Friday 28 October 2016

Only total transparency and accountability will save Goal's reputation

Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30

Goal's Barry Andrews playing football with children in the Twic County of South Sudan in 2014 Photo: Mark Condren
Goal's Barry Andrews playing football with children in the Twic County of South Sudan in 2014 Photo: Mark Condren

Lace curtain transparency doesn't work. When it comes to openness, all or nothing is needed - curtains drawn apart and windows unlatched.

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Currently, Ireland's largest aid agency, Goal, is adopting a curtain-tweaking approach to transparency - putting some information into the public domain but holding back on other details. Such tactics are compromising an already damaged organisation.

Also tainting its reputation are issues surrounding accountability - another non-negotiable in any well governed body - which have triggered a US investigation into its humanitarian work on the Turkey-Syria border.

Barry Andrews has announced he is standing down as Goal's chief executive because internal control failures happened on his watch.

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs is withholding €10.1m in funding while the US conducts its inquiry into alleged bribery and bid rigging.

Public money must be kept back where questions about suspected corruption are raised. Otherwise, confidence is undermined.

But let's not forget that Aleppo is being pounded by airstrikes; men, women and children are maimed and dying while relief projects are stalled.

Presumably, those vulnerable people we can see on news bulletins are among the victims paying a high price for Goal's governance failures.

Mr Andrews' decision to leave, paving the way for a fresh start under a new chief executive, is a positive step in principle. But the public must believe in that fresh start. Do we? I'm not 100pc convinced. So Goal is also neglecting to communicate its message.

It's refreshing to hear someone in a leadership position say words to the effect that the buck stops with him. That's accountability. However, a different sort of accountability - the need for robust financial controls - has raised a red flag for US funders.

The information that Mr Andrews' successor will be named within days, although the job was not advertised publicly, raises concerns. Is it an internal appointment? If so, is that in a beleaguered body's best interests? Here we have yet more unanswered questions which do nothing to burnish Goal's reputation.

It ought to have been a double announcement: Mr Andrews' intention to resign in tandem with publicising the search for his replacement. This blunder comes at a difficult juncture. What should have been a positive step has become a negative one. The public is puzzled - if not somewhat rattled, in view of the context.

The procedure for appointing a new chief executive to a body that does important international work (Goal has an annual income of around €210m) should be beyond any possible ambiguity. All organisations in receipt of taxpayers' funds have an obligation to adhere to best practice, and Goal cannot skimp on transparency in any area.

And what are we to make of its decision to close the US office? Rightly or wrongly, a whiff of panic stirs. Again, lack of information makes it hard to assess the choice, but it looks odd.

Goal cannot afford any more reputational fallout. The priority should be to regain public confidence, not weaken it further.

Goal needs to return to basics. Somebody with a proven track record should join the organisation from outside to spearhead and reboot it.

An external perspective is needed to vet the organisation - including procurement practices, how project managers work, their reporting systems, checks and balances in place, accountability for all money spent, and areas of risk flagged up.

From such a scrutiny, failures or weaknesses can be identified, and it will be clear where tighter controls should be put in place.

Significant enlargement happened under former junior minister Mr Andrews, who ran Goal for four years, but that expansion was not matched by the necessary internal controls.

While much excellent work was done under his stewardship, breakdowns also happened - and Goal's standing has been affected. However, it must be acknowledged that Goal was trusted by serious donors such as USAid and Britain's Department for International Development, which would not place their confidence lightly.

There is another element to recent, high-profile failures in the charity sector and this is something which drives to the heart of that unique relationship between the Irish public and aid agencies.

Most of us grew up with personal links to overseas aid, whether through relatives working as medics or teachers, or via the classroom where schools supported projects in developing countries. Ireland has a proud history of generous impulses in response to emergencies ranging from famine to war.

That reservoir of goodwill won't appear on the balance sheet of any charity or aid organisation, but it is a priceless commodity. Unfortunately, each case of wrongdoing increases the risk that this precious spark will be extinguished.

And that would be as harmful for the Irish psyche as it would be for those who benefit from the schools and hospitals built, and relief work undertaken, by charitable organisations.

Goal began in the 1970s with exactly that sort of goodwill on the part of its founder John O'Shea, who ran it for decades before resigning in 2012. Mr Andrews replaced him.

While Goal continued to do vital work, mistakes were made in the process - perhaps it developed too large and too fast, or maybe it became overly corporate and suffered damage while chasing the big money. Possibly, Mr Andrews lacked an enforcer.

He accepts that Goal's internal controls did not develop at the same speed as the agency, and says he takes responsibility. This is a helpful admission, and Goal must act on it.

Goal now needs to audit its business model to ensure best management practices and governance structures are followed. It must ask itself: who are we trying to help, how are we trying to help, and how effectively is the money used?

It needs to maintain a keen awareness of the various funding sources and the stipulations attached to them.

Tranches of money are given with a tight set of rules regarding their use, and someone needs to be allocated responsibility for ensuring all conditions are met.

Charities and aid agencies can save lives, as well as improve health levels and provide an education for people who might otherwise be neglected. But those trusted with running them must accept that transparency and accountability are not just optional extras. They are essentials.

Over to you now, Goal.

Irish Independent

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