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Citizens struggle as promised COVID-19 aid goes missing

Corruption claims critical humanitarian and economic aid meant to help those most vulnerable

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

This blog is part of a series, Citizens Report COVID-19 Corruption, to raise awareness about the human cost of corruption during COVID-19 and encourage citizens to report corruption.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of the world population has stayed at home in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Governments have 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.

Their stories indicate widespread corruption in the distribution of COVID-19 aid.

Humanitarian aid lost to corruption

Some countries have failed to issue clear criteria on who exactly qualifies for financial relief, while others have lacked transparency and accountability in its distribution. As a result, corrupt officials have been able to enrich themselves and their political supporters at the expense of the intended beneficiaries.

Without the promised assistance, many people are unable to abide by protective lockdown measures. They must leave their homes to earn money and find food, putting them at risk of catching the virus and running afoul of the police.

Sri Lanka: A community desperately awaits aid

In March, the government of Sri Lanka announced a single payment of 5,000 rupees for low-income families, senior citizens and people with disabilities.

But the government put local consuls in charge of distribution without clear tracing mechanisms or accountability. Some consuls say they never received any money to distribute from the government. Others were simply disorganized or inefficient and never directed the money to where it was supposed to go. In one case, a local officer is alleged to have stolen the money she was supposed to distribute to low-income families.

In April 2020, staff at Shelter for Integrity (the ALAC in Sri Lanka) heard from 40 people who did not receive the aid to which they were legally entitled. Twenty-eight of the reports came from Tamil people in a single rural province in northern Sri Lanka.

The ALAC contacted the consular to resolve the issue, but were told it was too late for anyone to receive aid. The ALAC then helped the 28 people draft an official letter to the divisional secretariat, the next level of government above the local consular, to report the undelivered aid.

The divisional secretariat quickly overruled the consular, and all 28 people received the assistance they needed to weather the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reports indicate a worldwide problem

At the start of the pandemic, countries like Afghanistan and El Salvador received hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and aid from wealthy nations and international institutions. But without transparency, corrupt officials have lined their own pockets while citizens and health care workers struggle day-to-day.

Nigeria also received millions of dollars in international humanitarian aid. It announced several new programs to help citizens through the economic lockdown, including the direct distribution of food and cash to millions of vulnerable households.

The Nigerian government claimed that every citizen received relief, but many people say it is simply not the case. A Nigerian ALAC received an anonymous complaint from a person whose town received no government aid. Similar stories have circulated in Nigerian news and on social media.

In Palestine, 16 people contacted the ALAC for help in obtaining financial, medical, and food aid.

Even more people sought help in Zimbabwe, where several ALACs received hundreds of requests from people seeking help in tracking down undelivered aid.

The government of Zimbabwe released no information on how it distributed food and money during the pandemic. Some local politicians sought bribes in order to register citizens for assistance, while others only registered their political supporters for critical aid.

Our Zimbabwe chapter sued the government to find out where exactly the money went, and which areas remain most in need of help.

As a result of their efforts, the court recently ruled in their favour, instructing the Ministry of Health and Child Care and Minister of Information to share distribution information. The ALAC is now working to ensure the government complies with the court ruling and releases the information.

Rwanda: A family goes hungry

The Rwandan ALAC received dozens of calls from people who needed help in getting aid. The local officials in charge of distributing food and financial relief were sometimes unable to respond effectively to the massive surge in need.

One call came from a woman who had not been able to feed her five children for two days. Normally she worked as a street-vendor selling vegetables, but she lost her livelihood when the country went into lockdown at the end of March.

The ALAC contacted her local executive secretary, who reviewed the records and confirmed that the woman and her children should have gotten aid. She then received rice, maize, beans, oil, and other food.

Fighting COVID-19 and corruption together

Governments that ask their citizens to stay at home also have a responsibility to help them with the hardships that it entails.

Instead many are turning a blind eye as corrupt officials deprive people of badly needed aid.

This corruption falls hardest on vulnerable groups, such as women, the elderly and people living in poverty. Many of them live hand-to-mouth and cannot stay at home without food and financial assistance.

The more desperate people become, the more likely they are to spread COVID-19, as they must violate lockdown measures to provide for their families.

Governments that want to contain the virus must also contain corruption. Transparency International calls on them to take the following steps:

  • Create and publish clear criteria for COVID-19 aid programs.
  • Distribute food and financial aid with full transparency and accountability.
  • Ensure complaints reporting mechanisms are available and safe for citizens to reporting irregularities in public expenditures related to the COVID-19 response.
  • Investigate all cases of corruption reported to the authorities and sanction all instances of wrongdoing.
  • Protect people who speak up and report wrongdoing in their communities.

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