Opinion: We need all hands on deck to follow the global COVID-19 money trail

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Oxygen concentrators for the treatment of COVID-19 patients in Ukraine. Photo by: UNICEF / 2020 / Filippov / CC BY

Around the world, governments are struggling to balance getting COVID-19 assistance out expeditiously with the equally important criteria of doing so with proper oversight.

The United Kingdom’s National Audit Office, or NAO, recently released a report on coronavirus-related procurements that exposed inadequate checks in the way the British government awarded contracts. The auditor-general of South Africa reported overpricing and corruption in the use of COVID-19 relief funds.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found that U.S. government efforts to speed fund distributions left programs susceptible to fraud. Critics also point to a lack of equity considerations in the CARES Act enacted by the U.S. Congress, as Black- and minority-owned businesses were given short shrift.

The list goes on. We should reflect on this perennial challenge in crises and what to do about it.

Confronting COVID-19 has required massive emergency spending, estimated at nearly a staggering $12 trillion globally. Dozens of countries have created special crisis funds — bypassing traditional controls — to mobilize donations for their emergency responses. This assistance is critical to protecting development progress. But the volume of funds being channeled through expedited processes has also stressed oversight and accountability systems.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s team has made clear that the fight against corruption will be a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policy priorities — underscoring once again that values at home must reflect what the country preaches abroad.

This focus should include not only targeting illicit financial flows, but also advancing — alongside global partners like the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions — national accountability and oversight systems worldwide, especially in coronavirus-related emergency and recovery spending.

Auditors around the world must check the receipts to ensure that COVID-19 funding is achieving its intended goal of helping at-risk communities and does not end up in the pockets of profiteers.

Government auditors, like NAO and GAO, are essential workers in the fight for accountability. They are doing the yeoman’s work of chasing the receipts and unearthing instances in which governments are falling short of basic transparency standards and tolerating conflicts of interest and other irregularities that undermine public confidence in the global COVID-19 response. Some are doing so at great personal risk.

The media is undoubtedly playing an important supporting role by shining a spotlight on auditors’ findings. But once the headlines disappear, what happens next? How do we ensure auditors’ findings lead to tangible improvements in government spending for the public good?

Our recently launched report, a comprehensive look at the strength of audit and oversight systems globally, found that executive implementation of audit recommendations is the weakest link in oversight systems. In most countries, the legislative follow-up and public pressure needed to prompt executives to implement audit recommendations do not exist.

To resolve this, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure oversight of government budgets during this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. That means auditors, governments, legislators, the media, and the public must work together to demand accountability.

First and foremost, we need to bolster the independence of audit institutions. Auditors need the access, mandate, and resources to produce high-quality audits, including of coronavirus-related expenditures that are channeled through special funds. Unfortunately, in some countries, we continue to see executives exerting undue pressure or influence on auditors — forcing them into retirement when they come up with inconvenient findings, not filling critical vacant audit positions, or taking other steps to reduce their independence.

Parliamentarians also have an essential part to play. Legislatures should have an independent role in appointing and removing auditors and in setting their budgets. They must also take audit reports seriously and investigate findings.

Communities need channels through which to provide essential information on whether budgets are being spent properly. In my 20 years of engaging with auditors, I have been heartened to see how national audit offices increasingly understand the value proposition of working with the public and no longer fear that such engagement may be incongruent with objectivity. They now recognize that communities can share and follow up on whether public funds are being spent properly and reaching those who need assistance the most.

In recent years, auditors have experimented with new channels to engage the public. For instance, in Argentina, auditors worked with civil society to hold the government accountable for failing to stop Chagas' disease. In Sierra Leone, auditors are working with civic groups to make sure schools get running water so that children can safely return to learning during the pandemic.

While we need decisive government action if we are to bend the curve of infection and weather the impacts of COVID-19, this crisis cannot excuse waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer funds.

Auditors around the world must check the receipts to ensure that COVID-19 funding is achieving its intended goal of helping at-risk communities and does not end up in the pockets of profiteers — but they simply cannot guarantee accountability on their own. They need support across government and society if we are to get the global COVID-19 response right today and strengthen accountability in the long run.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Vivek Ramkumar

    Vivek Ramkumar is the senior director of policy for the International Budget Partnership.