by Jérôme Larché , Grotius International
Corruption is a sensitive issue in the NGO world. Humanitarian actors need to understand what corruption is, recognise the forms it can take in humanitarian response, determine its true scale and better understand the conditions which lead to it. They also need to identify what mechanisms need to be put in place or strengthened to guard against corruption, even in the most difficult contexts. Mitigating against corruption is necessary if NGOs are to achieve both operational efficiency and accountability to their stakeholders. However, it is also important to recognise that adopting a proactive and transparent approach to dealing with corruption may involve short-term risks to an NGO’s reputation.
What is corruption?
Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as ‘the abuse of power or position for private gain’. This covers ‘active corruption’, such as bribery, and ‘passive corruption’, or allowing oneself to be bribed, as well as misappropriation. The exact scale of the problem in the humanitarian aid sector is by its nature very difficult to determine, but is assumed to be at much lower levels than corruption in the private commercial sector.
Another model of corruption takes into account the sources from which these risks emanate. ‘Contextual’ corruption is linked to the environment surrounding the intervention (corrupt regimes, governments, police forces). ‘Systemic’ corruption refers to the humanitarian system, with its multiple, interacting and interdependent actors. ‘Intra-organisational’ corruption is linked to the constraints inherent within each NGO (human resources, active prevention strategies against corruption risks, verification procedures). This more operational model can help in prioritising and identifying NGOs’ scope of action in light of these risks. Thus, while NGOs have little hope of eradicating contextual corruption, they can and should take steps to prevent or address corruption within their own organisations.
A number of factors which can lead to corruption in humanitarian operations have also been identified. These include lack of planning (or even the impossibility of planning), the number of humanitarian actors present and the financial resources at stake. The way in which the international humanitarian system has developed in recent years, including the exponential growth in the number of NGOs and the development of the humanitarian ‘industry’, has also been a contributing factor. Finally, we should not forget that corruption exists in developed countries, as well as developing ones.
Corruption and humanitarian aid: new dilemmas?
The number of NGOs has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, as has the scale of resources available. In 2010, it was estimated that humanitarian spending reached just shy of $17 billion. Some NGOs have become transnational, with very large budgets. One American NGO, World Vision International, has a budget topping $2.6bn.
NGOs are often reluctant to talk about corruption for fear that it will lead to bad publicity and, consequently, a loss of funding. Working across borders to reach people in need can also give rise to allegations of corruption. The degree of confidentiality necessary to negotiate with those who control access can sometimes make transparency difficult to achieve. Moving clandestinely across borders to access affected populations, as NGOs have done over the years in many conflict situations, can also raise questions about the legitimacy and legality of such action. During the Afghan war in the 1980s, for instance, the Soviet-allied government in Kabul did not want humanitarian actors in Afghanistan, particularly in areas controlled by resistance factions. In this context, humanitarian NGOs had no choice but to cross the Pakistan–Afghanistan border illegally (without permission), through Peshawar and the North West Frontier Province. When humanitarian personnel were captured and held hostage by Soviet or Afghan forces, NGOs argued that the illegality of their actions did not decrease their legitimacy.