'We were wrong,' says head of Irish charity GOAL

GOAL works in Syria to provide livelihood programs for locals. Photo by: GOAL

The general manager of embattled Irish charity GOAL says the fallout over its misconduct has crippled its work in South Sudan — but that it is now “on a path to recovery.”

In an interview with Devex, Celine Fitzgerald said the charity had “no problem” accepting blame for what happened. “I have always put my hand up [about this],” she said. “We were wrong.”

However, they were determined not to let the organization collapse amid the crisis because of a duty to their beneficiaries. 

“It was important that GOAL survived because in many cases there was nobody else going to step into our shoes,” she said. “In Darfur, for example, there’s nobody else around. In Idlib, in northern Syria, there’s nobody else doing what we’re doing. In a sector that sometimes can be quite crowded, GOAL has often been the only player in a particular region. So the survival of GOAL was about the survival of beneficiary support.”

As a result, the stakes for the charity’s reform process were high, she said, and pressure on both GOAL and its donors to fix the issues “was intense.”

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Fitzgerald was brought into manage Ireland’s largest charity from the private sector in November 2016, as it grappled with allegations of bid rigging and collusion in its humanitarian programs.

Its biggest donor, the United States Agency for International Development, said it had uncovered misconduct in Turkey among GOAL and several other humanitarian agencies’ operations for Syria. Its main donors — including Irish Aid and the United Kingdom Department for International Development — halted procurement, plunging GOAL, its programs and beneficiaries into uncertainty.

As a result, the charity laid off 25 employees, mostly in London and Dublin; closed its 10-person office in Washington, D.C.; and fired two staff members in Turkey, culling the alleged source of its supply chain irregularities. Chief Executive Officer Barry Andrews stepped down, citing the organization’s “need for change” in the wake of the crisis.

A little over a year later, the charity’s fortunes are looking up. USAID rescinded its threat of suspension in April, and Irish Aid and DFID have also reinstated funding. After discussions about a potential merger with Oxfam Ireland, it was announced last week that GOAL would be able to remain independent.

However, Fitzgerald told Devex that the charity’s programs in war-torn South Sudan have endured the most devastating cuts as a result of the investigation; the potential damage to recipients is a “source of great regret,” she said.

“We’ve had to downsize our programs in South Sudan, which is a source of huge sadness to me because that country is such a chaotic place and people’s lives are so difficult,” she said.

“We’re still in South Sudan and we’re still working very hard there, but we’re not covering the same kind of populations that we were before.”

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She added that programs in Ukraine and India also closed this year, although these scale-downs were “already in the works.”

Compared to GOAL’s 2015 budget of 200 million euros ($234.7 million), the organization has budgeted for 115 million euros ($135 million) of expenditure in 2017. Fitzgerald said the year will be a “period of consolidation” for the organization, but is optimistic that GOAL is on the road to recovery.

She believes that procedures should be in place to protect beneficiaries when disaster strikes, she added.

“Fraud happens. It happens everywhere — here in Dublin, in the Middle East, in Africa, everywhere. Nobody can say they’re exempt from it, because it’s not true ...

“Donors have very high levels of accountability and that’s absolutely right — that’s what we would all want,” she said. “But it’s just about having those safety nets in place when it does go wrong.”

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About the author

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    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.