the comfort women in personal bank accounts, meanwhile, meant that private funds and public aid was mixed together. This intermingling inherently raises suspicions that the lawmaker could have skimmed money for her own uses—including covering the cost of her daughter’s school fees and buying an apartment in Suwon.
Whether or not Yoon faces charges for her alleged embezzlement, her political star is on the wane. Nearly three-quarters of South Koreans, including a majority of her own Democratic Party, now hold that Yoon should resign because of the allegations.
If the DRC report and the Korean Council scandal have already sent alarm bells ringing in the international aid sector, there appear to be plenty of other cases waiting in the wings to confirm how widespread the problem of corruption and fraud is. Indian authorities, for example, are investigating longstanding allegations that two Kerala-based NGOs and their director embezzled funds donated by a Dutch charitable organisation for more than 35 years. Following a petition by charitable agency Stichting Woord en Daad (W&D), a probe is underway into the financial practices of the Good Samaritan Project of India (GSPI) and Catholic Reformation Literacy Society (CRLS) between 1974 and 2009.
The W&D halted funding four years ago over the suspicions of misuse of funds. According to W&D CEO Jan Lock, several projects started by GSPI and CRLS, including a hospital and school for street children and other vulnerable individuals, shut down only to be sold for real estate ventures.
There can be no doubt that aid organisations and NGOs serve an incredible function in helping the world’s most vulnerable populations. For exactly this reason, such cases of corruption and fraud must be ferreted out wherever they rear their ugly heads. Only then can accountability and trust in the sector be restored.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius