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What’s Unsaid | Let’s talk about aid diversion

‘You can’t prevent aid diversion if those who speak about it are punished. That’s just a recipe for perpetuating diversion and corruption.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Ashley Jackson co-director of the Centre on Armed Groups over a radial gradient background. The color at the center is a purplish blue and the color outside is green. On the top right, a bit skewed to the right we see the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid.

Aid diversion is a reality. But it’s not something humanitarians want to discuss.

When fraud is discovered or aid is diverted, it quickly becomes a scandal. Funding can be cut – without looking at the consequences for people who rely on aid.

But what if talking about the problem could actually improve how aid works? 

Ashley Jackson is the co-director of the Center on Armed Groups and a former aid worker. She researches aid diversion in Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, and joins host Irwin Loy for a candid conversation on aid diversion. 

“When I talk to aid workers about these issues, there's this terrible fear that if they speak up, if they rock the boat, that there'll be horrible consequences for the people they're trying to help,” Jackson says.

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Irwin Loy.

Guest: Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center on Armed Groups, researcher, and a former aid worker.

Subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Have a question or feedback? Maybe you have ideas for What’s Unsaid topics – from your own conversations or ones you’ve overheard? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsUnsaid

SHOWNOTES

Transcript | Let’s talk about aid diversion

 

Irwin Loy:

Today on What's Unsaid: Let's talk about a diversion.

 

Ashley Jackson:

You can't prevent diversion if those who speak up about it are punished. That's just a recipe for perpetuating diversion and corruption.

 

Loy:  

Aid diversion happens everywhere. But it's not something humanitarians want to talk about. When aid goes missing or it gets diverted, it's a scandal. It makes media headlines. Voters are outraged. Donors get spooked. Often aid is frozen or cut. And people who rely on aid suffer. So instead, it's swept under the rug. But what if talking about aid diversion and fraud could actually help people in crisis and even lead to more effective aid? 

 

This is What's Unsaid, a biweekly podcast by The New Humanitarian, where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world's conflicts and disasters. My name is Irwin Loy, staff editor of The New Humanitarian. On today's episode, let's talk about a diversion. 

 

Ashley Jackson is co-director of the Center on Armed Groups and a former aid worker. After researching aid diversion in Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, she believes it's time for a candid conversation. Ashley, thanks for joining us. 

 

Jackson:

Thanks, Irwin. 

 

Loy:  

Ashley, you've studied aid diversion closely. What is the biggest misconception?

 

Jackson:

The biggest misconception is that it's an anomaly. In fact, as any aid worker will tell you, it's pervasive. When you're a frontline aid worker, you're dealing with attempts to influence what you're doing all the time, there's corruption in aid agencies, it's just part of the job. And I think when we have these sort of scandalous headlines, it's in reaction to this narrative, that aid is always delivered in a transparent and accountable way. But we know that's not really the case. And more and more over the past few decades, we've seen massive, massive corruption scandals. But that's just scratching the surface. That's just what we hear about. The reality on the ground, the reality that aid workers are facing, is that this again, it's just pervasive. And the degree to which it's mitigated or people are able to push back on it really, really varies.

 

Loy:

We've all seen stories in the media about aid diversion, and we've reported on it often. And it seems like it should be obvious that aid diversion is a bad thing, it should be stopped. Why is it not so straightforward?

 

Jackson:

It's not so straightforward for a couple of reasons. One is that humanitarian aid is often used as a Band-Aid for intractable political problems and crises. Think of Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen. The root of the problem is political. But we don't have a solution. So what donor governments do is they throw money at the problem, to be perfectly frank. And humanitarians, I think, often promise, or are often asked, to do more than they possibly can. It is extremely difficult to negotiate aid with the Houthis, in Yemen, with the Taliban, in Afghanistan, with anyone in Somalia. And you have to make compromises. The problem arises when you've made so many compromises, you find yourself kind of so far down the line, that you can't find your way back. And I think this has happened in a lot of contexts where you have remote monitoring, where you have negotiating with armed groups, where you have multiple onion-like layers of sub-contracting, where the UN is the primary grant holder. And then they don't implement, that goes to national NGOs, international NGOs. And all of those problems and practices really present unique challenges when it comes to diversion. The same with the use of armed escorts. The further away that we get from the populations we're trying to help, the more problems arise. And I think that's the trend you've seen over the past 20 years, is more and more remote approaches. More and more money going into the world's most difficult places. And very few honest conversations about the compromises and the real limits of aid in these places.

 

Loy:  

I'm looking for an example of what happens when aid diversion or fraud is discovered. What kinds of impacts does it have on people who actually use aid?

 

Jackson:

Diversion and corruption are huge categories. And they can manifest in wildly different ways. And some things aren't necessarily that bad. So I'll give you one example of what might be considered diversion. A humanitarian agency is targeting based on need, and it selects a number of people in the community to give aid to. But the community doesn't agree with this. It thinks everyone should get the equal amount of aid and if you single anyone out, it's going to drive conflict. And then, so what we've seen frequently and what I've seen frequently in Somalia and Afghanistan, is that after aid is distributed, it's then collected by community elders or whoever, and then redistributed according to what they think will minimise conflict and their perception of what's fair. That may or may not be considered diversion. It's borderline. But it's one case where the aid practice is the problem. It's a signal to us that we need to be doing things differently. And usually, aid diversion and corruption are signals that we need to change how we're doing things. It's not that this is just some, again, anomaly. It's usually a signal of something having gone badly wrong. And it's useful information. So in some instances, it can be not so harmful. In some instances, it can lead to sexual exploitation and abuse. The worst things we can think of. So I think it's really important to be specific when we're talking about diversion. In order to address the problem, we need to understand exactly what's driving it. 

 

Loy:  

Now, you're very careful to draw this difference between aid diversion, other forms of corruption, and fraud. Can you just elaborate on that a little bit? Why is that such an important distinction for you?

 

Jackson:

I think donors have drawn different distinctions. If the kind of redistribution – post-distribution – that I just talked about – the community members taking aid back and then distributing it in a way that's fair – if that happens, most donors don't consider that diversion necessarily. They might consider that not even fraud. But it's a legal term when we talk about fraud and corruption. People can go to jail, your funding can be cut. The same is true with diversion, but it's a broader category. Diversion is just: The aid didn't go where it was intended to. And that can be driven by really nefarious motives, corruption, or simply because communities want to course-correct. So I think it's important to distinguish between motives. Like, what's driving it? Is it really about corruption, about self-gain, about using aid to deprive your enemies of an advantage? What is actually going on here? And sometimes the categories that humanitarians use, or I should say donors use, are more about their own legal liabilities than actually diagnosing the problem. But it's all seen as bad and wrong. And it can cause reputational damage, it can cause funding cuts, it can have legal consequences. And I think a lot of humanitarians sort of live in fear of being publicly accused of or having to publicly admit that this happens. Again, when we know that it's a really complex thing. And it happens, frankly, pretty often.

 

Loy:  

Now, you've mentioned funding cuts a couple times there and this fear of being discovered and what could happen. Let's explore that for a bit. Because that is one of the impacts of aid diversion and fraud in these cases. When they're discovered, donors are outraged. They're worried about how their own voters, how their own taxpayers will react. And they just announce that they're going to pull funding, they're going to freeze funding. What impact does this have on people who use aid from what you've seen? 

 

Jackson:

There's this knee-jerk reaction when allegations of diversion or corruption come up. Often, what an agency will do, or a donor will do, is freeze funding, as you've said. The problem is that's not always the right response. It doesn't put the people who will be most harmed by that, the people who are relying on that aid, at the centre of their approach, it doesn't really consider what will happen to them. And this knee-jerk response of freezing funding, of pausing things, that's what actually drew me into my current work on diversion. Because I was doing this research last year, and I can't talk too specifically about it. But basically what happened was, there were allegations of diversion in this one place. And funding was frozen. All of the aid to that area was cut off for a certain amount of time. And then, certain guarantees were made, there was no transparent investigation. What had happened, the allegations weren't even communicated to the implementing agencies. But somehow funding resumed. There were a number of conditions and funding resumed. So too did the abuses, which were quite serious. And that's when I heard about it. After funding had been paused, after it had been resumed. And I was in this really difficult position as a researcher, ethically, because, when you find out something like that, you have a responsibility to do something. You have to try and stop the harm. Yet in that situation, and in so many others, there were no functional accountability mechanisms I could go to, where I could guarantee that the people who reported it, who were national aid workers, who are members of the community, wouldn't be harmed. Basically, I couldn't protect them. And if you can't protect them, then you're in a really tough position. And so I remember kind of looking into all these mechanisms, trying to figure out what to do with my team. And then going back and talking to some of the people who had reported this. And I remember this one conversation with an aid worker, who worked for a national NGO. And he said, Okay, don't report it. Don't talk about exactly what's going on. But what you have to do is go to the donors and tell them to stop operating this way: the subcontracting and the timelines, some of the restrictions we're facing – that's really what's happening here. It's not the people doing the abuses, it's like all of these things that are driving the abuses. And I remember saying: Okay, well, I can tell them to stop. But it's very unlikely to happen. But I think that's why I'm still doing this work because of that conversation and others like it. This isn't what I focus on in my nine-to-five, my paid work. I've seen so much of this, over the years. I've had so many conversations like that. And I felt so powerless as a researcher and so frustrated. And the only thing I can do is to keep talking about it. Talking about it in the hopes that one day, it will change, because it doesn't have to be this bad. That's the honest to God's truth is that when I started aid work, almost 20 years ago, it was a completely different situation. Of course, we faced issues around diversion and corruption. But it was nowhere near what I've seen in my work over the past few years in some of these more volatile environments. I'm so discouraged on one hand, but I think if there's any chance that lies in continually bringing up the issue and pointing this out. There are things we can do about this, and that we should do, and that we are morally ethically obligated to do. 

 

Loy:  

You talk about how difficult it is to have these conversations and why it's important to keep going and having these conversations. How do aid workers see it? You've spoken with a lot of aid workers over the course of your research. What kinds of conversations do they have that take place around aid diversion and fraud? 

 

Jackson:

I think there's two things here. One is this sort of double narrative. Everyone kind of knows what's going on. And we all have these egregious examples of the things that we've encountered in our work. And it's so pervasive that in order to do your job as an aid worker, or even as a researcher, you kind of have to compartmentalise, look at what you're able to do, look at what you can change when you can't, and carry on. That's one thing. Another thing is that often when I talk to aid workers about these issues, there's this terrible fear that if they speak up, if they rock the boat, that there'll be horrible consequences for the people they're trying to help. That aid will be cut, that they'll lose funds, which means they can't continue working in areas of serious need. Their partners, their national colleagues will be let go, and so on. So they feel this terrible pressure. And that people would be in such terrible hardship without them. And I also feel this as a researcher. If I talk about these things, you know, am I doing damage? Am I doing harm? But then I remember that, for better or worse, I don't have that much impact. I can write these reports, I can try and advocate for change. But it's really unlikely that it's going to result in serious harm, because the system is so entrenched. And the wheels and the machinery keep going even after there's these big aid freezes, such as we've seen after the scandals in Ethiopia, and wherever else. Little changes, it just kind of resumes. And I think that's the thing with aid workers as well: It's this terrible dilemma, but it's a false dilemma. People aren't necessarily going to starve to death without that aid, unless we're talking about really extreme cases of nutritional feeding centres, for example. Even people receiving food aid, they have a lot of other coping mechanisms. And if we're looking at certain populations in Yemen or Afghanistan, it might be a food package a month or a can of oil every so often. It helps them get through, it makes life easier. But they aren't necessarily going to starve to death. We have to have a really honest assessment of the trade-offs, of the harm being done, and the room for manoeuvre. Because what I've seen in my work is the agencies who can really navigate this well, and push back and deliver ethically. They're the ones who say, no. They're the ones who are able to stop when things aren't working. That is like the only leverage humanitarians have in a lot of these situations is the ability to stop to say no. And to renegotiate the terms of their engagement. And not move forward if they can't do it in an ethical way. Of course, there are compromises. Of course, this is messy. But again, I think that ability mentally and operationally, to step back and stop is the most important thing in this respect.

 

Loy: 

It sounds like you're describing this sort of fear of doing the right thing, perhaps among aid workers. When, if they see possible fraud, possible diversion, they worry what impact reporting it will have on the people they are trying to help. So you describe this as a bit of a false dilemma. Is there something that aid workers should be doing differently? Is there something that they can think about instead of those possible consequences? 

 

Jackson:

A lot of this comes down to capacity training. When you're negotiating at a checkpoint or when you're negotiating with the Taliban, whatever it is, you need a very clear ethical framework to operate within. And you need strong management. You need a connection to those communities. You need community acceptance. The problem is that in the current aid environment, you often have the frontline implementers as actors who are just kind of implementing a subcontract. They have very little decision-making power. They don't have core funds. There’s almost zero investment in these contexts, in that capacity. And in a lot of these contexts, including Afghanistan, localisation has actually moved backwards. And national NGOs have been really deprived of some of the agency and decision-making that they had before. None of this is rocket science. We know what works in this respect. But the problems are structural. And we can talk about it and we can reflect on it. In fact, I'm often hired to write reports helping humanitarians reflect on all these things. But the more I do that, the more I'm convinced we just need action. You've written about this as well. It's structural, we need structural change, and that will only come from donors, really, and donor governments standing up and re-evaluating the way they work. Because quite frankly, the buck stops with them. I mean, they are the ones who can bring about change. We've seen so much UN and NGO reform, but what has it yielded? It just has to come from the top in this instance.

 

Loy: 

Can you elaborate on that a bit, what kind of structural changes are required from the top?

 

Jackson:

I think there are a lot of issues, right? One is subcontracting, and the lack of progress on localisation in particularly volatile contexts. Donors don't often have the modalities to give smaller grants to work with national organisations. Their systems need to change, quite frankly, you just can't work this way. Dumping money into the UN who will then subcontract, and expect anything different to happen. And it creates a whole host of perverse incentives, which will drive humanitarian aid even deeper into this dangerous territory that we've been talking about. It's fine to make pledges on localisation. But actually, you need radical internal structural change about how you give funding. That means you probably even need more staff, which is hard for donor agencies to negotiate for in their national budgeting processes, and so on. It's a number of tough asks. It's not about conferences, it's not about pledges. It's about pure, boring kind of bureaucratic and budgetary and contracting change to make your systems more fit for purpose. Another issue is things like armed escorts and third-party monitoring. These kinds of things that were initially like last-resort practices when they were first introduced. And I'm old enough to remember being an aid worker when third-party monitoring became a thing and it was this in extremis measure – armed escorts, the same. Now it's status quo. This is modus operandi. And it should be no surprise that when we adopt really dysfunctional coping mechanisms, that there are really kind of dysfunctional outcomes and perverse incentives. There might be a call for armed escorts, in some cases. Third-party monitoring, in some cases, in some contexts. It's a signal of things going badly wrong if you have to resort to these kinds of approaches. Ditto subcontracting and we talk about a whole host of other things as well. It's these now status quo approaches that are really driving things in the wrong direction.

 

Loy: 

You know, that brings up another unspoken subject within this issue, which is when fraud is discovered, local aid workers and organisations are treated much differently than international ones. Degan Ali, who I think you know, she heads the NGO Adeso. She spoke on a panel The New Humanitarian hosted in September. She said her organisation, and all Somalis, were blacklisted when she reported fraud:

 

Degan Ali:

And what happened in Somalia, not only did it affect Adeso being blacklisted, all local NGOs were all guilty by association by the mere fact that we're all local and Somalis. We couldn't be trusted. So funding for local NGOs in Somalia went down significantly because of that one incident. 

 

Loy:  

I’m wondering if that resonates with you. What have you seen? How do donors treat local aid groups differently compared to international ones?

 

Jackson:

There's a huge double standard. That what UN agencies or international NGOs do isn't considered corruption, they're given the benefit of the doubt on certain practices, on the way they collect overheads and so on, in a way that national NGOs never would be. They're under much greater scrutiny in a number of respects. And I was having a conversation with someone who was sort of funding a national NGO at one point and they worked for an international NGO. And they were charging overheads on staff salaries. And this person considered that a form of corruption. That you would say to a donor, we're gonna pay this person X dollars per day and you would collect 20% of that. That was corruption. Everyone in the sector does that, everyone does that. And so I think it was just a product of in-built suspicion to national NGOs. When corruption exists everywhere, by cutting aid to everyone, it's a form of collective punishment. Rather than saying, this is a signal that they have alerted us to, by the way, that they've told us about, that something is wrong. We need to help them fix it, we need to address it. That is literally what the response should be. If we acknowledge that it's so pervasive and that cutting aid generally on its own, doesn't necessarily work. It doesn't address the root of the problem. Sure, pause funds while you do an investigation, of course. But ultimately, that kind of bias just sets us back further. It doesn't encourage that kind of accountability we need. We need more people to be saying, “Look, something bad happened, we need to address it.” Because that's the only way that change will happen. And as a donor, I would want an NGO to tell me if there was corruption. So we could deal with it together. Because I've invested in them, I want to keep funding them. I want to help them build their systems. That's part of my obligation. And I think that kind of proactive risk management and accountability: That's the shift we need.

 

Loy: 

Ashley, you mentioned these signals that aid diversion shows. What can we learn from aid diversion? What should aid groups take from knowing that it's happening?

 

Jackson:

The incentive structure needs to change. If people keep being punished for telling the truth. If people keep being discouraged and sanctioned [for] rocking the boat, for questioning standard practices, then something's fundamentally wrong with the system. And there's no way around that. You can't prevent diversion if those who speak up about it are punished. That's a recipe for perpetuating diversion and corruption.

 

Loy: 

Is there a way to reframe, also, the way that the impacts of diversion are talked about? The focus, especially in the media, but I suppose everyone who has a stake in this, is to focus on the fraud or the diversion itself, but not really focus on the people who actually use aid. What they need, is the aid going to reach them, and what happens when there are cuts? I'm wondering if there's something there around how to reframe aid diversion as a topic to talk about?

 

Jackson:

I wish this was something journalists did more, actually, when they write about aid diversion cases. Interviewing people in the areas affected, about what happened. In a sensitive way, how did this affect you? But I think donors could also build it in operating protocols when a diversion attempt or an instance of diversion and corruption is picked up is, okay, we need to talk to the people who have been actually affected by this. What have been the impacts on the programme, on aid actually reaching the people who need it. In some cases, it might be profound; in other cases, it's negligible. We live in an aid system in which, it's sad to say, but I know many NGOs who kind of build in budget lines or many aid workers who know how to utilise budget lines, to pay bribes or to negotiate with armed groups or whatever. They know when they're designing a project, there are going to be things that they have to do that are ethically compromised, and so they systematise it in a way. And that's not to say we should be condoning that. But they do it with the intention of minimising the risks to themselves and the impact of beneficiaries. Again, like you're saying, it's absolutely right to centre the impact on the people you're trying to help in these efforts. And I'm sure there's a lot of different ways that we could be doing that. And that would really refocus the conversation on people rather than kind of abstract upward accountability. And these kind of tickbox rote measures as well.

 

Loy:  

What is lost by not talking about aid diversion, by sweeping it under the rug. And what is gained by having these conversations out in the open?

 

Jackson:

I hope that there's a day of reckoning ahead. The humanitarian sector goes through crises every few decades. Biafra, the do-no-harm-stuff, the Sphere standards – some of the greatest improvements and innovations in the humanitarian sector come out of really bad moments in our history. I hope that day lies ahead. I think it'll be a painful one. When we really sit down and talk about how far gone some aspects of the sector are from their moral underpinnings. If we can continue to talk about it, if we can have more honest conversation, it can kind of close the gap between the rhetoric of what humanitarian aid is in the public, according to donors, and the reality on the ground. How people experience it. How Somalis, Afghans, Sudanese are experiencing it right now. Because often there is a huge gulf between how humanitarianism presents itself and those realities. And again, it's complicated, right? It's not all bad. But there are certain practices and a kind of a mentality as well, I think, among the big NGOs and UN agencies, of corporate growth. And of growing and expanding bottom lines instead of centering impact on the people that they're there to help. And that may sound incredibly naive. But again, it wasn't always like this. And I think we've lost something with the huge expansion of the sector and the – quote, unquote – professionalisation. I think in some ways, it's devalued the ethics and the morals that have driven some of the most courageous and the best humanitarian work. I started with the Red Cross in the Indian Ocean tsunami, I saw plenty of corruption, I saw plenty of mistakes. But I also saw a situation which was unique. And that in a lot of countries, things got better. But it taught me a great deal about accountability to the people that are there who are trying to reconstruct their lives. And how you deal with problems and how you kind of recover from them and how you're accountable. By looking back as well, we can hopefully try and recover some of that.

 

Loy: 

Ashley, this is a difficult topic to discuss. But thanks so much for joining us. 

 

Jackson:

Thanks, Irwin. 

 

Loy:

Ashley Jackson is the co-director of the Center on Armed Groups. She's a researcher and a former aid worker. Her latest work examines aid diversion. Please visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on how the aid sector grapples with aid diversion and fraud. And the fallout for people in crisis. 

 

What are people afraid to talk about in today's crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know. Send us an email at podcast at the new humanitarian.org. Subscribe to the new humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What's Unsaid. Our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths hosted by Ali Latifi and me. 

 

This episode is produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf, sound engineering by Mark Nieto with original music by Whitney Patterson, and hosted by me, Irwin Loy.

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