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

NGOs, Like Ceasar’s Wife, Should Be Above Suspicion: Why Indian Nonprofits Need To Take Transparency More Seriously

Soon after India’s new government assumed power in May 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sought permission for arrest and custodial interrogation of journalist and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad for alleged mismanagement of $576,000 by her organization. In October 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued show-cause notices to 10,343 non-profits for not furnishing annual returns, and subsequently cancelled FCRA registrations for around 9,000 of these non-profits, citing “non-response within the stipulated time period.” India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) regulates the inflow of foreign contributions to charitable organizations and is expanding its tentacles and grip under each successive government (see here and here). In April 2015, Ford Foundation, the philanthropic organization whose work in India dates back to 1952, was put on a national security watch list and removed from the prior-permission list in January 2016, constraining its funding capacity. Ford is being targeted primarily for channeling funds to Ms. Setalvad’s NGO that was apparently ineligible to receive funds under FCRA.

As many in the Indian media have pointed out, the government’s aggressive actions against non-profits seems selective—more like a political vendetta than a principled stand against misappropriation of funds. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Ms. Setalvad had sought the conviction of Narendra Modi for alleged human rights abuses during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, or that the case against Ford is linked to its funding for her non-profit. Moreover, in the same month that MHA canceled the FCRA licenses of 9,000 non-profits, an access-to-information query revealed that 401 of the 545 Members of the Parliament’s Upper House had not declared their assets and liabilities – including the Minister of Home Affairs himself. And the government’s tenacious pursuit of non-profits contrasts awkwardly with the practical impunity of those accused of perpetrating India’s three biggest scams (the $27.8 billion coal scam of 2012, the $26.3 billion 2G spectrum scam of 2013, and multi-million Vyapam scam of 2015).

So, when nonprofits, activists, and their supporters accuse the government of applying a double standard, they have a point. Yet, even as we rightly protest the government’s politically motivated vendetta against civil society, it is equally important for India’s non-profits to take a good hard look in the mirror. India has witnessed an unprecedented civil society mobilization against corruption in 2011 and non-profits have spearheaded numerous successful anticorruption initiatives, such as social audits, citizen report cards, and crowdsourcing platforms like Yet the members of India’s vibrant non-profit sector must be sure that they are applying to themselves the same high standards of transparency and accountability that they advocate in the public sphere. Too often, they fall short. Indeed, the accountability practices within India’s non-profits are alarmingly sketchy. Continue reading