Saturday 24 February 2018

Claims of kickback payments to charity workers led to major aid investigation

Under Barry Andrews’s stewardship, Goal has grown its influence. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Under Barry Andrews’s stewardship, Goal has grown its influence. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The past few years have been turbulent ones for the charity sector in Ireland.

Goal has been one of the largest agencies to be buffeted by controversy.

In 2012, it became convulsed in internal turmoil, which ended when John O'Shea, its founder and chief executive since 1977, departed after an out-of-court settlement.

The following year's accounts made for grim reading, with a record loss of €4.9m after a slump in donations.

It hasn't been plain sailing either for Mr O'Shea's successor, former Minister for Children Barry Andrews.

Under his stewardship, the organisation has grown its influence, attracting increasing amounts of funding from international donors.

In 2013, Mr Andrews's first full year in charge, donors pledged just €55m to Goal.

Within the space of a year this had doubled to €111m. Last year the organisation's budget stood at €173m.

But last April a bombshell dropped with the news that United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had begun an investigation into how goods and services it was funding, via Goal and other aid agencies, had been procured.

Allegations of bid-rigging and corruption surfaced.

A statement issued in May by USAID's Office of Inspector General said 14 entities and individuals involved with the Syria aid programmes from Turkey had been suspended.

"Those involved were no longer able to receive US government awards," it said.

"A portion of USAID-funded cross-border programmes in Syria were suspended as a result of this investigation and several NGOs delivering aid to Syria terminated staff members' employment based on demonstrated misconduct."

Goal was one of the charities involved, with two of its staff in Turkey losing their jobs.

USAID also withheld €6.2m of €113m it had pledged to the charity.

The Irish Aid section of the Department of Foreign Affairs followed suit, withholding €2.95m in humanitarian funding.

Goal has been able to continue its programme in Syria, but had to come to "a workaround arrangement" on procurement, which it was no longer allowed to do.

Fraud and financial risk is an expected hazard in the aid industry. As the charity's annual report for 2014 notes, some of the countries where Goal operates are considered among the most corrupt in the world. To combat this risk, Goal said it recruited suitably qualified personnel and regularly reviewed its systems of internal control through both internal and external audit.

Despite these safeguards, it is evident something went seriously wrong in Turkey.

Last month, Mr Andrews said the allegations broadly related to collusion between suppliers in relation to the prices that are set and allegations concerning kickbacks received by staff. He said the organisation had identified the problems and had improved its systems.

But clearly questions remain.

The Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed last night a further €7.16m had been withheld.

A report on the controversy commissioned by Goal from consultancy firm BDO was given to the department, but it says it "remains seriously concerned about the issues under investigation by the US".

Irish Independent

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