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Corruption, UK aid and baby clothes

Corruption. It’s a word that grabs attention. But whatever it means to you – from bribes to fraud to sleaze – one thing’s for sure:  corruption is an abuse of power.

Ask any cynic what they think of when they hear about ‘overseas aid’ and you can pretty much guarantee that before long the word corruption will crop up. But that association isn’t just confined to sceptics. There’s concern among supporters of aid that corruption is widespread and is hindering progress.

I recently chatted to our Director of Humanitarian Programmes about corruption and what Save the Children does to mitigate the risks. He told me about a time a terrorist group stormed one of our warehouses looking for supplies to take. “You know one thing terrorists don’t want, Beth?”, he said. “Baby clothes. Because they don’t fit them. They have no need for them.”

That wasn’t just a lucky coincidence. Our teams think carefully about what to store and where in order to reduce the risks of corruption. Like baby clothes, which are desperately needed for children in conflict zones during the cold winter months, but we know a militant group can’t do much with boxes of tiny jumpers.

How do we talk about the ‘c word’?

Getting the facts straight when championing UK aid is crucial. When surveyed, over half of those who are on the fence about the need for UK aid believed more than 20% of it was lost to corruption.

Are we saying all aid is perfect? No. We’d be naive to claim it was. But the scale of corruption is nothing like as big as is often thought.

The UK has one of the best track records for delivering aid. It’s managed by the government’s Department for International Development (DFID), which focuses on projects that save lives and reach the world’s most vulnerable people. Some of Save the Children’s work is funded in this way, with support from the international aid budget.

The National Audit Office’s report last year estimated that 0.03% of UK aid (spending by DFID) is lost to fraud. That’s much lower than other government departments, and well below private sector averages, showing just how seriously the UK takes protecting aid and how effective it is at doing so.

But all too often the truth about aid is lost in the barrage of hostile media headlines, despite aid agencies like Save the Children working relentlessly to reduce the risk of corruption. Some people who publicly oppose aid grossly exaggerate the risk of UK aid being lost to corruption. Not only does this undermine wider anti-corruption efforts, it uses corruption as an unreasonable justification for cutting aid. This cut would stop the UK from saving those children most in need. We can’t let those people beat us.

How does Save the Children tackle corruption?

Baby clothes are just the start. There are many ways we reduce the risk of corruption. As we deliver our aid programmes we constantly review them to make sure help is getting to the people who need it. Our colleagues log any concerns and fix problems as they go along, making sure that there’s a clear chain of communication with donors and local staff along the way.

We’re also bringing children to the heart of tackling corruption by encouraging them to speak out when their needs aren’t being met. Helping children to understand their rights means that they can fight for them: holding those in power to account for promises made. We’re working towards all Save the Children programmes having this crucial element.

A classroom in Rwanda

It’s not an easy task. Power imbalances are the cause of so much inequality, poverty and pain – righting them requires a seismic shift in where power lies. We’re proud to be part of efforts to bring that about.

The need is still great

As Robert Barrington of Transparency International UK says, “there is desperate poverty and inequality in the world.  So, let’s not punish poor people twice over: rather than giving in to corruption, we should be planning how to deliver overseas aid despite corruption.”

Children need our help to get back on their feet when they lose their loved ones. Joshua* survived Ebola. Devastatingly, he lost his father, younger brother, grandmother, and 10 other members of his family to the disease. With the help of UK aid funding, Save the Children provided him with food, a mattress and new school items as well as psychosocial support to help him cope with his grief.

Joshua, Ebola survivor, supported by UK aid (photo: Louis Leeson/Save the Children)

The UK played a vital role in tackling the tragic Ebola crisis in 2014–15, bringing together NHS staff, UK military personnel and hundreds of British charity workers to train 4,000 Sierra Leonean and international health workers to tackle the disease. Collaboration and partnerships like this are crucial: they give local people ownership over solutions and help prevent corruption.

We know from what our supporters tell us that they care deeply about helping people less fortunate than themselves. Saving lives and eradicating poverty are made possible with UK aid. Solving some of the world’s biggest challenges can’t be done immediately, but we’re working on it – alongside you and children themselves.

If you want to champion the work of aid among your friends and family, please share this video with them and talk about why you think it’s important.

Read more about how we can reframe the conversation around corruption in this blog from Duncan Green and this Robert Barrington blog.


* Name changed to protect identity

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