In March 2020, the economic hardships from Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 lockdown began to bite. Many people lost their jobs. Tamil villagers in Vavuniya district, in the rural Northern Province, were among millions looking forward to financial support promised by the government.
The authorities had announced a monthly lockdown payment of 5,000 rupees (US$27) for low-income families, senior citizens and people with disabilities. People suffering a major hit to their income – such as small retailers, craftspeople and taxi drivers – were also entitled to the payments.
Although only enough to buy an average family’s groceries for around 10 days, the payments were a vital buffer against extreme hunger. But the government put local consuls in charge of distribution without clear tracing mechanisms or accountability.
Reports of malpractice soon began to arise. Among Vavuniya’s Tamil villagers, 28 people weren’t even given the application forms to apply for the essential allowance. Among them was 68-year-old Theivanaiyammah. “I survive through minor odd jobs and what my children can provide,” she says. “But when the country was in lockdown, my children were also having a difficult time. When I asked for relief funds from the village consul, he said my name could not be included and he was not obliged to explain why.”
Widespread embezzlement of relief funds
When the local consul refused to help, the villagers complained in April to Shelter for Integrity, Transparency International Sri Lanka’s regional Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC). These centres provide a confidential way for victims and witnesses to report corruption, offering expert advice, free of charge.
The ALAC staff immediately recognised a pattern. They had received 40 complaints about the diversion of payments.
These complaints reflected wider problems in Sri Lankan daily life. According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Asia, which surveyed more than 20,000 people in 17 nations about their day-to-day experiences of corruption, 38 per cent of citizens think corruption is increasing in their country. In Sri Lanka, the figure is even higher, at 52 per cent, with many citizens affected – even when families are going hungry.
Investigating missing benefits
Across the country, missing COVID-19 relief payments became a common issue, exposing many people to severe and avoidable hardship during lockdown.
Some consuls claimed never to have received money from the government to pay to vulnerable families. One was alleged to have stolen the funds she was supposed to distribute. Others were negligent or inefficient, never directing the money to families so urgently in need.
There were also allegations of political manipulation, with some consuls altering recipient lists to help win support for certain politicians, and parliamentary candidates highlighting their alleged influence over who would receive payments, as a campaign tool.
Ensuring delivery of payments
To support the 28 villagers excluded from payment, ALAC staff contacted the local consul, but were told it was too late for anyone to receive pandemic relief. The ALAC staff then helped the villagers draft a joint letter to the divisional secretariat – the level of government above the local consul – to report the undelivered aid.
In response, the divisional secretary acted swiftly, instructing the consul to prepare the list of people entitled to COVID-19 relief payments according to government criteria, and issue the allowance immediately. The benefits were paid to the families, including Theivanaiyammah, who were, by then, desperate for financial support. This helped them endure the economic hardship resulting from the pandemic.
Through similar approaches, the ALAC was able to resolve all 40 of the complaints it received about the diversion of COVID-19 relief payments.
Building a culture of openness
Transparency International Sri Lanka is continuing to work hard for full transparency in the country’s COVID-19 relief initiatives and wider benefits system. Staff encourage people to speak out when they face corruption, and provide them with safe, accessible support through the ALAC when they do.
This creates a ripple effect. Each time someone challenges an individual case of wrongdoing, they’re also helping build a culture of fairness and integrity.
The GCB shows that 57 per cent of Sri Lankans think ordinary people can help stop corruption. By challenging the diversion of COVID-19 relief funds, the country’s people are already helping ensure citizens receive benefits they’re entitled to – enabling change that will outlast the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of the world’s population stayed at home in order to slow the spread of the virus. Governments pledged trillions of dollars in economic stimulus to help ease the hardship – but in many places, corruption is preventing aid from reaching the people who need it most
More than 1,800 people recently contacted Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) to report over 1,500 cases of corruption and other irregularities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our ALACs offer free and confidential services to witnesses and victims of corruption in more than 60 countries around the world, providing an accessible, effective way for people to report corrupt and demand action. Their stories indicate widespread corruption in the distribution of COVID-19 aid. Learn more.
This article was written as part of the Global Corruption Barometer – Asia 2020, the largest, most detailed survey of citizens’ views on corruption and their direct experiences of bribery in Asia.