UK-Syria aid scandal prompts questions about risk in conflict zones

Damaged buildings in Aleppo, Syria. Photo by: Sebastien Dechamps / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The suspension of funds to the 12 million pound ($16 million) “Access to Justice and Community Security” program in Syria has raised questions in the British aid community about risk management in conflict zones and the opacity of cross-government funds.

The AJACS programme — a community-based, unarmed policing effort in war-torn northern Syria — was suspended Monday by its six donors after the British investigative television show BBC Panorama aired claims about corruption and aid funds reaching the hands of terrorist groups.

The allegations relate to part of the program managed by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office; funded by the governments of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom and United States; and implemented by British contractor Adam Smith International. Another part of the program is implemented by Creative Associates, and funded solely by the U.S.

The BBC investigation, “Jihadis You Pay For,” which aired Monday night, alleges that ASI — backed by U.K. taxpayer funds — knowingly funded terrorist activities, or failed to act swiftly after discovering that a small portion of funds were reaching terrorists. It concludes that U.K.-funded “development efforts have been undermined by mismanagement, waste and corruption,” leading to concern among many in the aid community that the allegations could provoke anti-aid sentiment among the public.

ASI has strongly denied the allegations and accused the BBC of “sensationalist journalism.” It said the issues raised by the program had already been “discussed extensively with donors,” but that it is also conducting an internal investigation.

The FCO, which manages the project, declined to say whether or not it knew about the issues, but said in a statement: “We take any allegations of cooperation with terrorist groups and of human rights abuses extremely seriously and the Foreign Office has suspended this program while we investigate these allegations.”

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ASI — which only recently escaped the limelight following a parliamentary inquiry into separate media allegations — says it warned the BBC that two of its “whistleblowers” were ASI employees who had been sacked over concerns about their behavior. A third witness, according to an ASI statement, was denied a job with the program after he failed the vetting process.

The U.K. government has suspended the program while it conducts an investigation, but in the meantime the story has raised questions about risk management and mitigation in aid programs operating in conflict zones, especially given the increased investment in cross-government aid efforts. This in part due to the the U.K.’s cross-government strategy, which has seen increasing levels of aid spent through departments other than the Department for International Development since 2015 and has caused concern about levels of accountability.

The AJACS program was managed by the FCO and funded through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. This 1.2 billion pound ($1.6 billion) cross-government fund “provides development and security support to countries which are at risk of conflict or instability,” and consists of a mix of official development assistance and non-ODA funds.

The CSSF was accused of being “opaque” by the U.K. government’s Joint Committee for National Security Strategy in a scathing report published earlier this year, which also raised questions about the FCO’s capacity to manage some projects.

The U.K. government’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact is currently conducting a separate review of the CSSF, due to be published early next year.

Inherent risks

The BBC investigation highlights AJACS’ support for the Free Syria Police, an unarmed civilian police force that was set up following the Syrian revolution to re-establish law and order in opposition-controlled parts of the country. ASI says the group brings rule of law and safety to millions of people who would otherwise have none.

But the BBC makes a number of allegations, including that ASI was too slow to respond after discovering links between two FSP stations and courts being run by proscribed terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra; and that two FSP officers were present when two women were stoned to death. ASI says the stoning incident took place just five weeks after it started running the project and that the two officers in question were not normally linked to the scheme.

Panorama also says some FSP officers, who are paid in cash, were being forced to hand over funds to extremist groups controlling the area. ASI says these payments were stopped in August 2016 and that only $1,800 was diverted.

Although the story is a scandal for the U.K. government’s aid efforts, which have come under attack from sections of the media, aid experts stressed that programs operating in conflict zones carry inherent risk, even if it is difficult to communicate to the public.

Yet the issue is complicated, as the U.K. government advocates for a definition of aid that includes security-related expenditure, as demonstrated by the CSSF itself.

In the JCNSS report, published before the BBC allegations, Dr Andrew Rathmell, a stabilisation expert who gave evidence before the committee, warned that politicians need to acknowledge the risks of working in conflict-affected and unstable countries.

“There are established ways of managing those risks, but a fund like [the CSSF] needs to be willing to have some appetite … that some of the funds will go missing or be linked to groups that may carry out human rights abuses,” he said in the report.

Governments must decide “how far they are willing to accept the risk,” he added, and warned that having too risk averse an attitude could hamper the effectiveness of humanitarian and development efforts. “If you completely remove the chance of that happening, you have much less effect,” he said.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Devex that operating any kind of assistance program in Northern Syria is inherently risky, and added that he is concerned coverage of the ASI allegations will “create the kind of political fervor” against aid that the sector “wants to avoid.”

“If you operate a program in north Syria you’re going to take that risk … [that] something will get into the wrong hands at some point,” he said. “That’s not to say when it happens you ignore it — you need to undertake adaptations to the program to minimize these risks happening again. But it’s certainly not a reason not to do what you’re doing.”

Konyndyk added that if the contractor’s claims about the amount of money implicated are accurate, then they appear to have been doing a good job in safeguarding donor money.

“If indeed the concern boils down to $1,800 of funding out of a $20 million program fell into the wrong hands, and if that’s the only amount, then in an environment like north Syria, I would see that as a tremendously good track record,” he said.

Konyndyk also said that transparency can be difficult while working in environments such as north Syria which are controlled by different armed groups and factions.

“It’s very sensitive for aid groups to talk about; they are walking a tight rope trying not to anger the groups they’re working with, as well as the governments [from where they manage the projects], and also donor countries.”

In such cases, it can be difficult for aid groups to be publicly transparent although there should be “internal transparency between funders and implementers,” he said.

Emma Beals, an independent Syria expert and journalist, added that while the Panorama documentary may have raised legitimate concerns, it is important to ensure it does not reduce efforts to get much-needed aid to Syrian civilians.

“It is essential that attempts to address concerns raised within the Free Police project ... do not adversely impact the humanitarian aid available to people living in the affected areas of Syria, who depend on aid spending — including British aid — to survive in a protracted conflict,” she said.

David Robson, head of AJACS at ASI, said program staff have agreed to continue delivering services inside Syria without payments in the short-term.

He added he is optimistic that funds could be reinstated quickly, saying there had been “a very positive call” with donors and so “hopefully business will be back as usual shortly.”

Zero tolerance policy?

In an interview with Devex, Robson said the risks of the program had been carefully considered and discussed with donors in advance.

“When you look at the individual allegations, it has to be said that all the material there was known to us and known to our donors and had been discussed with them. Clear, rational decisions have been taken on how to proceed with the donors based on the facts and based on the risk … The program is designed to operate in a very high-risk environment,” he said.

Robson claimed that an important part of the program’s mandate “is to counter violent extremism. So you would expect there to be contact between the FSP and those [proscribed] groups and that is very carefully managed on a day-to-day basis.”

He said the Free Syria Police have an “extraordinarily high satisfaction rating” among the population, and “more than 80 percent describe them as their most trusted security provider.”

“I think that there seems to be a reluctance to come back hard and say no we were right, you know, we made decisions based on the full facts that were available to us, and we stand by those decisions.”

— David Robson, head of AJACS at ASI

Nonetheless, Robson explained that even though stakeholders in AJACS knew about the risks early on in the program design, all projects from the outset are constructed with a “zero tolerance” policy toward corruption, fraud and other issues, even in the riskiest environments. Instead, staff tackle such issues on an ad hoc basis, meeting fortnightly to decide how each new challenge would be managed.

“The aspiration of course is no loss [of funds] whatsoever … Each of the circumstances, each of the engagements, each decision is taken on its merits on the understanding that there could be some financial loss or some damage to reputation if we're getting it wrong,” he said, adding that “we constantly discuss the risks with our donors.”

Asked if it might not be better — both for staff expectations and public perception — to build risk into the program’s budget by costing for an expected loss, Robson said he believes a zero tolerance policy is smarter in the long-term. First, he suggested, anything that laid down a risk framework suggesting it could be acceptable to lose any amount of money to a terrorist organization “would be extremely difficult to explain to the public.”

Second, he said, every community is different, so maintaining an adaptable approach to corruption or funding loss — rather than operating on an assumption or a percentage of expected loss, for example — allows the donor and implementer to stay flexible, and encourages closer working.

Robson argued ASI, the CSSF and the FCO did everything possible to manage known and unknown risks, and claims the material presented by the BBC was “either false, misleading or misrepresenting,” demonstrating “their complete lack of understanding of the Syrian context and how programs were run.”

At the same time, Robson acknowledged that explaining risk to the public is a daunting task.

“It might look simple from a distance, but it’s absolutely not the case on the ground and you end up dealing with layer upon layer of complexity and challenge,” he told Devex.

“Without a detailed understanding of the situation it's very difficult to understand sometimes why certain risks were tolerated ... [To] give a simple and quick description to somebody who is reading a newspaper ... is a really difficult thing to do because it can't be dealt with in a sound bite.”

Studies have shown that the rise in counterterror legislation has made it more difficult for humanitarian and development agencies to operate in conflict and unstable countries. This was heightened by reports showing Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia had routinely extracted aid money during the 2011 famine.

While new legislation and increased scrutiny has led some humanitarian actors to report a “chilling effect” on their activities, they have also encouraged aid agencies and donors to become “more sophisticated” when it comes to managing risk, Konyndyk said.

“Organizations are rightly nervous but I think we’ve come a long way since Somalia … Donor and aid agencies have gotten more sophisticated about how they work,” he said.

Greater clarity is needed, though, according to research from Naz Modirzadeh, a professor at Harvard Law School. Of more than 500 actors interviewed for her study, 90 percent said counterterrorism measures had weakened their organization’s commitment to humanitarian principles, with more than a third saying they had caused their organization to “forego, alter, or cease activities and programming.”

The research also pointed to “profound confusion among aid workers” about which laws and policies applied and in what situations, Modirzadeh said during a presentation at the United Nations Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment meetings held earlier this year.  

While 60 percent of actors interviewed for the Harvard study said they could be “forthright” with donors about their concerns — such as the risk that aid could be diverted to designated terrorist groups — many said they could not have such conversations due to a perceived lack of understanding on the part of the donor or because they feared funding could be cut.

Konyndyk agreed clarity is needed, saying there needs to be a “shared understanding between the agency and donor about those risks,” and that everyone needs to go into projects in places such as Syria with their “eyes very wide open … and that everyone and knows what they’re going into.”

Concerns about the CSSF

However, the issues of risk, security-related spending and transparency in aid are complicated by cross-government pools such as the CSSF, which funds the AJACS program and has a unique structure that has raised some concerns about management and a possible dilution of the ODA rules.

Although the fund contains a mix of ODA and non-ODA resources, the proportion of ODA going to the CSSF has increased dramatically in recent years. Recent DFID statistics show that in 2016, the fund received 575 million pounds ($769.4 million) of ODA, 251 million pounds ($335.8 million) more than in 2015. Those ODA funds are available to any department within the National Security Council.

In 2016, the FCO was the largest recipient and spent nearly 73 percent of the total CSSF ODA allocation, while DFID spent 19 percent. The Ministry of Defense is also a recipient, and a large portion goes on mandatory contributions to peacekeeping operations.

In February, the JCNSS report described the fund’s “objectives, operation and achievements” as “opaque.” The report also said the “CSSF lacks political leadership and accountability” and warned “there is the danger that collective responsibility will degenerate into no responsibility.”  As a result, the committee concluded it was impossible to provide “parliamentary accountability for taxpayers’ money spent via the CSSF.”

In September, in answer to a parliamentary question, Lord Tariq Ahmad, a minister of state in the FCO, said CSSF funding had provided for the “moderate opposition” in Syria, including through “political support and non-lethal equipment,” but that “for security reasons we do not disclose the names of groups supported.” Funding for Syria amounted to 69 million pounds ($92.3 million) in 2017, he said.

Members of the aid community have also raised concerns about a lack of transparency over which projects within the CSSF are being funded by ODA.

ASI’s Robson said that “from an implementer perspective, I don't think we have any difficulties at all with CSSF, how it's governed or run.”

“CSSF has broadly the same intent as it always has. I think there is closer cooperation between government departments; their ability to work together effectively has grown over the course of the life of the CSSF,” he said.

Asked if CSSF presents a better or worse appetite for risk, and the ability to manage that risk, compared with other aid-delivering departments such as DFID, Robson explained that the CSSF had been specially designed to deliver nontraditional aid programs that naturally deal with complex, risk-prone environments.

“For a program that is required to try to counter the malign influence of these armed [terrorist] groups, a greater degree of risk is going to be present and therefore the management of that risk is going to have to be layered and have to be under greater scrutiny than it would for a more traditional aid program.”

Concerns about the FCO

While the CSSF may be designed for riskier, nontraditional aid delivery, many in the aid community question whether the FCO is fit to the manage some of the U.K.’s riskiest aid programs — a question that builds on broader concerns about the cross-government strategy and whether all departments have the necessary capacity and expertise to administer ODA.

FCO also has a poor track record on transparency, according to Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index, especially compared with DFID. “I do wonder, is there the same degree of sophistication in approach to risk management [within FCO] as you would have if a seasoned aid agency had been handling it,” Konyndyk told Devex. “Why wasn’t this a DFID-managed program?”

Asked why DFID didn’t manage the AJACS programme, ASI’s Robson said “it was the security aspect that meant that the FCO has taken the lead on this rather than DFID,” adding that “it’s the same for the other government donors, where “it’s managed by the ministries of foreign affairs” instead of aid departments.

The JCNSS also raised questions about the FCO’s role, singling it out “for its comparative lack of procurement expertise.” In evidence to the committee, Rathmell described the “lack of FCO capacity” as a “major challenge” for the CSSF. It is “troubling,” he said, “given that the FCO administers the majority of the CSSF program budget.”

While Robson stressed his belief that the CSSF and the FCO are the appropriate channels for the program, he also criticized the way the FCO deals with media allegations and criticisms of its programmes. U.K. political insiders told Devex they feared the FCO’s relative silence on the issue would mean the blame would fall on DFID.

“I think that there is a case for being more robust in the way that our programs are defended by governments,” he said. “I've always found it more effective to come back robustly and say yes there was a problem, yes there was an amount of cash lost or whatever the issue is, but that this was tolerated in terms of the way that the risks were designed in the program to be managed, because the benefits that you were achieving were worth these small losses or these small setbacks.”

“I think that there seems to be a reluctance to come back hard and say no we were right, you know, we made decisions based on the full facts that were available to us, and we stand by those decisions,” Robson said.

A spokesperson for the FCO told Devex in an email that the programs operating under AJACS, which are “also supported by international partners, are intended to make communities in Syria safer by providing basic civilian policing services.”

“We believe that such work in Syria is important to protect our national security interest, but of course we reach this judgement carefully given that in such a challenging environment no activity is without risk. That is why all our programs are designed carefully and subject to robust monitoring.”

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DFID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDFID.

About the authors

  • Molly%2520anders%2520cropped

    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.