Somalis living abroad have taken to raising funds to help family and friends cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, amidst claims from a recent RAND Corporation report that Somalia is the world’s most underequipped country to deal with the deadly virus.
If that were not enough, aid to Somalia has reportedly been going missing on a massive scale thanks to endemic corruption in the country. The problem is so widespread that Somalia’s Attorney General, Saleban Mohamed Mohamud, was forced to hold a rare press conference wherein he warned government officials against “looting” funds designated for the fight against coronavirus.
“After investigations, the Office of AG has seized cheques, payment slips, receipts of payments created to loot public funds among other evidences [sic],” AG Mohamud warned. At the time of the conference, some 20 officials had been detained, including directors within the Health Ministry, heads of government departments, and consultants from private firms working with the Ministry of Health. At the same time, reports of essential health equipment stolen from government hospitals only to turn up in shops and marketplaces are common.
Sadly, reports of misappropriated funds and resources hardly rock the boat given Somalia’s ranking as the world’s most corrupt country. But it is by no means limited solely to Mogadishu, and a swathe of recent reports have highlighted the extent to which humanitarian aid gets diverted on a global scale, with little regard to the level of development of countries where it takes place.
Barely two months ago, four government officials in Uganda were detained for inflating food prices for coronavirus aid packages, and “rejecting lower price offers” from suppliers of maize flour and beans. The group is thought to have caused government losses exceeding $528,000.
Perhaps most telling is the tone of some responses to the scandal. “We knew [this issue] would come out later on in the year,” says economic analyst Fred Muhumuza, “for it to happen now, means there’s some experience in the president’s office in dealing with corruption.”
He’s not wrong. Just last year, an investigation by Kampala revealed the mismanagement of funds meant to support refugees in the country, with government officials allegedly colluding with staff from international aid agencies to inflate refugee figures and siphon money from projects and into their own pockets. Some millions of dollars in aid were thought to have been lost to the scheme, and led to a devastating aid freeze on Uganda.
Another huge scandal recently erupted in the aid sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a months-long investigation revealing endemic corruption and fraud tied to the hundreds of millions of dollars raised in response to the Ebola crisis. According to the New Humanitarian, response funds have only served to create “fertile ground” for competition for profit, and exacerbated existing community conflicts.
The breakdown of the estimated losses to vulnerable communities in the DRC, already some of the poorest in the world, is nothing short of devastating. Within one organisation, for example, more than $600,000 was lost in a few short months thanks to a multi-layered fraud scheme, with the money used by aid workers to buy new cars, designer sunglasses, and smartphones.
In Kenya, meanwhile, the peculiar manner in which authorities have allocated more than 1.3 billion shillings in coronavirus relief have raised more than a few questions. According to a report by Health Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, an alarming 42m shillings has been spent on leasing ambulances, while 70m shillings has gone to “communication.” A further 2m shillings has apparently been spent on mobile phone airtime, despite telecommunications company Safaricom offering free packages to officials involved in the fight against the virus.
But it would be misguided to take aim solely at African countries. Even nations that regularly top the lists of the world’s most developed countries have fallen prey to complex fraud schemes perpetrated by the organisations that are supposed to provide help. Take South Korea, where in early May, long-time activist and comfort woman survivor Lee Yong-soo accused lawmaker Yoon Mi-hyang of having embezzled large sums of donations intended for victims of wartime sexual abuse, including the purchase of an over-valued shelter building for which Yoon’s father was the paid caretaker. Soon thereafter, allegations surfaced that the shelter was complicit in the laundering of up to $30 million.
Prosecutors have since scrambled to expand their investigations into Yoon and her former charge, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council). Search-and-seize operations have been conducted at facilities operated by the Korean Council, and accounting documents secured for investigation. Despite the public defence of Yoon by some figures, wartime sexual slavery survivors and their families are- once again- being forced to demand justice.
Sadly, the Korean Council scandal has made it more than clear that embezzlement and corruption in the aid sector is not just an African problem, but one of global proportions. The ongoing coronavirus crisis serves as a critical opportunity for policymakers to crack down on actors siphoning funds from those who need them most.