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Tackling Corruption in Humanitarian Aid

The catastrophic earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 and left more than 200,000 people dead reminded us once more that humanitarian aid is one of the most important planks of global solidarity and development. With more than US$ 4.2 billion pledged for a severely devastated country(1) the scale and complexity of this humanitarian operation also brought into sharp relief the management and governance challenges that accompany such interventions.

Corruption is one of these challenges.(2) The last two years have seen corruption allegations in humanitarian aid hit the news headlines and bring more public attention to these problems. In Somalia, for example, a UN monitoring group report made assertions about corrupt diversion of food aid.

In Liberia, World Vision uncovered substantial corruption in their food aid operations, and a recent BBC report which highlighted allegations of corruption in aid operations in Ethiopia in the 1980s received widespread attention. The news visibility of these events stand in stark contrast to what was until very recently a lack of focused research and analysis on these issues. When the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Transparency International and others first began research on corruption and humanitarian aid in 2006, it was an oddly neglected issue.
Almost universally humanitarian aid practitioners acknowledged that combating corruption in hugely challenging and often high-corruption-risk environments was an important part of their job, but there was a nearly complete lack of shared analysis, learning or tools to improve anti-corruption work both in the academic, as well as in the policy literature.

Much has changed since then. ODI, TI and the Feinstein International Center engaged in a process of research and engagement with operational agencies which produced a substantive research report identifying the corruption challenges facing humanitarian action and exploring existing anti-corruption efforts. Merely bringing the issue of corruption into open discussion was rather groundbreaking and welcomed by practitioners who deal with corruption challenges on a daily basis but lacked any opportunity for discussing good and bad practice and for learning from others.
Corruption has emerged as an issue in a growing literature focussed on gathering the views of beneficiaries on disaster relief and improving downwards accountability to disaster-affected populations on the part of aid agencies.(3) Simultaneously, international humanitarian actors have placed growing attention on increasing their accountability to disaster affected populations through greater investment in areas such as feedback mechanisms.(4) Successive reports by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) highlight that there is still a long way to go in ensuring that recipients of humanitarian aid are able to understand their entitlements, to lodge complaints when aid is abused, and to see those complaints effectively acted upon.(5)

Still, progress is being made. A recent HAP report on the state of the humanitarian system found a degree of optimism that attention to accountability has begun to result in real operational changes in how aid agencies do business.(6)
These assessments are sidelined by field-based research in Afghanistan(7), Liberia(8), Sri Lanka(9) and Uganda(10) that also comprised in-depth interviews and focus groups with disaster-affected populations on their experiences of corruption. The policy implications and recommendations to aid agencies that were derived from this evidence base include:
•    A need to reduce the “taboo” in discussing corruption in humanitarian assistance and promote greater transparency in reporting corrupt abuse of aid;
•    A need to strengthen awareness that corruption extends beyond fraudulent financial practices to “nonfinancial corruption” such as nepotism/cronyism, sexual exploitation and abuse, coercion and intimidation of humanitarian staff or aid recipients for personal, social or political gain, manipulation of assessments, targeting and registration to favour particular groups, and diversion of assistance to non-target groups;
•    More overall transparency of operations and entitlements and allocate more resources to program monitoring, especially field monitoring;
•    More inter-agency coordination at national and international levels for Information sharing and for joint action on corruption emanating from the external environment.

These findings fed into the recent publication of the TI Handbook of Good Practices in Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations.(11) Other work directly addressing corruption in humanitarian assistance is limited to two papers by the U4 anti-corruption research centre focused on procurement(12) and the role of the media.(13)

The research conducted so far, however, has only scratched the surface and has identified considerable remaining knowledge gaps around the types and extent of corruption in different contexts and the successes and failures of attempts by humanitarian actors to minimise corruption risks. The scale of the losses through corruption is one such area for future investigation. Past research found significant contradictions between perceptions by humanitarian aid agency staff and those by external analysts. Agency staff members at all levels appear to perceive losses from corruption to be rather small, even though most admit that no concrete numbers are available.(14) External evaluators, by contrast, sometimes assert “serious levels of corruption”, both in the agencies’ “own national staff and in dealings with others” when analyzing humanitarian aid projects.(15) The shortcomings in estimating scales are further substantiated by the observation that beneficiaries often have very little information to determine if and where corruption occurs.(16) This is in line with findings on the communication channels in regions hit by humanitarian crisis, where victims complain about the inaccessibility of information of how aid programmes work.(17)

In sum, much progress has recently been made in researching corruption in humanitarian aid. Practitioners wanting guidance on how to better deal with the corruption challenges they face on a daily basis now have somewhere to turn and are likely to receive greater support from within their organisations. However, considerable knowledge gaps remain and provide interesting and timely avenues for further investigation.




Paul Harvey*


* Paul Harvey is a Director of Humanitarian Outcomes, an independent team of professionals providing evidence-based analysis and policy consultations to governments and international organisations on their humanitarian response efforts. He was previously a Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group in the Overseas Development Institute. 


1.    OCHA 2010: HAITI - Earthquakes - January 2010: List of all commitments/contributions and pledges, Available online:
2.    R. Klitgard, Addressing Corruption in Haiti. See Highlights in Anti-Corruption Research below (2010)
3.    S. Bailey, Need and greed: corruption risks, perceptions and prevention in humanitarian assistance, HPG Policy Brief 32 (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2008a)
4.    P. Harvey, et al., The State of the Humanitarian System: assessing performance and progress (London: ALNAP, 2010)
5.    K. Lattu, To Complain or not to Complain: still the question. Consultations with humanitarian aid beneficiaries on their perceptions of efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, 2008)
6.    HAP, The 2008 Humanitarian Accountability Report, (Geneva: Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, 2008)
7.    K. Savage, et al. Corruption Perceptions and Risks in Humanitarian Assistance: an Afghanistan case study, (London: Overseas Development Institute, Humanitarian Policy Group, 2007)
8.    K. Savage, et al., Corruption Perceptions and Risks in Humanitarian Assistance: a Liberia case study (London: Overseas Development Institute, Humanitarian Policy Group, 2007)
9.    S. Elhawary, Aid Recipient Perceptions of Corruption in Humanitarian Assistance: a Sri Lanka case study (HPG Working Paper, London: Overseas Development Institute, 2008)
10.    S. Bailey, Perceptions of Corruption in Humanitarian Assistance among Internally Displaced Persons in Northern Uganda (HPG Working Paper London: Overseas Development Institute, 2008b)
11.    Transparency International, Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Operations:  Handbook of Good Practices (Berlin: Transparency International, 2010)
12.    J. Schultz and T. Soreide, Corruption in Emergency Procurement, U4 Brief No. 5, 2006
13.    U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Corruption in Emergencies: what role for media?, Report from U4 working meeting, 30 May 2006
14.    D. Maxwell, et al., Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Assistance. Final Research Report (Berlin: Transparency International, Feinstein International Center, and Overseas Development Institute, 2008)
15.    S. Kirkby and S. Rose, Going Home: making a life after conflict. Return and reintegration of IDPs and returnees in Bomi, Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties, Liberia, Evaluation report of the Norwegian Refugee Council, 2007)
16.    S. Bailey, 2008a, Supra
17.    L. Robinson and I. Wall, Left in the Dark: the unmet need for information in humanitarian responses, BBC policy briefing 2, London: BBC World Service Trust, 2008


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01 Jul 2010

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