Fears abound as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the poorer nations of the world, not only about appalling levels of death and economic depression but also about criminal opportunism. Never before have agencies in the United Nations system, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other official lenders and aid agencies moved on such a giant scale so rapidly to provide relief. But will these vital resources be stolen?
Yes. Some of the inflows of emergency funds will be pocketed by government officials, some will be stolen by managers of health facilities and some will be used to buy overpriced, locally produced gowns and face masks and other essential supplies by businesses paying kickbacks to government contractors. Others will be circumvented by watchdogs, outed by undercover journalists, thwarted by honest government employees and pressured by engaged citizens.
But thefts of these vital resources are not a foregone conclusion. There must be increased understanding of the need now for transparency in all the transactions related to disbursing these emergency funds. I believe there is a burden on the leading donors in the UN system and the bilateral and multilateral aid agencies to promote this oversight. I have the most confidence on this front in the work that has already been started in some countries by civil society organizations that are independent of governments as well as by journalists. These efforts need to be strongly encouraged and scaled up.
This is especially urgent as some governments are acting to prevent thefts by declaring emergency powers, curbing press freedoms and confining the activities of local civil society watchdog groups. Western donor agencies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the powerful governments that stand behind them need to move swiftly to counter these forces for secrecy.
Human Rights Watch, Global Witness and Transparency International — three international nongovernmental organizations — have jointly written to the IMF to voice concerns about the high risks that corrupt politicians will abscond with funds. Other prominent global civil society organizations and aid-donor agencies have engaged on the same topic. Everyone is aware of the risks. The official agencies strive to respond positively with assurances that their funds will be monitored effectively.
But skepticism is needed. The humanitarian crisis demands immediate action to provide funds to shore up failing economies and to secure essential supplies to clinics and hospitals. Delays would be immoral. Yet donor agencies largely lack systems and processes to guard against misuse of funds during an emergency like this pandemic.
A good illustration of what is being done and that can be carried out on a far larger footing relates to the work of the Partnership for Transparency Fund. It is moving forward with trusted civil society groups based in the very countries, cities and remote regions of concern to monitor the use of emergency Covid-19 relief aid. The fund-supported projects are working in Uganda, India, Ghana and the Gambia. The organizations operating on the front lines, in these and in many other countries, if backed fully by Western support, could make important contributions to ensuring that victims of the virus are not the victims of corruption, too.
Now is the time for donors to explicitly tell aid-recipient governments that the funds come with conditions of monitoring by local independent civil society organizations. The aid agencies need to work with international groups, such as the Partnership for Transparency Fund and Transparency International, which have networks of trustworthy civil society partners.
The aid agencies must also insist that press freedom exists to enable the media to report on the disbursement of the aid money — publicly and honestly.
The danger that aid money for vital health care purposes will be misappropriated is paralleled by the risks that the poorest countries will receive debt relief and official credits from Western governments and the IMF to bolster their economies that may also be misused. The institutions providing this necessary financial support — and it will amount to tens of billions of dollars — need to be clear about how they are going to ensure that their resources are well used.
At a minimum, they will need to follow up with regular public reports to demonstrate that they have put essential safeguards against corruption in place.
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