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Corruption in humanitarian assistance: Risks, perceptions and prevention

Time (GMT +01) 11:30 13:00


Sarah Bailey - Research Officer, Overseas Development Institute


Alex Jacobs - Director, MANGO

Atallah Fitzgibbon - Performance Improvement Manager, Islamic Relief


Roslyn Hees  - Senior Advisor, Transparency International

Roslyn Hees, Senior Advisor at Transparency International (TI), opened the event and stressed the need to explore the issue of corruption in humanitarian assistance in a more strategic and comprehensive manner. She said that TI has been working on the topic for the past two years through collaboration with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) to map the risks of corruption in humanitarian assistance. This exercise was followed by a research project conducted by HPG, the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, and seven international humanitarian agencies to examine how aid agencies perceive corruption risks and the practices they use to address them. HPG also conducted four case studies on how aid recipients perceive corruption in accessing relief. The aim of today’s event is to present the main findings of an HPG Policy Brief on the topic and to outline their implications for humanitarian action.

Sarah Bailey started her presentation by defining the word ‘corruption’. While there are many definitions of corruption, in this paper, corruption is understood as the ‘abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Corruption should not be seen as a strictly financial issue: there are several forms of corruption that are non-financial, such as the manipulation or diversion of humanitarian assistance to benefit non-target groups and the allocation of relief resources in exchange for sexual favors. Corruption is also notoriously difficult to quantify and there are numerous ‘grey areas’. For example, there is an ambiguity between corruption and wastage, mismanagement and gross inefficiency. In addition, interpretations of what corruption is vary from individuals and contexts. For instance, nepotism is sometimes seen as a positive way to find reliable staff.

The kind of environments in which emergency assistance takes place - high levels of need, weak or absent rule of law, endemic corruption, unequal power dynamics - make relief particularly vulnerable to corruption. This impacts on the ability of aid agencies to deliver critical resources as well as the ability of aid recipients to access them. While recent ‘scandals’( for example in post-tsunami Aceh or Hurricane Katrina)have increased the focus on corruption in humanitarian assistance, there is still a limited amount of shared analysis of the risks and impacts of corruption - particularly on the impacts for people affected by emergencies.

Research has pointed to specific areas that are perceived to be especially prone to corruption:

  • Specific sectors, and in particular food aid, construction/shelter, and high-value relief commodities, are perceived by aid agency staff and people affected by crisis as being at highest risk of corruption;
  • Assessments, targeting and registration determine ‘who gets what’ in humanitarian assistance: whereas agencies typically focus on avoiding people who are not meant to be intended beneficiaries, people affected by crisis are much more concerned with their exclusion.
  • Procurement, financial management, and logistics are seen as high risk areas and risks include collusion in awarding contracts or bids, falsification of documents, and diversion of goods in transport and storage.
  • The relationships and structures through which aid agencies implement their programmes are also at high risk. While working throughlocal partners contributes to building local capacity, it also carries the risk of partners engaging in the risk areas mentioned above.

Despite numerous efforts within the humanitarian community to increase transparency, accountability and participation, the relief system remains opaque. Not only do aid recipients and other people affected by crisis often lack access to complaint procedures, they also lack basic information about the process itself (such as what their entitlements are and how to access them). It is also important to highlight that aid recipients tend to have access to different types of information than aid agencies, such as knowledge about others in their community, and direct experience of abuses. Crisis-affected people see registration and targeting as mostly prone to corruption, and even when people affected by crisis are aware of entitlements and corruption, access to complaints procedures and incentives to report abuses remain limited.

The risks that have been highlighted so far are not new. Aid agencies have put in place numerous standard management policies and practices to address corruption including ‘whistle-blower’ mechanisms that create safe channels for staff to report corruption and zero-tolerance policies. However, problematic issues remain unaddressed because staff in the field often do not know about such policies; training is limited; strong incentives to report corruption are lacking; corruption risks are not fully taken into account in emergency preparedness; and complaints mechanisms may route people through the very aid governance structures at the heart of the complaint, or they may simply be token efforts.

There are several challenges that humanitarian agencies face in addressing risks:

  • While corruption is often narrowly interpreted as a financial issue, addressing corruption goes hand-in-hand with promoting programme quality;
  • No system is ‘fool-proof’ and systems are the outcome of the people who operate them;
  • Human Resources is not given much attention in emergencies despite the fact that it can be central ensuring quality staff and reducing corruption risks;
  • There is no clear consensus on the trade-off between ‘control’ and ‘speed’. Though emergency preparedness measures can help in this regard, the question remains: how should aid agencies in early stages of an emergency balance control with the imperative of quickly reaching populations in need?
  • There is a need to develop a better understanding of how aid interacts with corrupt political economies;
  • There is a lack of system-wide analysis and joint action in humanitarian community.

Key recommendations in the Policy Brief are:

  • Investment in appropriate and effective accountability systems
  • Donor flexibility in allocating funds to programme quality and monitoring, no undue pressure to spend rapidly
  • Open discussion of corruption and risks
  • Analysis of corruption risks and political economy
  • Greater attention to human resources

Alex Jacobs started his response to the presentation by praising the paper for its clarity and value and said it was a welcome contribution to the debate. He provided few reflections on the paper and on more general issues.

He said that there is a widespread reticence to talk about corruption among humanitarian actors and a need to talk about it in a more open and frank way. It is also important to focus on the non-financial elements of corruption. The key question that Sarah raised in her presentation ‘who gets what?’ is a predominant one, but it is still very difficult to answer it. He added that while organisational policies and procedures have a key role to play, they do not provide an answer. He also pointed to the importance of linking this research to broader efforts for reforming management in the sector.

He proceeded to discuss two general principles and said that the issue of corruption could be framed around them. Firstly, humanitarian agencies often make the mistake of abstracting themselves from their environment. It is essential for them to see themselves and their interventions as part and parcel of the context in which they operate. It is also important for humanitarian agencies to move away from the simple idea of saving lives – which represents a poor foundation on which to build strategies and approaches – and, instead, see their role as one which aims to facilitate local mechanisms and strategies for recovery.

Secondly, the humanitarian sector seems to carry strong similarities with public action. The provision of aid can be compared to the efforts of governments trying to deliver limited resources to benefit a large population, which is an inherently political activity. There are also other similarities with the public sector, such as the need for people’s involvement in decision-making, participation and transparency. Two key questions can be raised: how are the rights of aid recipients represented? How can beneficiary participation be operationalised on the ground?

He concluded by saying that the research agenda of Transparency International and HPG is linked to broader efforts and related initiatives to reform the management of the humanitarian sector. For this reason, HPG’s recent Policy Brief (as well as the larger report which it draws from) is a welcome paper that can help agencies to build a more respectful relationship with the people that they are trying to help, while strengthening their internal accountability mechanisms. This is indeed a big challenge as is that of strengthening the link between different initiatives and working to address the problem of corruption in a more coordinated and collaborative way.

Atallah Fitzgibbon began his response by praising the paper, which he described as insightful, balanced and very useful. He argued that there is a direct relationship between poor project design and corruption. He provided the example of interventions in Kashmir which relied on Community Based Organisations (CBOs) to provide cash-for-work for post-disaster victims. A programme evaluation found that while some CBOs were very equitable in their criteria for targeting, it was clear that others made very little efforts to target the poorest. He stressed that ultimately the problem resided in poor project design. He added that it is crucial that humanitarian agencies address what he called ‘softer issues’ in conjunction with more conventional means to fight corruption. Softer issues include efforts to bring about cultural change at the organisational level; sensitising staff to issues of transparency, accountability, participation and quality; and working in partnership with local communities to ensure that people are involved across the whole project cycle - from setting objectives to evaluating outcomes. It is also crucial to ensure that feedback, which is at the core of the accountability framework, is incorporated in the process.

He listed a number of key steps that humanitarian agencies can take to address corruption: provide specific training for staff; strive to increase transparency; and ensure that internal communication systems are adequate. In scaling up activities during emergencies, aid agencies tend to satisfy the demands of people in need, and of donors and partners. It is equally important to recognise the need to develop capacity to address the above-mentioned ‘softer issues’.

He concluded by highlighting the difficulty in bringing about change in corrupt contexts, but said that agencies should persevere.

Following the presentations several key issues were discussed based on questions and comments from those attending the meeting.

  • There is a vast body of literature that addresses the issue of participation in programme design and implementation. It is important to keep in mind that in order to ensure meaningful participatory processes, agencies should strive to involve as many representatives of the community as possible, rather than working through only one selected group, which may be representative of the interests of a few.
  • Proving and prosecuting corruption (especially non-financial forms of corruption) is very difficult for a number of reasons. Corruption is, by definition, a hidden behaviour so it is often difficult to prove malicious intent. It is also more difficult to take action if corruption takes place in countries where it is endemic and where there is no effective judicial system. In many cases, it is also difficult to identify the member of staff who has been involved in corruption. Even if someone has been fired for this reason, Human Resources often have restrictions on releasing this information when providing personal references. There is therefore a danger that bad practices may get recycled across the sector. That said, NGOs have developed several interesting mechanisms, both formal and informal, to deal with corruption issues which is reassuring. Finally, the fact that corruption is a taboo subject makes it very difficult for agencies to share their practices. It is important that agencies work to coordinate their efforts: practice and information sharing is a great starting point.
  • Dealing with top-level corruption, with authorities in countries where corruption is endemic, is another challenge that humanitarian agencies face. The attitudes and priorities of top-level authorities inevitably impact on humanitarian operations on the ground. Humanitarian actors often have to beg for access, in some contexts the humanitarian imperative may not always be welcomed and authorities may have their say and prescribe where aid resources are allocated. This clearly impacts on the humanitarian imperative. In countries where corruption is widespread, it is especially important that agencies address the problem of corruption jointly, and talk about it frankly and openly. This need not to be considered a marginal issue but as part and parcel of improving aid quality and effectiveness.
  • There is not a universal definition of corruption. For example, in many societies certain practices that some would consider corruption, such as nepotism, are widespread and accepted. However, there seems to be an agreement about the question of intent and the purpose of a certain activity. For example if we talk about a deliberate and conscious effort to divert resources that would have otherwise benefited needy people, then this is widely accepted to be an instance of corruption. In other words, even if there is no common agreement on what corruption exactly is, peoplerecognise it when they see it.

Roslyn Hees concluded the presentation by summarising the key points that were discussed today:

  • Perhaps the most pernicious form of corruption is the small scale, non-financial type of corruption. When corruption multiplies and resources are diverted to non-target beneficiaries, or aid recipients have to pay for receiving assistance, it greatly damages the mission of humanitarian action;
  • It is important to focus on preventative measures, for example working with soft issues, rather than only on control measures;
  • Agencies need to understand the importance of empowering beneficiaries’ communities and supporting their livelihoods, rather than merely intervene to save lives;
  • Corruption happens in all sectors and in all fields, but humanitarian action is an especially high risk sector. It is important to draw on measures that have been implemented in other sectors while also start to talk about corruption in humanitarian assistance more openly and in a transparent and more coordinated way so as to capitalize on joint action;
  • Transparency International is trying to bring this research to a wider group of humanitarian actors, is raising some awareness on this issue, and is also working on a handbook of humanitarian practice and guidelines for staff to address corruption risks. It is a relatively new topic for discussion, but it is crucial to make it a more central topic of discussion and exchange and share information.

It is hoped that as a result of this work the issue of corruption will be given more attention by the humanitarian community at large. There many motivated people and interesting initiatives, and if more attention is paid to this problem we will be able to find more ways make sure that humanitarian assistance will be most effectively in its mission and action.


Due to the pace at which aid agencies have to operate during a humanitarian emergency, the capacities of governments and agencies to assist affected people are often stretched. What is more, relief frequently has to be delivered amidst weak or absent rule of law, endemic corruption and immense needs. This makes humanitarian response particularly vulnerable to corruption.

How do staff in leading NGOs perceive risks of corruption in humanitarian operations? What strategies have they put in place to prevent and detect corruption? What can be learned from these strategies and what more can be done?

A forthcoming HPG Policy Brief, which draws on a larger report conducted in partnership with Transparency International and Tufts University's Feinstein International Center, explores these issues. It finds that aid agencies are aware of corruption risks and have developed strategies to prevent it. However, the humanitarian community has not yet addressed this problem jointly, shared information on these practices, or discussed ways to improve their effectiveness. The paper draws on a set of four cases studies (Afghanistan, Liberia, Northern Uganda and Sri Lanka) that look at how aid recipients are affected by corruption.

At this ODI event, Sarah Bailey will present the main findings of the paper and their implications for humanitarian action. Alex Jacobs, Director of MANGO, will respond with a focus on management and accountability, and a final discussant will provide a field prospective on the issues. The event will be chaired by a representative of Transparency International.