When Does Bad Practice Cross the Line and Become Corruption?

When does bad practice cross the line and become corruption?

Strictly speaking, corruption refers to the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It includes the obvious: Stealing public funds through accounting fraud or bribery to live a luxury life. But when the abuse isn’t “abuse” so much as it is “flexibility” or when private gain isn’t “private” so much as it is a non-transparent preference that does have some public benefit, is that corruption?

All of us in the NGO world know that donors are bureaucratic to some extent. Governmental funding is often the least flexible. There are rules about overhead percentages, rules about the ratio of staff costs to activities, rules about the kind of verification documents needed for activities. In my experience, some of these funds are so inflexible that they actually aren’t relevant to real needs in Palestine. I remember one donor who wanted to fund education, but their global rules only allowed them to fund non-movable items. The school needed books and the school needed a bus, but the donor could only build classrooms – and there was no land on which to build.

Once we accept the idea that some donor requirements are unreasonable—especially when staff at funding agencies themselves agree that their requirements are unreasonable--then it isn’t surprising that we become creative in order to get funding. But where is the line? When Palestinian grant seekers modify their activities to enable them to receive funds which they could not get without compromising their priorities and practices, is this corruption?

What about when distortion is required in order to be compliant? For example, Palestinians may buy official receipts from a taxi company because they simply can’t get receipts for taxis taken from the street in Palestine. Some people think this is only corruption when they submit receipts in excess of the actual amount spent, but others say that fraudulent documentation is always corruption, even if they only document what was actually spent. Is it? And is it still corruption when the donor directs the grantee to submit fabricated documentation in order to maintain funding for a good project? (Yes, this does happen.)

It is not easy to talk about the practices of international organizations that are so bad that they may constitute corruption. It’s especially hard to determine what is or isn’t corruption when intentions are good and when money isn’t going into private pockets (at least not mostly). And yet, how will we solve these problems without open, honest, discussion?

Imagine this scenario. A bunch of good people work for an INGO with bureaucratic practices. The back donor isn’t flexible. Nothing can be done. The funds are either administered and monitored according to the back donor’s policies, or they will not be granted. The bunch of good people at the INGO want to make grants they consider good, so they mediate between the back donor and the grantee. This involves telling grant seekers to change the budget items to ones that will be approved. They say, “We know that you’ll be doing XYZ under this line item.” They even say, “We won’t get approval for these staff salaries, so put these numbers on your budget instead and then pay them whatever you want to pay.”

These are people who are ostensibly trying to help. They understand their back donor’s policies won’t serve our needs and they’re helping us access much-needed funds. But rather than submit fraudulent documentation themselves, they’re asking us to do it and telling us that they’ll support us.

Is this being pragmatic? Or is this corruption?

While I totally understand that all money is political and that all money comes with strings, can we, in good conscience, justify the means by the ends? Or should we turn and run? And run to where?

Nora Lester Murad, PhD, writes fiction and commentary from her home in Jerusalem, Palestine. She has published in Aljazeera, The Guardian, OpenDemocracy, Alliance Magazine, Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss, Arabic Literature in English, This Week in Palestine, and more. Her blog, “The View From My Window in Palestine” addresses issues of aid, development and daily life under military occupation. She co-founded the Dalia Association, Palestine's first community foundation, and speaks frequently on the topics of philanthropy and international development. Nora is also a volunteer with Aid Watch PalestineShe can be reached at @NoraInPalestine or nora@noralestermurad.com.