Watchdog tells aid groups to confront corruption

Aid workers must do more to point out instances of corruption that undermine emergency relief efforts, a corruption watchdog says in a new report that reflects the challenges groups are dealing with in Haiti.
In a 163-page handbook, Berlin-based Transparency International says corruption ranges from the intolerable, such as sexual abuse linked to food aid, to far murkier issues in the first days after a disaster, when organizations must save lives even as they face a litany of red tape.
The report can provide help for groups working in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, says one of its co-authors.
"It's a prefect storm for corruption in Haiti," Roslyn Hees said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
She said problems there could be expected because of Haiti's endemic corruption before the earthquake, its fragile government and the temptations that come as a flood of deep-pocketed aid groups arrive.
Too much control can paralyze aid and make it too slow for sick and starving survivors, but weak monitoring opens the door for corruption, the report says.
Public pressure demands that officials save lives quickly, when a slower, more systematic approach that limits corruption might be better. And in high-profile emergencies, there is a need to be seen by donors and the media as responding rapidly even if oversight isn't ready yet.
The U.N. and other agencies say they aren't seeing instances of corruption in Haiti. But they acknowledge the challenge.
"Everywhere else, including Darfur, we know where every bag is at all times," said Emilia Casella, a U.N. food agency spokeswoman. That wasn't the case in Haiti after the earthquake when computer systems crashed.
U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said each emergency brings a range of offers from interested and potentially corrupt suppliers, which the global body has to examine according to strict procedures.
"My e-mail box is flooded from companies from all over the world, offering (water) tanks, this type of aid, or other things," Byrs said.
Hees said humanitarian organizations must watch out for two primary categories of corruption.
The first deals with procurement, hiring, asset management or finance. The second deals specifically with the "first, chaotic days" after a disaster, when even following protocol perfectly can result in aid not reaching the intended recipients.
"You might give all the food to the right people, but then a gang comes and takes it," Hees said.
Unfortunately, corruption remains a taboo topic among many humanitarian workers, the report notes. It gives various reasons: pressure to get aid out quickly, poor information about government or private partners, a lack of confidentiality for complaints, and a fear that too many controls might paralyze operations.