Sierra Leone poured a lot of money into the battle against Ebola.
The government earmarked $18 million of treasury funds and public donations to combat the disease, which has claimed around 3,800 lives there.
That's an admirable commitment. But there's just one problem. A third of that money appears to have disappeared.
That was the finding of a February government audit, which determined that $6 million is unaccounted for and may have been used to pay "ghost" workers who do not exist. The audit also determined that there is no documentation for an additional $10.2 million.
The sad state of affairs in Sierra Leone is hardly a rare occurrence. According to Berlin-based Transparency International, a global anti-corruption coalition, on average a quarter of the total amount of money allocated for humanitarian assistance is lost to crime.
"There is a high risk of corruption," says Craig Fagan, TI's head of global policy, "because the countries that need it the most are the most susceptible." They're often impoverished and lack strong and open governments and the necessary systems of checks and balances to keep corruption at bay. In the case of Sierra Leone, it was internal money that went missing.
But it doesn't matter if the aid is from local or international sources, he says. It's all at risk of being lost to theft or mismanagement: "This is a problem with funds from all sources," including money from local and foreign government agencies, the United Nations and charities.
Global humanitarian efforts to help people devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami were marked by corruption, according to a 2006 TI working paper. So were relief efforts to combat a drought in Kenya in 2011. And it's not just a problem overseas.
The New York Times reported in 2006 that $2 billion in tax dollars sent to aid New Orleans after it was leveled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was sucked away by waste and fraud.
The answer to the problem is simple: Keep good records! Of course that's easier said than done, but one good example, says Fagan, is the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, an online tracking service set up by the government of the typhoon-prone Philippines. It tracks the status and amounts of foreign relief aid — cash and in-kind — donated to the country.
Moreover, humanitarian groups are banding together to share information about their programs. The International Aid Transparency Initiative is an online resource for organizations to publish financial and other data on their projects. Begun in 2011, it now has 324 members, including the African Development Bank, European Investment Bank and United Nations Children's Fund.
Fagan credits Sierra Leone for at least making an effort to keep tabs on the funds, noting that a government audit found the missing millions. But now, he adds, it's a question of whether it will follow through with an investigation to determine whether the missing money is attributable to crime or mismanagement and will bring to justice any criminals involved.
If past is prologue in Sierra Leone, then justice may not be in the offing. A few years ago, Fagan relates, after a cholera epidemic struck the country, a similar government audit of assistance funds "found holes in the money trail. But no one was ever held accountable."