Guest Post: Corruption Among Development NGOs, Part 1–Getting the Facts

Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), a development grantmaker based in Cambodia, contributes the following guest post (the first in a three-part series):

Compared with media attention to corruption among public officials and corporate interests, corruption in the non-profit sector is virtually ignored (though a recent GAB post on NGO corruption in India is a notable exception). This lack of interest is matched by the absence of sustained substantive debates about the sources of NGO sector corruption and the effectiveness of remedial interventions. My own experience with these issues derives from my involvement with the NGO sector in Cambodia. Corruption within our own house is a regular topic of informal conversation, and also makes it into our periodic sectoral assessments (though often through oblique references to concerns like “weak financial systems” and the “lack of checks and balances”). However, there are no efforts at all to go beyond these anecdotes and self-reported “weaknesses” to gather systematic, externally validated evidence about levels of corruption, let alone about issues like costs of corruption or the way it correlates with characteristics of the NGO sector that would offer entry points for positive change.

Given the comparative importance of development aid channeled through the NGO sector in countries like Cambodia, this lack of attention to NGO corruption is unfortunate. Admittedly, gathering information on local NGO (LNGO) corruption is challenging. Yet there are potentially useful sources of information that have not been exploited. For example, LNGOs are funded by grantmakers, and these grantmakers (often criticized by LNGOs for their cumbersome administrative requirements and time-consuming monitoring visits) are a possible source of data about LNGO fraud and its correlates. Additionally, the audit firms with an LNGO client base are another possible source of information.

In 2014, to test the willingness of grantmakers and audit firms to share information on their LNGO partners and NGO client base, we at SADP piloted a grantmaker and audit firm survey. The results were promising enough to repeat and expand the exercise in 2015. In this second grantmaker survey, 18 out of 26 grantmakers approached agreed to participate, and 13 of those 18 shared LNGO partner-level information (for a sample of 93 LNGOs). The grantmaker survey queried incidence and seriousness of (1) financial management problems, (2) governance problems, and (3) fraud. (In order to maximize participation, the survey prioritized brevity and simplicity over depth of information.) The audit firm survey (in which four of the five firms approached agreed to participate) asked only for some aggregate data (total number of LNGO audited, number of audits that identified fraud, number of audits that flagged serious financial system issues, etc.). Admittedly, neither the sample of grantmakers nor the sample of LNGOs is statistically representative of Cambodia’s NGO sector, but the surveys provide more valid information about corruption in development NGOs in Cambodia than has previously been available. And the quantitative picture emerging from the combination of these two data-sources about the organizational quality of Cambodian LNGOs is both revealing and disheartening. Interested readers should check out the full report; the most important findings are as follows: Continue reading

Will the Panama Papers Lead to Criminal Prosecutions?


“[T]housands of prosecutions could stem from the Panama Papers, if only law enforcement could access and evaluate the actual documents. [But] ICIJ and its partner publications have rightly stated that they will not provide them to law enforcement agencies.”

Manifesto of “John Doe,” the Panama Papers leaker, May 6, 2016

Is Mr. Doe correct?  Will thousands of tax cheats, corrupt politicians and other crooks get off scot free because prosecutors, anticorruption commissions, tax and customs authorities, and other law enforcement agencies can’t obtain the documents that constitute the Panama Papers?

This is surely a possibility.  In some countries the stories written on the Panama Papers do not identify who used the services of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to establish a corporation in the British Virgin Islands, Nevada, or other offshore jurisdiction.  The rules governing the opening of a criminal investigation in most countries are (with very good reason) quite stringent, and without knowing who actually opened an offshore corporation the authorities in some countries will be powerless to proceed.  Even in those countries where the owners of offshore corporations have been revealed, that may not be enough for a criminal investigation.  As Mossack Fonseca and its defenders have reminded the public (ad nauseam), owning a corporation in another country is not by itself illegal.

One tact authorities in these countries could take would be to focus on the law firms, banks, and other entities in their countries that introduced their nationals to Mossack Fonseca.  As explained in earlier posts (here, here and here), these “introducers” are the critical link in the chain of transactions that starts with a tax evader or corrupt politician’s need to hide money and ends with his or her ownership of an offshore corporation that cannot be traced to them. Moreover, not only are the introducers the critical link; they are the vulnerable link as well. Continue reading