Liberia: World Vision scandal puts spotlight on efforts to stamp out aid corruption
With a $1 million alleged fraud case in Liberia, World Vision has become the latest aid agency to be embroiled in a corruption scandal. The Christian organisation has rushed to implement new systems to prevent such abuse in the future, but analysts say fear of negative publicity, lack of external monitoring and a degree of complacency are hampering efforts to stamp out corruption in the aid world.
The Liberian case involves three former World Vision officials who are accused of stealing food and construction materials meant to help people recover from the country's 14-year-long civil war. They allegedly masterminded a scam in which food aid was sold for profit in local markets.
Corruption in humanitarian emergencies is widespread, particularly in countries that already have high levels of graft. Yet aid agencies say little about this problem because they fear it will harm their reputation and donations, analysts say.
George Ward, senior vice-president for international programmes at World Vision United States, told AlertNet the Liberian case had been a "heavy blow" for the organisation.
To avoid a repeat, World Vision has taken a number of steps, including increased field oversight of programs and improved background check procedures. It also funded training programs to increase the ability of local staff to detect fraud. In addition, the aid agency enhanced its international, 24/7 "integrity hotline" which World Vision employees can call confidentially if they become aware of anything suspicious.
WHY IS AID PRONE TO CORRUPTION?
Dishonest staff are not the only problem. Some anti-graft watchers also blame corruption on a lack or resources for external monitoring.
"Often, in an effort to cut overhead costs, on-site external monitoring is de-prioritised. Regular audits only pick up areas where procedures have not been followed, not where procedures have been manipulated to cover up fraud," says Jessica Shultz, programme coordinator at the Norway-based U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre.
In addition, there is a sense of complacency towards corruption.
"Paying bribes to get goods past a road block, for example, may seem acceptable at the height of an emergency when lives may really be at stake. However, that thinking is being challenged now even in emergency situations," Shultz said.
A notorious corruption case surfaced in 2002 when a study brought to light allegations of widespread sexual exploitation of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone by aid workers and peacekeepers from 40 agencies in exchange for relief supplies.
Food distribution, a cornerstone of humanitarian assistance, is particularly vulnerable because the complex logistics of aid delivery make corruption hard to detect.
Moreover, food is a valuable commodity and there are many opportunities for corruption in the process of shipping, storing and distributing food aid.
The World Food Programme says it has set up a system that aims to provide food directly to women and heads of families. People are registered before the food is delivered and there's post-distribution monitoring to ensure it has been used by those it was intended for.
Following the Liberian case, World Vision has opted for inspection at all levels of the process.
"When inspectors (receive) the documents (that) have been signed by recipients (of food aid), they take them back to the villages and they re-interview the recipients to ensure that the people did receive the food. We do not take our internal documents at face value," Ward said.
Analysts believe an important first step that agencies can take in tackling corruption is to promote open discussion.
"Corruption remains a taboo topic," said Sarah Bailey, author of a policy brief on corruption for the British Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think-tank.
"Agencies should make sure that staff and aid recipients have channels to safely report suspected abuses. If people feel intimidated or that they are risking their job in reporting abuses, this presents a serious disincentive.
"We need to encourage aid agencies and aid workers to confront corruption honestly and openly - if it remains a taboo topic or agencies withhold assistance then no one will win - least of all the people who need assistance."
Providing recipients of aid with better information about the process also improves openness. Experts say more needs to be done to make sure that assistance is transparent and that people have ways to communicate suspected fraud.
Anti-corruption organisation Transparency International is producing a handbook on preventing corruption in humanitarian assistance based on research with the ODI and Tufts University in the United States, due for publication later this year.
Both high-level official support and grass-roots activism are also crucial in the fight against aid corruption.
Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf spoke out against corruption last week when the World Vision case came to light. The scandal also galvanised about 15 civil society organisations to hold a march in the capital Monrovia on Tuesday. The participants presented a memorandum to the U.S Ambassador to Liberia, asking that no visa be given to people under investigation for corruption.
Read more on how corruption is affecting aid work and what can be done to tackle it in our Q+A with Transparency International.
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit www.trust.org/alertnet