Three years after the end of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, two survivors are suing the government regarding the misappropriation of donated funds. This will be the first international court case, of what may be many, investigating what happened to millions of dollars that were siphoned from the funds that were dedicated to helping fight the disease and supporting those who survived. The case alleges that almost a third of funds that came into Sierra Leone in the early months of the outbreak in 2014 were misappropriated. The survivors claim that this occurred due to a lack of government accountability and henceforth the government violated the rights of the survivors to health and life.
The Ebola epidemic was officially identified and named in May 2014. Between 2014 and 2016 more than 14,000 cases of Ebola were recorded. At least 4500 people died including 250 health workers. In November 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Sierra Leone Ebola-free after 42 days has passed, as no new cases occurred (this is the equivalent of two incubation periods).
An audit of the allocation and use of donated funds in the first six months of the outbreak shows that more than $15m of donated resources was unaccounted for – more than 30% of the total funds that entered the country. According to the BBC, the audit also shows that there was no proof that payments of the high-risk health workers’ hazard allowance had been paid. This alone amounted to more than $4m of missing funds. Yusuf Kabbah, the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors said the governments promise to provide a free health care and a small financial package to those who have survived Ebola infection; however, such promise was broken. Kabbah said that while the government promised to “provide three things: livelihood, healthcare, and psychological support,” none of these needs were met and now the survivors and their families are suffering.
Following the publication of the audit report, there was a dispute between the Sierra Leonean government and the anti-corruption commission regarding which agency should lead the investigations into the matter. The government cited constitutional provisions eventually winning the right to investigate the alleged disappearance of funds. Sierra Leones’ Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law have; however, criticized the handling of the investigation. Particularly citing unhappiness that only a few civil servants have thus far been suspended as a result of the investigation.
Lara Taylor-Pearce, Sierra Leone’s auditor general said that she felt that justice was needed for Sierra Leoneans “for serious breaches of financial management procedure I would support forcing the individuals responsible to pay back the money. It would send a strong message. But currently, this does not happen. People continue to get away with transgressions.”
Transparency International state on their website that the risk of corruption in humanitarian work such as in the case of the Ebola outbreak is high. In these situations “aid often flows through new, unmonitored channels…it’s extremely hard to track where aid goes.” Because of decreased oversight, there are ample opportunities for resources such as water and medical supplies, and funds to be misappropriated, stolen or otherwise inappropriately used.
Taylor-Pearce believes that there was no proper accounting for how the funds were spent including payment of salaries and purchasing of supplies. She said that ambulances were not properly supplied as procurement procedures were not followed; the extent of the misappropriation directly affected the response to the outbreak and it is highly likely that lives were lost because of this.
International Transparency describes a number of possible solutions to combat the misappropriation of funds; stricter codes of conduct to be shared and utilized by workers on the ground who are receiving humanitarian funds; stronger financial controls implemented by all levels (those distributing, receiving and utilizing funds); community awareness who is getting aid; in addition to a confidential complaints systems for recipients and staff so they can report on possible misappropriation or corruption without fear of retaliation.
These solutions are for the most part only effective before and during the distribution of funds. At the current time, Kabbah of Sierra Leone Association for Ebola survivors, believes that what is really needed is more international attention. Kabbah is concerned that without international attention the government will not take the case seriously.
International attention is essential for both short and long-term as it is likely to be one of the most effective tools for achieving justice for Ebola survivors whose families, health and livelihoods have been massively affected by the misappropriation of funds. Suffering from a deadly disease is harsh, but imagine suffering because those who are mandated with helping you, just do the opposite!