Corruption and the localisation of humanitarian action

January 14, 2021
Hugo Slim
Anti-corruption sticker on a bus in Guatemala

If, like me, you want to see much more locally led humanitarian action, then you need to address the question of corruption.

Sweeping generalisations about corruption are often the whispered argument of last resort by those who resist the shift of resources away from international agencies. Even if opponents of localisation tend not to raise the issue of corruption openly in meetings (preferring instead to focus on problems of capacity, quality and scale) they do usually mention it in the margins to colleagues and donors. ‘And, of course, there is the corruption problem in local organisations’, they say with the sad-but-true wince of the international paternalist. ‘It’s just their culture.’

Backroom assertions of extensive corruption in local organisations are unproven but spook the international humanitarian sector to exert a chilling effect on donor governments’ enthusiasm for greater direct investment in local government and NGOs. Many people in Western publics are already sceptical of international aid and no official wants to tell them that millions of pounds and hundreds of tonnes of food never reached the people who needed them.

But is an assumption of local corruption fair? And is local agency corruption any worse than the corruption in large international agencies?

The answer is that we do not know exactly because there is no collated or comparative data on corruption in humanitarian action. Significant study of humanitarian corruption was started by HPG in 2005.  This was then developed in a partnership between Transparency International, Humanitarian Outcomes and Groupe URD, which produced detailed guidance in 2017.

None of these reports quantify the extent of humanitarian corruption or reveal specific cases. Instead, they gather perceptions and patterns of corruption, and advise how best to prevent it. But they do make two things clear: that corruption – as fraud, unfair influence and biased targeting – is endemic and widespread; and that it happens in local and international agencies alike. Revelations, when they do come, regularly implicate international agencies. International NGO corruption scandals from the cross-border operation into Syria  and in IFRC during the Ebola crisis  show clearly that fraud is international too.

Sadly, current policy is based largely on perceptions not evidence of corruption and this blog must also limit itself to perceptions. Before doing so, we can at least define corruption.

What is corruption?

Transparency International define corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private means’. This involves using power and influence to bribe people, steal, misuse funds or give jobs and contracts to sponsors, friends and family.

Corruption can be individual when certain people employ corrupt practices and function as individual ‘bad apples’. It can also be institutional when a whole organisation embeds practices which routinely normalize favouritism, intimidation, perks and privileges to create a ‘bad barrel’.

Corruption is distinct from fraud which is usually the premeditated theft of money and commodities. If theft is innately unlawful, corruption is more a failure of moral integrity. Corruption may not always be unlawful but it is always a breach of values because it uses power and resources in contradiction of the ethical spirit and purpose of an organisation.

Local corruption

Those who promote an assumption of corruption in local organisations may have a point. It seems that many government departments and local humanitarian organisations around the world do operate practices of patronage and favouritism when recruiting and contracting.

Many local NGOs are founded by charismatic or powerful individuals, some of whom operate on personal preference and political network more than they do by professional conduct. The professionalisation of the civil service is also far from complete in most States and many people are recruited and retained on the basis of favour rather than merit. Several National Societies in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement operate as hereditary family firms with the same family retaining control for many years. Others are run by political cliques which change only when the government changes.

Strong cultures of patronage and nepotism can operate in locally led humanitarian response and the need to ‘grease’ the system to speed up permissions, access and operations may be the way things work, not usually with money but with some reciprocal favour in due course. Rewards play a part too. Promotions, foreign travel, per diems and educational opportunities are all in play as patronage and alliance building.

This is not the whole story, of course. Many government departments and local NGOs are also full of people operating in a different way. Determined to succeed by merit and to operate ethically without misusing funds and recruitment, they resist corruption in its various forms, often heroically. Sometimes, their association with international agencies and foreign government finance can help to insulate them from corrupt norms, sometimes it makes them more vulnerable to corrupt pressure.

International corruption

So what about international UN agencies, the big Red Cross/Crescent organisations and NGOs? Surely, they are professional bureaucracies governed by tight rules and standards of equal opportunities recruitment, tendering systems, codes of conduct and the rigorous use of funds? In fact, much about the way they work seems equally corrupt, especially to people looking on from national organisations.

Success inside international organisations is typically determined by who you know and who you agree with. So too is funding. The senior leaders of the big agencies can easily pick up the phone to government ministers and senior diplomats in charge of government aid budgets, or meet them in the VIP section of a conference, and get the nod for some extra millions after a quick chat.

Most international humanitarian organisations also develop cultures which tend to favour a particular kind of person who shares a dominant political opinion and lifestyle that is the organisational norm. The pathway to senior humanitarian positions is almost universally restricted by the entry bar of a master’s degree from a Western university, which does not come cheap. In this way, international humanitarian organisations also operate like a clan or clique and seem to use a system of patronage for people in their wider social group.

Contracts may well be subject to tender but evaluation consultants are often chosen because ‘they know and understand the organisation’. This usually means they are former staff or agency friends who share the groupthink of the organisation and can be relied upon to be gentle in their judgements and make recommendations which maintain the status quo. When consultants are more objective outsiders, big agencies often retain the right to edit and approve evaluations. This process often constitutes self-serving censorship, which it seems fair to count as corruption.

A very significant part of international aid goes into expatriate salaries. These can be big. They largely stay in Western bank accounts and are reinvested in countries thousands of miles away from the wars and disasters against which the money is budgeted and reported in agency accounts.

Then there are the perks in many international humanitarian agencies which set the tone of the ‘expatocracy’ that is so widely observed by national organisations. There are expensive fees for private schooling, generous housing allowances, danger money and business class travel for many humanitarian workers and their families on long-haul flights over 9 hours.

To many people in international humanitarian bureaucracies, these perks are simple necessities for high value executives operating at a fast pace across an international context. To others, such perks are extraordinary hypocrisy and a clear misuse of funds when working to save the lives of desperate people. Fridtjof Nansen, the first ever High Commissioner for Refugees, always insisted on travelling second or third class because he could save more lives by doing so. Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, did the same.

Whose corruption counts?

So, as the great Robert Chambers might say: whose corruption counts in the policy discussion about localisation? If presumed corruption is a reason for not funding national and local organisations, then it is also a reason not to fund international organisations.

It seems nobody is perfect when it comes to corruption. This makes it ill-informed and unethical to use corruption as a trump argument to hold back investment in locally led humanitarian action.

Various forms of corruption are endemic in international and national organisations. The correct way forward must be to step up investment in locally led humanitarian action, as agreed, while actively reducing corruption in national and international organisations alike.


Comments are available for logged in members only.