Feature

Corruption is undermining Kenya’s COVID-19 response

In July, Kenyans were dismayed to learn that a cash transfer programme intended to help low-income people deal with COVID-19’s economic impact did not actually benefit those recepients, due to corruption and other irregularities. A study by Human Rights Watch found that officials in charge of disbursing the funds frequently ignored eligibility criteria for beneficiaries, and in some cases, directed the funds to relatives or friends.

Moreover, not all those who were enrolled in the programme received the cash. Many low-income people living in Nairobi’s informal settlements said they never received any money from the government and that during lockdowns they went days without meals.

President Uhuru Kenyatta initiated the programme at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 for the most vulnerable groups in Kenya, including people with disabilities. The programme ran from April to November 2020 and supplemented an existing government cash transfer programme, the National Safety Net Programme (NSNP), also known as Inua Jamii (Lift Up Society in Kiswahili), which began in 2013. Inua Jamii is aimed primarily at elderly people, caregivers, orphans, and vulnerable children. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, 1.3 million people benefitted from the programme in 2018. Cash payments amount to roughly $20 a month per individual, which is hardly sufficient to meet the needs of vulnerable populations. But many beneficiaries say it is better than having no money at all.

Fraudulent procurement practices

Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) warned that funds for governments’ COVID-19 response might be lost to corruption, fraud, or waste. UNODC noted that while corruption is widespread in government procurement departments, fraudulent practices in the procurement of pharmaceuticals and medical devices are particularly prevalent during an emergency.

“Inevitably, in a crisis situation where medical supplies and equipment are urgently needed and where hospitals to treat and care are being commissioned within tight deadlines, there is an increased risk that abuses will happen, and quality will be sacrificed in exchange for quick action,” stated UNODC. In addition, emergency measures precipitated by COVID-19 have led many governments to relax safeguards “by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive.”

Indeed, since the start of the pandemic, several countries have experienced governments breaching procurement laws and regulations. In the UK, for example, the government was accused of awarding secret contracts for PPEs to a single firm without going through a competitive bidding process. Other irregularities included the purchase of unusable face masks from a company that specialised in currency trading and offshore property.

Even the World Health Organization has not escaped criticism for mismanaging funds intended for COVID-19. An external audit of WHO released in May found that there were transgressions in the selection of a firm contracted to assist WHO in the procurement of PPEs, and that there was lack of objectivity in bid evaluation and selection of suppliers of COVID-19 testing kits.

In several African countries, COVID-19 funds have been lost to corruption or mismanagement. Last year, Malawi’s ombudsman reported that 80% of funds allocated to the government’s COVID-19 Coordination Cluster were spent on misplaced priorities, such as staff allowances and benefits. An audit ordered by the president also found that government officers and the private sector had misspent $1.3 million of funds intended for pandemic relief. The South African government has also been riddled with COVID-19 scandals, including the over-pricing of medical supplies and suspicious contracts.

Troubling reports in Kenya

But what happened in Kenya is truly astounding. Stories of theft of funds and medical supplies were reported in Kenya at the very start of the pandemic. A donation of PPE from the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma apparently went “missing” from Nairobi’s international airport sometime between March and May 2020. And over $400 million in donations to Kenya disappeared in the first six months of the pandemic.

In August 2020, massive irregularities at the state-run Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) were revealed, including flouting procurement regulations and misusing public and donor funds earmarked for the country’s COVID-19 response. Investigations revealed that KEMSA flouted several laws in the awarding of tenders worth about $72 million. KEMSA is responsible for procuring drugs and other medical supplies for more than 6,000 health facilities across the country. These revelations were shocking because in 2014, the World Bank had lauded KEMSA for “sustained improvements in performance, accountability and transparency.”

As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidmillionaires to share their anger and frustration. A campaign around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves launched on social media. Amid public pressure, President Kenyatta ordered a probe into KEMSA. The authority’s board subsequently fired its CEO and top officials. One consequence of this scandal was USAID’s decision to halt its supply of antiretroviral drugs through KEMSA, which led to a temporary shortage of ARVs in the country.

Lack of transparency and accountability

Since the start of the pandemic, Kenya has received huge sums in loans and grants to address the health and socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19. However, lack of transparency and accountability in how the government raised and spent the funds remains a persistent challenge, according to International Budget Partnership (IBP), an independent nonprofit organization.

An IBP study showed that detailed information on how funds from the Kenya COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund were allocated and used is not available and that disaggregated information on COVID-19 budget allocations is scant.

The study says that in the first three months of the pandemic, the government raised over $2 billion, mainly through borrowing domestically and externally, making re-allocations through supplementary budgets, and receiving grants from donors. This is not unique to Kenya; many governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to raise large amounts of money quickly, sometimes to fill revenue deficits. The Kenyan government has not been able to justify or reveal how this funding was allocated, making it difficult for oversight bodies and civil society organisations to hold the government accountable. IBP recommends that the Office of the Auditor General conduct special audits on the government’s COVID-19 funds, especially on their impact on vulnerable groups.

An IBP survey of 120 countries found that a majority of countries in Asia and Africa have minimal or limited accountability in the management of COVID-19 funds. Kenya is listed as one of the countries with limited accountability, while Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Tanzania are among those countries with minimal accountability. Countries were rated in three areas: transparency, oversight, and participation.

Given the allegations of fraud, corruption, and incompetence, measures that minimise the leakage or mismanagement of funds are needed. During a global health crisis that has caused immeasurable suffering, it is extremely irresponsible of governments to allow funds intended for pandemic relieft to disappear or be misused. Government and donors should bolster their oversight on these funds to ensure that they go to those who deserve them.

UNODC says that doing audits to determine what went wrong after a corruption case is exposed are not very useful. Rather, efforts must be focused on mitigating potential corruption risks during crisis response and recovery. “It will be some time before we know the real impact of COVID-19, the extent of the damage done, and whether it gave rise to new corrupt activities,” says UNODC. “However, it is already clear that a strong, coordinated approach to anti-corruption is needed at the global level to help ensure that emergency economic rescue and stimulus packages reach intended beneficiaries in a transparent, inclusive and effective manner.”

Stay informed

For more on the health, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19 in Africa, check out ONE’s Africa COVID-19 Tracker. It pulls together the latest real-time data from global institutions, governments, and universities about the impacts of the pandemic for the continent and for every African country – including information on food security. For more insights and analysis, sign up for our Aftershocks newsletter and follow us @ONEAftershocks.

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist who is working with the ONE Campaign’s COVID-19 Aftershocks project.

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