Corruption, foreign aid, and the watchdogs that expose it
“His stomach lurched as he realized that tinny, tiny sound was coming from his own midriff. He could barely believe it. The recorder he had taped to his stomach, its wire lead and microphone stuck to his breastbone, had somehow switched into ‘play’ mode. The voices of the two men before him were now being relayed back, potentially exposing him as what he was: spy, sneak, mole . . . He scoured his two colleagues’ faces for signs of suspicion. If they had noticed what had happened, he could expect to be arrested that night, his office sealed, staff sent away, files seized, house raided . . .”
So begins Michela Wrong’s gripping book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, the story of John Githongo’s effort to uncover corruption inside the administration of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. The book tells the story of how Githongo risked his life and livelihood to help make his country more just and accountable to average Kenyans—and the challenge that entrenched corruption poses for development.
Githongo is a compelling figure and a true hero—the very type of person you would expect the United States to seek as a partner in fighting corruption and injustice in developing countries. But too often, the United States makes it hard for anti-corruption fighters to actually do their job. The problem is that Congress is still too often focused on avoiding corruption in developing countries, rather than actually working with others to do something about it. In this effort to avoid the risk of corruption, the US government has often bypassed local organizations and governments rather than working with them, missing opportunities to help local watchdogs root out corruption and strengthen democratic institutions, reducing waste, fraud, and abuse for the long-term.
Thankfully, USAID is seeking to fix this problem. A new reform called “Implementation and Procurement Reform,” or IPR, is designed to help countries deliver for their own people and help people hold their governments accountable. The agency plans to spend 30% of its funds through local actors, whether they’re local nonprofits, businesses, or governments, by 2015 (up from 11% in 2011). After assessing public financial management systems to manage for risks, USAID will boost its funding through host country systems to reach 25 country governments directly; they will cut out the middleman by hiring 576 local nonprofits directly instead of spending through contractors.
USAID officials say they are moving cautiously but deliberately to change their practices. But Congress is still nervous; recently, several Members wrote to USAID asking for more information about these reforms. Githongo and his peers are more enthusiastic; this week, Githongo and fifteen other anti-corruption and human rights activists sent an open letter to Congress, expressing support for USAID’s reforms. They write:
“USAID is strengthening its ability to partner with us by eliminating large, inflexible contracts and by working more directly with local governments, businesses, and civil society organizations like ours. These are crucial requirements for fighting corruption and defending human rights . . . Bypassing local organizations and governments defeats the purpose of aid, which is to help countries help themselves.”
It might seem strange that anti-corruption activists would support direct funding of this sort flowing to their countries. But they support it precisely because they know that Washington can’t solve developing countries problems for them. As Githongo says:
“Ownership is ni sisi. It is up to us. It is us who own our problems. And it is us who will come up with the solutions.”