On accountability and transparency in I/NGOs

I/NGOs here are mum but they’ve been rocked by the recent news of a fraud suit by no less than the US Government against Visayan Forum.

My initial shock of the news wearing off, I contacted former colleagues and the exchanges after a while took a turn toward humorous. I wondered how many boxes of fake receipts were seized and said that it must be very challenging to produce receipts amounting to the unaccounted millions – poor bookkeeper! One replied that perhaps the bookkeeper, harassed with the gargantuan task, wasn’t given a share in the “pot money” and so.

But seriously I/NGOs are known for their efficient, transparent, and fraud-free financial systems and they wear this as a badge of honor. But then no one’s perfect all the time.

When I was still with my former employer, an INGO, the rule is that employees in a figurative sense can have 10 spouses and still be retained but pocket even 1 centavo of organizational funds and it’ll be your end even if you’re the founder or have put in 50 years to the organization. Employees who line their pockets with donated or aid funds are considered sickos. Incidents happen but rarely, but when it does it’s a huge internal scandal with repercussions felt beyond the organization. It would be very difficult for the party to the fraud to re-enter the development community. The only thing to do is get another skill and switch industry (this to a development worker is enough punishment because once a development worker always a development worker – it is often the case that they have difficulty easing into other sectors or industry) and vow to have learned your lesson.

The reason for this tough stance on fund diligence is that in the case of my former employer funds come from varied sources and majority of these are from individual citizens in the B and C income class (there are only few from the A income class) or groups such as school children or a school class who donate their lunch money in order that their peers in developing countries (such as here) can have the kind of schooling the children-donors enjoy in their own countries (developed nations). It’s like tax money to government.

Fund accountability is a big word in I/NGOs. Audits, more than evaluations, are huge events. There’s even an INGO Accountability Charter.

Another reason is that losing even one donor poses a huge cost and risk to the organization. And so the organization reinvents itself continually, by ramping up its system and processes, human resource capacity, etc. in order to deliver on quality (its promise).

I just hope that despite the recent incident, I/NGOs’ credibility on the whole won’t be weakened.

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