Corruption in Crisis Situations: Why Should We Care? What Can We Do?

A Deloitte audit published a few weeks ago revealed that the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), the aid management branch of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), could not account for $1 million in expenditures in 2013. The misappropriation of $1 million, out of $60 million in total spending, may not seem like a lot, but it could be a warning sign about just how much of the $3.1 billion in Syria relief coordinated by the UN in 2013 actually reached its intended targets, and how much was lost to corruption. This concern — which applies not only to Syria, but to humanitarian aid in other conflict zones like Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan — is closely related to the issue Rick’s earlier post raised about the scandal of corruption in development aid, which should not be written off simply as “leakage,” but which can undermine rather than promote development. A parallel argument applies to corruption in humanitarian assistance to conflict zones: it undermines security. Indeed, although corruption in aid destined for insecure areas raises similar problems to corruption in development aid more generally, there are three factors that make corruption in conflict zones a particularly challenging and high-stakes concern.

  • First, money is especially at risk of abuse in times of crisis. Civil conflict zones produce a perfect storm for corruption management: huge amounts of money pour into a crumbling state increasingly unable and/or unwilling to provide for people who are at their most vulnerable.
  • Second, the costs and benefits of assistance are drastically amplified in conflict settings. Most importantly, lives are at stake. Money goes to meeting basic, immediate survival needs — food, water, shelter, medicine, etc. But the costs are also exceptionally high. In addition to traditional harms — like diverting cost-free assistance from the people who need it the most — corruption can directly channel money to hostile militant groups, some of which operate transnationally and are designated terrorist organizations.
  • Third, the range of potential solutions is extremely limited. Donors will not — and should not — stop contributing or start imposing aid conditions, as they otherwise might in non-conflict settings. Given government-imposed restrictions on physical access, the collapse of telecommunications networks, and the danger of travel, monitoring and evaluation is also extraordinarily difficult (not to mention resource-intensive).

In what seems an intractable scenario, can — or should — anything be done? On the one hand, one might reasonably conclude that it is both impractical and detrimental to put anticorruption-related demands on humanitarian aid agencies. But because of the challenges presented by corruption in conflict zones, it is all the more important to think of creative ways to curb the risks. A couple of low-cost options follow:

  • Certify anti-graft compliance programs. Transparency International has published a handbook of recommended practices for effectively controlling funds in humanitarian operations. This could be used as a baseline against which to evaluate aid delivery agencies’ risk management programs. The programs could either be ranked or certified, following a Charity Navigator-type model, and donors could use the information in making decisions about how to channel aid.
  • Facilitate information sharing and analysis. Given the difficulties of obtaining on-the-ground information in the midst of violence, it is particularly important to pool resources. The UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) could collect qualitative and quantitative data about assistance providers’ experiences in specific locations. OCHA could then analyze and disseminate the information to participating aid providers. Additionally, if organizations could benefit from others’ information by supplying their own, disincentives in reporting corruption might fade.

The problem is an overwhelming one. But it deserves attention, and more creative thinking — beyond the two preliminary ideas sketched above — about what can be done to limit the destructive effects that corruption can have on humanitarian assistance in conflict zones.

9 thoughts on “Corruption in Crisis Situations: Why Should We Care? What Can We Do?

  1. At the current anti-corruption course at the School of Governance, LUISS, Rome, Italy the students were particularly interested in the UNCAC provisions related to “Bribery of … officials of public international organizations” (Art. 16,) which makes active bribery mandatory but the passive one not so. It was felt during the discussion that the international public officials are still more “protected species” (though not the endangered ones) also in view of the immunities and jurisdictional issues.
    In the situations of crisis there are more opportunities for illicit endeavours as the rule of law concerns are of a lower level than those much more existential. But this only tells us that it is particularly in such situations that the international public officials ad institutions/organizations integrity must be well preserved, protected and exemplary dealt with, if abused.

    Ugi Zvekic (former UN official)

  2. Great post, Liz. As you note, this issue is pretty daunting, but also very much worth further exploration. To that end, I wonder if your third point can be turned on its head, with a real threat of cutting off aid being perhaps a way to undercut corruption? The example that sprang to mind was that of a refugee camp which is technically administered by a humanitarian organization, but over which significant control is exercised by a warring faction. Could there be a point at which, assuming the warring party is siphoning off goods for themselves and using the proceeds to prolong the conflict, it’s more humane to stop funneling in aid? Particularly if protecting/engendering local support is important, if humanitarian organizations draw a line in the sand which, if crossed, results in a withdrawal of humanitarian aid to that sector, perhaps that could encourage those participating in the conflict not to cross that line? Granted, this is a deal with the devil and is to some degree playing fast with human lives, but when we look at some of the more protracted conflicts (Congo and Somalia come to mind), I do think it’s worth at least questioning whether, if high percentages of aid are being diverted, more lives are saved by bringing about a swift(er) end to the conflict?

    • You raise a good, if controversial, point, Melanie. I did write with the assumption that aid organizations would never cut off assistance. I don’t know that it would be politically feasible to do so. More importantly, they would essentially be sacrificing people they could help now for abstract future payoffs. And I don’t think that should happen. But, as you say, the influx of money distorts the natural conditions for change and enables systems that otherwise would not be sustainable.

      I think perhaps one thing to consider is the timeframe of humanitarian assistance. To use your example of refugee/IDP camps: some camps in places like Sudan (and likely the Congo and Somalia) have existed for decades, becoming more like towns than temporary refuges. Although the surrounding areas are still unstable, those cases cease to look like immediate crises, instead fitting better into the category of severe underdevelopment. It is a difficult line to draw but we should approach humanitarian aid as a response to an emergency situation and should adopt a longer-term view as soon as possible. Then, it would be more feasible to be strategic in the allocation of development funds.

  3. Liz, you’ve raised some really interesting (and difficult) issues here. One thing I wonder is what effect the lack of central governing authority during a time of crisis will have on future proposals. Should the focus be on delivery agencies, as your first idea suggests, or on centralized organizations such as the UN, as in your second idea? In other words, who do we look to to solve the problem of disappearing humanitarian aid, and who can be blamed when money like this goes unaccounted for?

    I think that the focus on agencies can be problematic, particularly given the limited capabilities certain agencies have during times of crisis. While your first idea of evaluating programs is certainly appealing, it could have the unintended effect of supporting and punishing delivery agencies on the basis of imprecise criteria. Some delivery agencies may be more effective at infiltrating conflict zones or faction-controlled refugee camps because they are willing to pay bribes as a “cost of business” expense. If the evaluation is conducted after a crisis, it may still be difficult to evaluate whether a particular delivery agency will be as successful or as capable in a different crisis.

    • Building on Beatriz’s point, in an ongoing crises (as opposed, perhaps, to a natural disaster), donors will also face the difficult decision of whether they wish prioritize local capacity building. My hunch is that, depending on the situation either international or local groups might be better suited to effectively distribute the most aid but that local groups are far more likely to be corrupt. At the same time, it’s crucial to build up local groups to have them in place for the post-crisis era when the international groups fade away. Is it ever a good trade off to allow more corruption in order to build a civil society?

    • Thanks for the comments, Bea and Sarah. You each point to important considerations.

      Bea, I would have to do more research but I expect the multiplicity of actors distributing aid contributes significantly to the loss of funds. Centralizing authority is appealing but I think it would come at a cost, including reduced innovation and, therefore, less effective delivery. That is part of the reason I think having a coordinating entity collect and disseminate “best (and worst) practices” might be a first step in finding a good middle ground.

      Good point on the perverse results that could come with an evaluation program. A numerical ranking may imply more than it intends to (i.e. the number may be fairly imprecise but the simple fact that it is a number conveys precision). But I think, as with TI’s CPI, comparative ranking would matter. The evaluation would, of course, have to rely on systematic indicators, which may require systematic means of accounting. All of that said, my two policy suggestions may be competing – the first uses accurate reporting against NGOs and the second depends upon voluntary disclosures. A possible solution might be to reward/advertise agencies that have performed well, rather than shaming those that have not.

      Sarah, you also discuss a good point that gets back to my above response to Melanie. I don’t know how possible or desirable it is to pour funds into local institutions during times of civil crisis, when institutions are often crumbling and when aiding certain actors may have political connotations. But I am very much inclined to agree with your point that donors and distributors should start thinking about the post-conflict order as soon as possible.

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  5. Liz, I really enjoyed reading this post and found your suggestion regarding the possibility of certifying/ranking anti-graft compliance programs to be a particularly interesting and innovative solution to this problem. In addition to the important points that Bea and Sarah have raised with respect to this program, however, I also wanted to note that it seems somewhat plausible that this system would lead to a narrowing in the number of agencies or organizations that would be likely to receive funding in the event of a crisis and perhaps not only, as Sarah noted, within the uniquely difficult context of local organizations. For example, given the choice between a variety of different organizations which are equipped to assist with a particular crisis, it seems plausible that the majority of funding would flow to the top three or top ten ranked groups under this new system, presuming that the rankings are believed to be legitimate.

    I’m not sure, however, that this outcome would necessarily be a bad thing in the very unique context of a crisis situation. There are, of course, obvious drawbacks to this result – including but not limited to potentially diminished flexibility and expertise amongst the agencies working in a particular area. Yet, as you have noted, the additional security implications of corruption in conflict zones significantly raise the stakes with respect to ensuring that humanitarian aid is not misspent or misplaced. Perhaps, therefore, a program which encourages aid in crisis situations to be channeled through a smaller number of agencies who have been found to have particulalry robust anti-graft systems could strike an appropriate balance between the needs of providing effective humanitarian assistance while keeping better track of the funds channeled into a conflict zone.

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