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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?” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49179146
[2] https://www.unocha.org/story/un-calls-global-ceasefire-combat-%E2%80%98common-enemy%E2%80%99-covid-19

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.