Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

Covid-19 | Gender and ICTs in fragile refugee settings: from local coordination to vital protection and support during the Covid-19 pandemic

ICTs are changing how marginalized communities connect with each other, including those in fragile refugee settings, where ICTs have been used to share information and organize in collective enterprise. This ...

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

Perpetuating data colonialism through digital humanitarian technologies by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

In recent years, humanitarian spaces have become technologized as aid agencies have turned to digital technologies to improve aid allocation. Wearables and other forms of digital humanitarian artifacts can foster ...

The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to investigate and quash corruption in the UN’s aid agencies by Avagay Simpson

More than 100 million people across the world living in war zones and other emergency settings are dependent on humanitarian assistance facilitated by the UN. These populations are likely to be profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and require support now more than ever. The UN that in recent years has been fraught with corruption incidents and has witnessed the siphoning of humanitarian aid funds by aid workers now faces two choices. It can either fail to adequately monitor aid allocated to the fight against the pandemic that can allow corrupt practices to continue, or it can seize the opportunity the crisis presents to boldly fight corruption by reviewing and rethinking its aid allocation practices.

In 2018, ten years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, I wrote a blog article here asking where the money allocated to humanitarian aid in Haiti had disappeared to. This article raised questions about the accountability of aid workers and the lack of transparency in international aid. Fast-forward to today and these questions are even more potent. An undercover investigation by the CNN revealed that dozens of areas in war-torn Yemen were receiving aid on paper but, in reality, war victims were not being helped. It also highlighted that the UN in 2018 found that 1% of aid allocated globally was going missing.

On 5 August 2019, AP in an article titled ‘UN probes corruption in its own agencies in Yemen aid effort’ reported that a WHO worker had tipped off Houthi rebels about ongoing investigations of the UN’s aid in Yemen for fear that her theft of humanitarian funds would be exposed. This resulted in the Houthi rebels confiscating computers with critical information before investigators could board a flight to Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has been going through a civil war since 2015. This civil war has been named the worst humanitarian crisis of our time: “more than 3.3 million people have been displaced; and 80% of the population need assistance and protection, including 10 million now reliant on food aid.”[1] Despite Yemen’s situation having been labelled the worst humanitarian crisis at present, the UN, whose mandate it is to solve international humanitarian crises, is failing to help the Yemeni people. This case illustrates that some UN representatives have strayed from the core mandate of the organisation and have instead opted for rent-seeking activities pursued in their own interest. It is alleged that billions of dollars were deposited in the personal accounts of UN staff in Yemen with suspicious contracts with monies not reaching the Yemeni people. How is this possible?

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN Secretariat is responsible for coordinating responses to emergencies and is supposed to manage, monitor, and deliver effective aid. But how robust are these monitoring systems? What mechanisms have been put in place by the UN to safeguard the transfer of money to the field, particularly to emergency zones?

Over the years, the UN has taken the initiative to address transparency and accountability issues in its organisations. In 2007, the United Nations Transparency Accountability Initiative (UNTIA) was launched to ensure that the billions of dollars contributed to aid would be delivered to those who need it most. Other initiatives preceding the UNTIA focused on enhancing the effectiveness of aid; some strategies include the development of codes of conduct, policy manuals on finance, complaint mechanisms, staff rotation schedules, resource tracking systems, and supply chain management.

These mechanisms are evidently not working, as in 2019 there were several other reported cases of corruption in humanitarian aid. These include the disappearance of US$18 million in aid funds from the UN, the EU and Saudi Arabia in Somalia. The Somalian Government received the funding, but the monies did not make it through the Central Bank’s treasury account. Similarly, in May 2019 it was revealed that the UN in 2018 found that millions of dollars had been stolen in Uganda. A whistle-blower in the government made the report and subsequent investigations by the UN European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Uganda’s government revealed that the number of reported refugees was exaggerated and the additional resources intended for these people stolen.

Clearly, despite the UN having several measures to improve accountability, the results are not supportive. While humanitarian crises are very complex, with vast, changing resource levels creating opportunities for corruption, sufficient emphasis on corruption prevention could help to nip it in the bud.

Rebecca Affolder (2017) in an analysis titled ‘An Accountable United Nations Development System for the 21st Century’ noted that the UN for the past 40 years has been consistent in developing proposals and blueprints to improve transparency and accountability but has failed to implement these sufficiently. She emphasised that the UN’s failure to implement reforms has resulted in ‘trust’ issues within the UN, between organisations, member states and civil society.

A 2008 report by Transparency International on preventing corruption in humanitarian assistance highlighted that even though mechanisms and policies exist to ensure transparency and accountability in humanitarian aid, these oftentimes are not put into practice. The report also indicated that complaint mechanisms are often not readily accessible to the public and in some instances only exist for staff.  The report also indicated that the majority of the staff interviewed from these participating agencies did not rate corruption prevention as a priority of their agency.

Given the nature of humanitarian aid, one may argue that it is difficult to focus on transparency and accountability when the primary aim is to save lives. Some may even go further to say that putting greater emphasis on corruption prevention may divert well-needed human resources require to help the needy. But think about how many could have been helped if there had been better accountability. The UN needs to rethink its approaches to humanitarian aid and implement measures to ensure that these accountability mechanisms are working as they should.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 million people are living in war zones and other emergency settings who depend on UN humanitarian assistance.[2] The OCHA is mandated to protect the people living in these areas and to ensure that they are receiving the intended aid and protection. This pandemic has created an environment ripe for corruption, but also presents a window for the UN to increase its fight in the war against corruption. Now is an opportune time to review, rethink, and act.

The UN is an important player in world humanitarian relief but needs to take a bold step in the fight against corruption. Its failure to act now means that sooner rather than later its legitimacy will be questioned—to the detriment of those in need of assistance.

[1]BBC News (August 1, 2019) “Yemen war: Has anything been achieved?”

About the author:

Avagay SimpsonAvagay Simpson is a graduate of the International Institute of Social Studies with a master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy.  Her research interest are the governance of international humanitarian aid, non-profit governance, anti-corruption, and Public Policy. She also holds a master’s degree in International Relations and currently works as a consultant in Jamaica.

Image Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino on Flickr.


COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

It is widely known that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect developing countries and impoverished peoples. Many of these countries are already affected by conflict and disasters including humanitarian crises, making the ...

EADI/ISS Series | Re-Politizing the European Aid Debate by Iliana Olivié and Aitor Pérez

EADI/ISS Series | Re-Politizing the European Aid Debate by Iliana Olivié and Aitor Pérez

Aid or, at least, its narrative, is increasingly politicised. This is happening in a period of emerging populist and/or nationalist movements in Europe. Maybe counter-intuitively, nationalism or populism does not ...

EADI/ISS Series | Bridging EU- & Postdevelopment Studies: Four Avenues by Sarah Delputte and Jan Orbie

Postdevelopment debates are relatively new to scholars studying the EU’s Development Policy. However, bridging EU development and post-development can help us to think about (normative) alternatives to EU development, both generally and concretely, argue Sarah Delputte and Jan Orbie. The EU provides a relevant and practical setting within which concrete alternatives to development aid can be considered. In line with Julia Schöneberg’s plea for practical postdevelopment, the focus on the EU can contribute to making more concrete how policies and approaches should be changed. 

In February 2019, we pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones to participate in a panel on “Re-thinking, Re-defining, Re-positioning: “Development” and the Question of “Alternatives”, convened by Julia Schöneberg at the Development Days Conference in Helsinki, in a first attempt to look at EU development policy from a postdevelopment perspective. As scholars studying the EU’s Development Policy we usually try to take a critical approach towards EU Development. However, and perhaps embarrassingly, postdevelopment debates were new to us.

Back home from this very interesting experience, discussions in our research center’s reading group on postdevelopment continued for some months until we found it was time to invite Julia Schöneberg to our university for a full-day workshop on bridging EU- & Postdevelopment. For this occasion, we structured our insights into four potential avenues for bridging EU- & Postdevelopment Studies, departing from our own EU Development perspective: 

1. Munition

EU development scholars know the EU’s development policies very well. We are aware of the EU’s development history and evolutions, its complex institutional setting, its ideational and internal divisions and debates, various programmes, different budgetary instruments, trends in aid flows etc. In sum: we know EU development inside-out. Moreover, we have already problematized various aspects of it, e.g. securitization, marketization, incoherencies, coordination fetish, bodybuilder image, from different empirical and theoretical perspectives. We also have access to experts and scholars working on EU development policy. Our expertise can enrich the perspectives of postdevelopment scholars for whom EU development policy could be considered a ‘goldmine’. Hence the idea of providing postdevelopment scholars with ‘extra munition’ for their critiques. It can strengthen and substantiate postdevelopment critiques. 

2. Infusion

Postdevelopment ideas have been floating around since at least the mid-1990s. However, they seem not to have reached the EU development studies community. Via EADI and other networks, postdevelopment thinking can get ‘infused’ within the EU development studies community. We can at least provoke a debate on whether development policy should be necessary. In doing so, we can make clear that radical arguments against development policy are not necessarily ‘reactionary populist’ but can also be skeptical and geared to ‘radical democracy’. We can clarify that the real challenge – underlying many more superficial challenges that are often noted in EU development studies – lays in the problematic conception of development (aid) itself. This opens up a new research agenda that should interest scholars currently working on EU development/aid, because it provides a novel way to analyze changes and challenges to EU development policy and to link this with current debates such as the rise of populism. It also allows to do more comparative and detailed research on different visions in development policy within Europe (PlEUriverse).


3. Another Europe is possible

Bridging EU development and post-development can help us to think about (normative) alternatives to EU development, both generally and concretely. In general, it can foster thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and about which role(s) the EU could/should play towards the so-called ‘developing countries’. This would be in line with a 2016 call by Ian Manners, Richard Whitman and others to allow for more dissident voices in theorising Europe.

There have been longstanding debates on the EU’s role in the world, not only from mainstream and policy- oriented corners (e.g. civilian power Europe) but also from critical Scholars (e.g. Galtung in 1973) which can (and should) be updated taking a postdevelopment context into account. Although there is a broad recognition within scholarship and policy circles that the EU is a ‘post-modern’ construct, this has not coincided with pleas for a ‘postdevelopment’ policy. More concretely, the interaction between EU and postdevelopment studies could involve a translation of ‘alternatives to development’ in the EU’s institutional context and policy making.

While postdevelopment has given much thought to such alternatives, Aram Ziai’s statement of 2004 still seems to hold true: “Admittedly, little thought is given to how development institutions could contribute to the flourishing of these alternatives, but to expect that from postdevelopment would certainly go too far.” In line with Julia Schöneberg’s plea for practical postdevelopment, the focus on the EU can thus contribute to making more concrete how policies and approaches should be changed. The EU provides a relevant and practical setting within which concrete alternatives to development aid can be considered. Because of the EU’s nature as a multi-level, fragmented and compartmentalized thing, policymaking in the EU arguably contains many access points for critical debates –– including discussions on general postdevelopment roles and on practical alternatives. The EU also provides a relevant platform to discuss solutions for injustices in the global governance framework such as the World Bank and the WTO.

4. PlEUriverse

Taking postdevelopment thinking seriously, we should also acknowledge the diversity of views on ‘development’ within Europe. Whereas the underlying Eurocentric, modernist and colonial paradigm may be the same, there are various ways in which member states and civil society actors have conceived development (policy). For instance, the ‘Nordics’ or ‘like-minded’ have always played an interesting role in development debates. The rejection of monolithical thinking on ‘EU development’ should allow for more detailed and complexity-sensitive research that delves into the different cultural, historical and political economy backgrounds of different EU views on development.

Beyond the diversity in view on ‘development policy’ narrowly speaking, this also connects to wider critiques of development within the EU which have gained more traction since the Euro-crisis and austerity policies, such as commons and degrowth. Whereas the postdevelopment literature has pointed to this ‘bridge’, many studies seem to generalise the ‘western’ and ‘European’ thinking to such an extent that 2nd order differences remain unnoticed. Paying more attention to the ‘PlEUriverse’ is not only academically interesting but also normatively important, as it will point to spaces and agents where change may be possible.


With sharing these reflections on bridging EU- and postdevelopment we also hope to inspire and encourage EU Development, Postdevelopment and all other interested scholars to join the seed panel on “Views on the EU as a development actor in conversation with postdevelopment” that the EADI Working Groups on “The European Union as a Development Actor” and “Post- and Decolonial Perspectives on Development” are organizing at the EADI General Conference in The Hague (29 June-2 July 2020).

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

Medewerkers Centrum voor EU StudiesSarah Delputte is Post-Doctoral Assistant at the Centre for EU Studies (CEUS), and a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University. Her teaching and research interest concerns the EU’s development policies and its interlinkages with other external policy fields, as well as its interregional relations with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP). She is a co-convener of the of the EADI working group on the EU as a development actor.janorbie_foto6

Jan Orbie is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and Director of the Centre for EU Studies (CEUS) at Ghent University (Belgium). His research focuses on EU external relations, in particular the external trade, social, development, humanitarian aid and democracy promotion policies of the EU.


Image Credit: Nicolas Raymond