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.