South Sudan aid sector 'infected' with bribery, local NGOs say

A man carries sacks of food aid for distribution to internally displaced people in the protection of civilians camp run by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan near the town of Malakal in the Upper Nile state of South Sudan. Photo by: REUTERS / Baz Ratner

JUBA, South Sudan — In August, Frank Lam’s local aid group received a call from an international donor who was finalizing a grant for his organization in South Sudan. The financial officer allegedly wanted a $5,000 kickback from the $30,000 allotment before approving the proposal, Lam said.

“He said there were a lot of ‘mistakes’ in our concept note, and if we didn’t want future funding to be affected, we had to pay,” Lam told Devex. His boss, who hadn’t received funding in years, was “desperate” and paid the bribe, he said. Their organization won the contract.

“If the bribery and nepotism compromising the recruitment process isn’t reined in, aid groups will be no different than the country’s fraudulent government.”

— Jacob Chol, senior political analyst and professor, University of Juba

Corruption relating to the allocation of grants and jobs in South Sudan’s aid sector is rife, according to South Sudanese humanitarians, civil societies, private organizations, and local aid groups who shared their stories with Devex.

While Devex cannot independently verify any of the allegations, six South Sudanese working for local organizations or familiar with the procurement process, and owners of two foreign companies said they’d either been asked for a bribe directly or knew of several colleagues who paid bribes in order to secure contracts or get jobs with the United Nations, international NGOs, and donor countries.

All of the alleged instances involved payments solicited by national or regional staff who were bribing local aid groups for project grants, private contractors, and South Sudanese nationals in search of jobs.

A bribery ‘disease’

As South Sudan slowly emerges from five years of fighting, which has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, the country is also trying to claw its way back from an economic crisis, which has left people struggling to survive. The aid industry is comprised of 20 U.N. bodies and at least 330 international and national NGOs, employing almost 25,000 local staff and more than 2,600 foreigners, according to figures seen by Devex from South Sudan’s NGO Forum and the U.N. Office for the Coordination Of Humanitarian Affairs.

The sector has long fueled much of the nation’s economy by providing national employment and contributing to local industries. But corruption within the sector has also been ongoing for years, according to locals, who say it’s getting worse and attribute it to a mix of greed and desperation by people who have learned to game the system.

“It’s really affecting our work, you realize that the corruption in the NGO sector is too much. Most of these international organizations are infected with the same disease, which is bribery,” said Thomas Modi, founder and executive director of a local NGO.

In 2018, Modi lost three contracts because he wouldn’t pay bribes, two with international organizations and one with the U.N., he said.

In November, his organization applied for an approximately $70,000 grant to set up a radio station in Eastern Equatoria state. The project manager for the international aid group told him that his proposal was in line with the organization’s objectives, so Modi was surprised when he didn’t get the contract. He later learned that his friend who won the contract allegedly paid a bribe to secure the deal.

In a separate incident earlier that year, while applying for a grant to implement peace-building activities with another international aid group, Modi told Devex he was approached by one of the organization’s employees who said he’d help him get the grant, but first wanted to know how Modi was going “to play” with him — a code for bribe, Modi said. He declined the offer and didn’t win the project, he said.

“This is a big issue, it’s real, and it’s been going on for a long time,” Edmund Yakani, executive director for local advocacy group Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, told Devex.

While counseling other local aid agencies dealing with this problem, the civil society group has had its own setbacks. For three years, CEPO applied to the same U.N. agency for funding, but its requests were repeatedly denied because of “too many applications,” Yakani said. Yet after speaking with other agencies, which received contracts from the same U.N. body, he discovered that the majority of them were paying bribes.

Yakani partially attributes the problem to South Sudan’s cash-strapped government and lack of public services, which pushes people to desperation. The common “culture of bribes” and corruption makes it easy to continue doing it, he said.

Last year, South Sudan ranked 178th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index, just ahead of Syria and Somalia.

“It’s really affecting our work, you realize that the corruption in the NGO sector is too much. Most of these international organizations are infected with the same disease, which is bribery.”

— Thomas Modi, founder and executive director, local South Sudan NGO

More aid, more corruption

One veteran aid worker told Devex the problem has been endemic since the days of Operation Lifeline Sudan, a global initiative that helped millions during the country’s second civil war, before the south seceded from the north to become South Sudan.

The “substantial fortunes” that were made by some East African U.N. employees and their families and businesses through insider connections with the aid procurement process are likely to have been a “model of procurement fraud, collusion, kickbacks, and nepotism” for the emerging government of South Sudan, Marv Koop, a former aid worker in the Sudans, told Devex.

Given the increase in aid to the country and the expansion of the U.N. and international organizations’ procurement networks, participation in this system has likely expanded, he said.

In the last three years, funding channeled through national NGOs from the South Sudan Humanitarian Fund, managed by U.N. OCHA, has increased from 12% of funds allocated in 2016 to 39% in 2018, according to figures seen by Devex. In its first allocation in 2019, the fund gave $34.4 million, more than $13 million of which will go directly to national NGOs, the figures show.

According to some local aid workers, senior officials within organizations known to take bribes aren’t aware of what’s going on. Since most high-level postings are foreigners who aren’t as familiar with the country’s national aid groups, local junior project managers can more easily influence decision-makers with regards to which South Sudanese organizations get contracts, said Daniel Mwaka, executive director of a national NGO.

“It’s like [top officials] are manipulated not knowing what’s happening,” he said.

People also allegedly game the system by granting proposals to their personal NGOs, Mwaka said. For example, regional staff pair with South Sudanese to establish their own national aid groups, he explained. They then use their positions within the international agency to grant projects to their preferred group. They know what’s needed to win a proposal, so they’ll guide their staff on how to do it while advising higher-ups on which group should get the contract, he said.

Having founded his organization in 2013, Mwaka said corruption is increasing. In his first few years of operation, he was never asked for a bribe. But since 2016, which saw renewed clashes break out in the capital during the height of the conflict, he’s been propositioned four times by local staff working for international organizations and the U.N., he said.

“Sometimes they call and say, ‘let’s meet after work’ and you go for a casual meeting, and then they say, ‘I’ll make sure you get the grant but you have to appreciate me,’” said Mwaka. To “appreciate” someone is widely understood to mean bribe, he added.

Both Mwaka and Lam blame donor agencies for not taking the time to make office visits to keep up with what’s going on with their partners, and for not having more checks and balances involving top officials.

National NGOs should be directly engaged with donors instead of middlemen, Lam said.

In his few years working with local NGOs, Lam has had local staff from two different international donors ask for bribes. In 2017, when applying for a $45,000 social cohesion project with a foreign government office in Juba, one staffer called and asked to meet to “discuss issues” before moving the process forward, he said. When they met, the project officer asked for 10% of the contract’s worth, Lam said. His organization declined and wasn’t awarded the grant.

The bribery extends beyond local aid groups. One foreign business owner, who does not want to be named to protect her identity, knows an international construction company that told her they regularly pay up to $200,000 in bribes to aid groups and agree on the amount prior to the proposal’s submission.

‘Credible malpractices’

Devex reached out to six international organizations or donor agencies named in instances of alleged bribery during either the recruitment or procurement process, the names of which are being withheld as Devex was unable to independently corroborate the allegations.

Spokespeople from four of the six entities responded to Devex queries. All denied knowledge of bribe solicitation within their organization and shared various measures they are taking to help deter this practice, such as establishing a “zero tolerance” policy to corruption, encouraging staff to develop anti-corruption action plans, and creating a business unit to investigate and protect against corruption.

South Sudan’s NGO Forum, an independent coordinating body comprised of national and international NGOs, couldn’t verify any of the incidents mentioned by Devex, but said that a common feature from other reported cases to the group is that there’s “a lot of misunderstanding and misperceptions around recruitment, proposal, and evaluation processes,” said Liatile Putsoa, communications adviser at the forum. The organization wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of the misunderstandings, but encouraged “credible malpractices” to be reported.

While South Sudan’s NGO recruitment guidelines say that any employee found abusing or misusing power is subject to “serious disciplinary actions,” the government said the onus is on the international organizations to put checks and balances in place so the wrong people aren’t given jobs, Mary Hillary Wani, undersecretary for the country’s ministry of labor, told Devex. She was unaware of any bribery allegations within the sector, she said.

Many locals said they’re too afraid to report incidents for fear of retaliation.

In 2018, Modi said he reported one incident to an organization’s management. While some staffers were suspended, after they returned to work they became more “selective” in terms of those willing to “collaborate with them,” he said. He’s concerned people accused of malpractice will take revenge and it will backfire on local partners’ abilities to get contracts.

Others say changing the system is an uphill battle. “I have no power to influence either at the NGO level or the government level,” said Loku, a local living in Juba who is looking to work in development. Devex is only using his first name to protect his identity. In order to get ahead in the country, it’s necessary to know the right people or offer bribes, he said.

When the 31-year-old applied for a job with an international aid group in Juba approximately two years ago, he was allegedly told by a human resources staffer that if he wanted the position, he’d have to forego his first three months’ pay and give it to the hiring officer, he said. Loku refused and didn’t get the job, he said.

He laments that due to the country’s dire economic situation and lack of opportunity for employment, many educated and qualified young people are forced to find odd jobs such as working as motorcycle taxi drivers in town, while unqualified people who lie on their resumes and bribe their way into positions — often including $100 bills with their application forms — are getting jobs, he said.

“If the bribery and nepotism compromising the recruitment process isn’t reined in, aid groups will be no different than the country’s fraudulent government,” Jacob Chol, senior political analyst and professor at the University of Juba told Devex.

“Critical investigations should be launched to weed this out and name and shame the practitioners,” Chol said. “Otherwise, instead of alleviating poverty, aid groups will be complicit in perpetuating corruption.”

About the author

  • Sam mednick profile

    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a Devex Contributor based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. Her work has appeared in Devex, the Associated Press, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and The New Humanitarian, among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happiness at Work Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.