Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

British aid faces 'enemy of corruption'


Villagers claim aid is failing to reach them

Every year Britain gives more than £5bn of taxpayers' money in overseas aid to developing countries. BBC correspondent Humphrey Hawksley reports on concerns that more needs to be done to tackle corruption.

At a primary school in Karamoja in north-east Uganda, children line up to receive a bowl of porridge from a huge cooking vat. It is the main nutrition of the day, and British taxpayers help buy it.

"At least it keeps the children healthy," says teacher Teddy Abungo, who estimates that only about 10% of the children in the area even get to school.

Karamoja is an arid region just emerging from conflict. Tribal traditions of cattle raiding, a brutal insurgency and severe drought have made it one of the poorest areas of Africa.

Its people have been receiving international food aid for more than 40 years. Yet many still live on the cusp of survival.

Uganda is one of more than 100 developing countries to which Britain gives aid.

Now when we're doing emergency operations it has to be emergency plus recovery plus development
Bai Mankay Sankoh
World Food Programme

But how it is spent is coming under scrutiny. Britain's aid budget will be protected from future cuts - whichever party wins the general election.

The United Nations' World Food Programme in Karamoja, partly funded by Britain, admits that it has made mistakes in the past with policies that have led to people becoming too dependent on emergency food handouts.

Now the fund wants to combine food aid with help towards self-sufficiency.

"These are lessons we have learned," says the WFP representative Bai Mankay Sankoh. "Now when we're doing emergency operations it has to be emergency plus recovery plus development."

Corruption scourge

Despite decades of aid, people remain hungry. Mothers bring their malnourished children to hospital for help. In the villages, they are so short of food that they slice up animal skins - normally used as bedding - and cook them up to eat.

Many children don't go to school and there is little or no employment.

Graph showing DFID aid recipient countries

Delivering aid is a difficult business. But in Karamoja there is a strong perception that much of it isn't working because of high levels of corruption - an issue that has been highlighted by the British government.

The World Bank estimates that the cost of corruption to the region has amounted to millions of dollars.

"There is an enemy which is corruption," says Mark Dando, a village community leader. "The money does not reach the local people completely."

District official Joseph Lokapel says of aid to his area: "I think 50% gets stolen - especially when there is no transparency."

Like many here, he accuses officials at many levels of siphoning off a share for themselves.

Oxfam's Joseph Wangaloo, who is based in the Karamoja town of Kotido, believes the figure may be even higher.

"The background to this is obvious," he says. "Karamoja was inaccessible and there was little supervision coming from the centre. So I would say definitely very close to 70% did not reach the people who expected to benefit from the resources."

Senior officials in the aid establishment maintain it is not that high but give no estimates themselves. "I don't have the figure but corruption is being fought," says Pius Bigirimana, the permanent secretary in the Ugandan prime minister's office.


Aid workers in the field throughout Africa report various levels of corruption. But one British aid official who worked in Ghana for the Department for International Development said that when he raised concerns he ran into trouble.

We lift three million people out of poverty a year
Gareth Thomas
UK development minister

"When I reported my suspicions of corruption and mismanagement I was hopeful that DFID would investigate thoroughly as I requested them to do as the most senior person present," said Howard Horsley a former head teacher. "Instead I was dismissed."

Two MPs have taken up Mr Horsley's cause. The government says he was dismissed on performance grounds and the case has been fully examined, including by the National Audit Office and no evidence of impropriety was found.

Development minister Gareth Thomas says he is confident that any allegations about corruption are being thoroughly investigated.

Britain's aid spending is monitored by parliamentary committees and the National Audit Office. While praising DFID for much of its work, they have also held it to account for lack of oversight and other issues.

With development now being seen as a crucial element to ending conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries, the stakes of getting aid right have become even higher.

"We lift three million people out of poverty a year - something that I suspect many members of the British public are not aware of," says Mr Thomas.

"It's in Britain's interest that we help developing countries improve the situation for their poorest people because that in turn helps in a range of other ways that makes a difference in the UK."

On Friday Humphrey Hawksley reports from Mumbai, India.

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