Last October, a group of United Nations investigators gathered at the airport in Sana'a, Yemen. The six former and current aid officials were preparing to leave the country with important evidence.
The evidence came in the form of laptop computers and electronic storage devices collected from employees of the World Health Organization, or WHO. The investigators believed these computers showed corruption and fraud within the U.N. agency’s office in Yemen.
But before they could get on their flight, armed militiamen entered the waiting area. The militiamen were part of a group of Houthi rebels ruling northern Yemen. The investigators reported that the rebels did not hurt anyone, but they took the devices.
They say a WHO employee with connections to the rebel movement informed the Houthis they were leaving. The employee feared her theft of aid money would be uncovered.
The 2018 event at the Sana'a airport is part of a continuing struggle over corruption at international aid organizations. Dishonest people have taken donated food, medicine, fuel and money from needy Yemenis throughout the country’s five-year civil war.
Individuals with inside knowledge spoke with the Associated Press, or AP, about the U.N.’s involvement in that corruption. They said aid workers sent to deal with the wartime humanitarian crisis have been accused of joining with fighters on all sides. The aid workers enriched themselves from the billions of dollars in donated aid flowing into the country, they added.
AP reporters confirmed these claims by speaking with aid workers and former government officials, as well as by examining private U.N. documents.
Unqualified people in high-paying jobs
The reporters’ work revealed that WHO investigators are looking into several claims of corruption. One is that unqualified people were placed in high-paying jobs. Another is that millions of dollars were put in employees’ personal bank accounts. Although WHO permits this method in an emergency, the employees could not later show how they spent the money.
Also, many suspicious contracts were approved without the correct paperwork, and a huge amount of donated medicine and fuel went missing.
Another U.N. agency, UNICEF, is also leading an investigation. It centers on an employee who permitted a Houthi rebel leader to travel in agency vehicles. This protected the rebel leader from possible airstrikes by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition.
The individuals who spoke to the AP about the investigations fear being attacked for doing so, so they asked that their identities remain secret.
“Where Is The Money?”
Yemeni activists said the actions by the U.N. agencies are welcome but are not enough. Much is required to find the millions of dollars in supplies and money from aid programs.
Over the past three months, activists have been pushing for more information about how resources are used. They have launched an online campaign called “Where Is The Money?”
They demand that the U.N. and international agencies provide financial reports. They want to know how the hundreds of millions of dollars entering Yemen since 2015 have been spent.
“We see big numbers, billions of dollars reaching Yemen, and we don’t know where they go,” said a “Where is the Money?” activist in a video for the campaign.
The U.N. has answered with an online campaign of its own. It is called “Check Our Results” and shows programs started in Yemen. The campaign does not provide detailed financial reports on how aid money is spent.
Unable to go into details
The U.N. has said very little about its investigation into its own agencies. It included only one sentence about it in a 2018 yearly report of activities worldwide.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic confirmed to the AP that an investigation is ongoing. He would not confirm or deny the names of any individuals under investigation.
“We must respect the confidentiality of this process and are unable go into details on specific concerns,” he said.
UNICEF officials also confirmed they are leading an ongoing investigation into corruption.
A private report by a U.N. group of experts on Yemen said Houthi leaders are constantly pressuring aid agencies. The leaders force aid workers to hire people, threaten to take away their visas and aim to control their movements and projects. The experts say how many aid workers are helping the fighters is unclear.
One official added that the U.N.’s inability or unwillingness to deal with the reported corruption in its aid programs is a serious problem. It harms the U.N.’s efforts to help Yemenis affected by the war, and it ruins the agency’s public image.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Words in This Story
fraud – n. the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person
humanitarian – adj. concerned with or seeking to improve human welfare
unqualified – adj. not having the skills, knowledge, or experience needed to do a particular job or activity
suspicious – adj. causing a feeling that something is wrong or that someone is behaving wrongly
contract(s) – n. a legal agreement between people or companies
confidentiality – n. the quality or state of being private
hire – v. to give work or a job to someone in exchange for wages or a salary
visa(s) – n. an official mark or stamp on a passport that allows someone to enter or leave a country usually for a particular reason