Thursday, May 15, 2008

Corruption in an NGO

Assume a situation when you are heading a division of an NGO, which is directly responsible for implementing programs based on the funds that you have received from the government, private donors, foundations and corporate.

Assume that you are in charge of organic farming and the cooperative of 1000 small & marginal farmers ,in a hilly village in your state, that has produced , after 3 years of seeding, 100 metric tonnes of coffee under the NGO’s guidance. Unfortunately, the quality of coffee is not very good due to various reasons (poor quality of seeds distributed by the state government, smaller size with low pH value & various mediocre cultivation practices followed etc.). Your NGO is responsible for aiding in marketing the unprocessed organic coffee beans so that farmers get their share of profit within 3 months of harvesting. Unfortunately the international price in the market is poor. Selling the beans at that price would mean incurring a loss for the cooperative.

So you start looking for buyers. Corporate agricultural dealers are quoting even lower prices. Samples send to international buyers get a negative response due to poor quality. Myriad other options are tried out. Then as a last resort you ask you marketing colleague: “Who bought coffee last year ..?”
Your colleague gives you a list of dealers of a nearby town. You ask him to contact the dealers and fix a better price.

Surprise, surprise. The colleague comes back from a 2 day tour and tells you no such dealers exist in the address indicated in the invoice. The phone numbers are incorrect too.

You know you have stumbled on to a fraud & corruption in the NGO, you have just joined. You check for audited accounts of the preceding year. As expected you find nothing. You have now a bigger frown on your face than the old lady ( in the photograph)whose family has toiled hard for last 3 years to get better incomes.

You start digging for more and more evidences . You search for invoices , signed vouchers , stock statements etc. Surprise, surprise! All such documents seem to have evaporated in the thin year or were not present in the first place. Just one number innocent invoice ,that you found in the first instant, is all that you have to show. And that does not match up with the stock sold last year.

Dig, dig, dig and keep thinking.

Unverified stories of corruption in other divisions of the NGO start surfacing from your memory. Of large-value (more than a crore) equipment deals for a mid-day-meal programme going to an ex-employee and close associate of the top management on a single-tender basis at a rate much higher than the market price. Of contracts for interior decoration going similarly to another “close” architect. Of real-estate rental deals being signed in a hush-hush manner. And so on and so forth….

Then. Voila! Everything falls into place.

You suddenly realise that the NGO sector is no different from other sectors of the industry. Corruption & fraud are just natural by-products of fund management in an NGO like anywhere else. But more so in an NGO, because the “cause” is so noble that you can operate with a cloak of non-transparency & nepotism in a system where the “image-hungry” trustees do not hold you accountable in their quarterly board meetings.

The cause of an NGO overshadows your actual work so much that walking in naked inside an NGO office can also be justified to be worthy of the cause. Just about anything goes .

You realise that there is a chain of internal beneficiaries that may or may not extend to the top.

But then you feel cheated.

You had joined here expecting this to be an island of honesty doing meaningful work for the society. And now that you realise that its not, you start suspecting everybody. Who else is in the chain ?
You assign corrupt motives to your junior colleague who has a one-on-one talk with the house-owners , immediately after you have finished a joint meeting with the same owners for buying/leasing the place. You suddenly figure out that some of your juniors ,who have been fighting with you to have absolute control over the deal or on signing of the program certificates, were not doing it because they wanted complete independence of work but only because they intended to make a wrongful gain of that power.

Finally it dawns on you that an NGO is a strong club of old members who have built their carreer in an NGO & will never leave you space to work. The reason they have recruited you is because the funders & donors insist on having qualified professional managers in place for implementing the programs. Once the fund is in, your utility is that much diminished as there are plenty of such fools like you who are queuing up to join the place with dreamy eyes of doing “something worthwhile” for the society.

You can go on digging and maybe get close to the name of beneficiaries of corruption in an NGO. But that will just waste your time & effort. The other option is to live with such imperfections in the organisation and continue to do your work without losing your sanity on the “false motives” of your colleagues.

The last option is of course to give it all up as you know that your value system will not permit you to continue in such a shady organisation.

That’s exactly what I did. I quit after working just about 2 quarters in an Indian corporate NGO and have vowed never to join another without a due diligence done beforehand on program implementation,background of top management and quality of personnel.

1 comment:

ravishankar said...

Hi. I agree with you. I too did the mistake of joining one such NGO and quit as they did not provide any freedom to work!!! However I quit within less than 2 quarters of joining. Although I would still like to work with an NGO- I will ensure that due diligience is done before taking up the assignment.