• Richard Bistrong

Arrested Development: Fighting fraud & corruption in international aid

Updated: Sep 11

The following interview is with Oliver May.

RB: Oliver, you’ve been specialising in how corruption affects aid organisations. Perhaps you could tell us a little about your background and how you got into that?

OM: It would be a pleasure, Richard. I was the head of counter-fraud for the international aid agency Oxfam GB, where I led and co-ordinated its efforts to reduce fraud and corruption across its worldwide operations – especially fraud, theft, bribery, money laundering, terrorist financing and nepotism. Oxfam worked in some of the most challenging environments in the world, so that was a really rewarding experience. Prior to that, I was an officer in what was then the Serious Organised Crime Agency in the UK, where I worked on a number of high-profile and complex international investigations and operations. I’ve also been a crime analyst, so I found I was able to bring experience from different sides of the law enforcement house – investigation, analysis, intelligence, and so on.

RB: And now you’re an author! Can you tell us a little about the book and how it came about?

OM: Sure. I got tired of having the same circular conversations with stakeholders over and over again. You know – people from programme, donor management, fundraising, or communications, who did not necessarily understand the counter-fraud and corruption agenda. I just wanted to be able to say, ‘here, take this book. Read it, and we’ll have this conversation again in a few days.’ So I went looking for that book, and when I couldn’t find it, I wrote it. There are so many fraud and corruption books for finance, audit and risk people – this is a book for everybody in an international NGO. After all, those are the people raising, managing and spending the funds. So the book unpacks the nature of the risk for international NGOs and how their vulnerabilities commonly arise, busts myths and misconceptions, and sets out an accessible framework that NGOs can apply in order to reduce their risk. The key message of the book is good news – that there is more that we can do about fraud and corruption in the sector than most people realise.

RB: Do you think that international NGOs are different in terms of corruption, then, to private sector organisations?

OM: The sector has its own unique complexion. I think the threats can be similar – no tender process is automatically safe from kickbacks without adequate controls, whatever the organisation. But it does have its own flavour. Take how a lot of NGOs talk about an ‘ethical culture’ as a primary way to curb fraud and corruption, for example. Stop and think about that for a moment – that’s actually quite a complicated aspiration for an international NGO. What do we mean by ‘ethical’ in a global organisation? You might think that someone who recruits their kinfolk for a post is acting out of nepotism, but in some cultures, some might feel that this is the ethical thing to do. Similarly, if you have a moral mission, then this can justify all sorts of behaviour – the ends justify the means. In work to help the least fortunate people on the planet, telling your staff to ‘do the right thing’ rather depends on how ‘right’ is perceived in the circumstances. Across the hundreds of cases that I’ve encountered in NGOs worldwide, which included suspected fraud, theft, bribery and terrorist financing, organisational culture is a recurrent enabler, alongside devolved models of responsibility, high-risk operating models, operational ambition in excess of the available support resources, and dynamic funding chains.

RB: You talk in the book about aid organisations adopting a ‘holistic’ counter-fraud and corruption framework. What do you mean by that?

OM: For many people in the sector, tackling fraud and corruption is still about stacking up procedures and then, when things go wrong, conducting an investigation. But actually, there’s a lot more that can be done than that. A holistic framework is about making sure that we’re dealing with the problem from all angles, using all the available tools, and doing so coherently so that the framework components force-multiply each other. It’s about having dedicated work to deter, prevent, detect and respond to fraud, underpinned by enabling activities such as influencing and communication, sited within cultural development work, and encapsulated by meaningful strategic management.

RB: Are there particular aspects of such a framework that tend to be weaker in international aid organisations, then?

OM: I think that the deterrence agenda is still really under-developed in most, if not all, international NGOs. With the advent of so much behavioural research – think ‘nudge’ – there’s a lot of exciting work that can be done here to lower the risk of people heading down the path to committing incidents in the first place, never mind relying on controls to stop them or pick them up. In the book I suggest a three-stroke way to carry out deterrence work based on the three components of the fraud triangle – it doesn’t have to be complicated. We just need to stop and think about what we’re really trying to achieve and how best to get inside the heads of our employees. Take staff workshops – we talk about ‘awareness-raising’ but really what we should be doing is communicating for change. Telling people about red flags and reporting systems have their place, but it’s challenging myths and changing perspectives that will really deliver.

RB: So you’ve now moved on from Oxfam, what’s next for you, how can people get in touch and where can they get the book?

OM: The book is published by Routledge in hardback and e-book format, so you can get it directly from the Routledge website, Amazon and other retailers. I’m now based in Sydney, Australia and I’ve been enjoying blogging on fraud and corruption in the humanitarian and global development sector at www.secondmarshmallow.org – I’d be delighted if those interested in finding out more came on over and had a look. They can contact me through the website too and I tweet at @oliverbmay. Thanks so much Richard for your interest and taking the time to find out more, it’s always a pleasure to engage with you.


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