Many thanks to Karen Felden for her letter 'Dubious Practices' (PPP April 26-May
9), in which she pointed out 1) that the problems of corruption, nepotism, etc. are
the RULE rather than the exception in local NGOS, and 2) that donor agencies must
share the blame for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices. I would like to add
to the discussion by exploring how this situation could arise and be perpetuated.
First, on the side of the local NGOs, it is all too easy to cheat the donors. As
the Chinese say, "The mountain is high and the emperor is far."
It is all too easy to get vendors to write false receipts, or to make legitimate
purchases but to distribute only a small fraction of the goods to beneficiaries,
selling or using the rest for one's personal gain. It is all too easy for the boss
to force subordinates to accept 70% of their budgeted salary and to sign a blank
pay slip for the boss to fill out as he wishes, pocketing the remaining 30%.
It is all too easy to fabricate lists of names of beneficiaries or peer educators
to swell the numbers for project statistics. All these practices are virtually impossible
to monitor from donor offices in Phnom Penh or from overseas.
On the side of the donors, agencies must first satisfy their real customers, who
are not the project's designated beneficiaries but the little old ladies who put
their euros in the collection plate every Sunday back in Europe.
In order to satisfy the folks back home, priority must be given to producing expensive
glossy brochures presenting 'happy' news. This situation leads to a focus on one
or two model beneficiaries for photo-ops and visits by dignitaries, while sacrificing
quality of services for the remaining beneficiaries. It also leads to a numbers game
in which large numbers of beneficiaries can be cited with little concern for the
quality of services delivered. Local NGOs are all too willing to collaborate in this
More importantly, in order to present 'happy news', no hint of problems can be tolerated.
The rosy picture must be maintained at all costs, so that if anyone blows the whistle
on problematical practices, the donor agency will react harshly in a 'shoot the messenger'
attitude. Thus, the donors and the local NGO are in collusion in hushing up anything
that the contributing customers back home would not want to hear.
In short, it does not help to blame individuals for corruption when the entire system
practically begs local NGOs to cheat and forces donors to pretend that corruption
does not exist.
- Ray Zepp, Battambang, email@example.com