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Oliver May: This is how humanitarian need can enable corruption

The received wisdom among humanitarian agencies is that in the absence of a profit motive, they are less at risk of corruption than private enterprises. But this is not quite fair.

Such agencies have their own ambitious bottom line — the quantity or quality of the aid provided to beneficiaries. And grasping for that goal can, in fact, create vulnerability.

There are two ways to unpack this. The first is how the push among such agencies to reduce overhead leads to a stretch in business support functions. That in turn decreases the agencies’ ability to prevent and detect fraud internally or within implementing partners.

The second is how our moral aims and their immediacy lead us to put our values in hierarchy, or to adopt consequentialist thinking — the “ends justify the means.”

Aid workers vary in their responses to the latter. “We do what we have to do,” shrug some, as they ignore regulatory frameworks. Others dive for cover behind legal definitions, hoping for shelter in the difference between bribery and extortion. This is understandable and can be accurate, but not necessarily helpful.

The problem with nursing a hierarchy of values or a consequentialist schema is that they are subjective — hostage to our own limited knowledge, cognitive biases and errors. The reality is that participating in corruption is likely to contribute to the oppressive conditions that we are there to alleviate. However small the payment, the aid worker is still slipping a coin into a vending machine that ultimately disburses misery to the worker’s own beneficiaries.

So how should humanitarian agencies respond?

Rather than assuming that we are different than the private sector, there is much we can learn from it. The pressure to deliver that creates a bribery-permissive environment, for example, is set by management, whatever the sector. Humanitarian agencies must create space for altered expectations in terms of speed or extent of delivery, just as private companies might.

Humanitarian agencies must also recognize that immediacy causes staff to default to the easiest option, which will always be making the payment until we truly embrace the additional complexity of testing and using coping strategies such as collective action.

We must therefore be trailblazers who create tomorrow’s best practice, in order to reduce the acceptability of bribes, change the expectations of the corrupt – and therefore make not paying the easier option.

Fortunately, the pace is quickening. With high-quality training, examples of best practice and success stories increasingly available, conceding to bribery on the basis of humanitarian need is ever less attractive.


Oliver May is a consultant, author and speaker on reducing fraud and corruption in the humanitarian and global development sector. He blogs on related issues at Second Marshmallow.

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