After Ebola funds fiasco, IFRC is 'confident' corruption won't get COVID-19 money

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Jagan Chapagain, secretary-general of IFRC, in the field in his former role as undersecretary-general for programs and operations. Photo by: IFRC

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Despite losing at least $6 million of its Ebola emergency appeal to fraud and corruption, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ new secretary-general says he doesn’t think the COVID-19 appeal is at risk.

“We have taken very strong measures since then of a zero-tolerance approach on fraud and corruption.”

— Jagan Chapagain, secretary-general, IFRC

“I'm quite confident in the systems we have put in place. But of course, we cannot be complacent, so we will continue to put a huge emphasis on this,” said Jagan Chapagain, who took over from previous secretary-general Elhadj As Sy at the start of February, in an interview with Devex.

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Last week the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement — which is made up of the IFRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and 192 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world — launched a revised emergency appeal for 800 million Swiss francs ($823 million) to help the world’s most vulnerable communities tackle COVID-19.

The money will go toward risk communication, cash grants, supporting medical facilities and places of detention, responding in places of conflict and violence, and getting resources in places where they’re needed, among other things.

After the same type of appeal was issued during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, an internal investigation found that millions of Swiss francs had gone missing and hadn’t reached those in need.

During that outbreak, 4,810 people died from Ebola in Liberia, while a further 3,956 died in Sierra Leone and 2,544 in Guinea.

Collusion between former IFRC staff and bank employees in Sierra Leone, overbilling and fake billing by a customs clearance service provider in Guinea, and fraud related to inflated prices of relief items, payroll, and payment of volunteer incentives in Liberia were blamed for the majority of the losses.

Chapagain said a taboo around talking about fund mismanagement and a lack of open and honest conversations within IFRC during the Ebola crisis contributed to the problem. “Now, we openly discuss these things in our planning and our discussions just to make everybody aware that even in this type of crisis, something bad can happen. There could be people who could take advantage of this,” he said.

Following the investigation, IFRC said it would give corruption training to staff and more powers to internal auditors. A triple-defense mechanism — at the operational level, the management level, and a compliance level of audit and investigations — has since been introduced to manage risk.

It includes measures around cash spending limits in high-risk settings, early deployment of trained auditors, and fraud prevention training.

“We have taken very strong measures since then of a zero-tolerance approach on fraud and corruption and put transparency and accountability on how we manage some of these things,” Chapagain said, adding that he also plans to hire a dedicated auditor to focus specifically on the organization’s coronavirus response.

“The recent part — because of the scale and geographical scope — [is that] we have put some dedicated additional human resources to support this. We used to do this with the existing human resources with the previous operations, but here we are putting dedicated additional resources, and that's the difference,” Chapagain said. A shift to online systems has also helped with money management, he added.

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.