This is the story of how aid funds believed to total several million dollars were diverted from displaced people and vulnerable communities in a scam that shocked senior humanitarian officials and exposed deep-rooted problems with the way aid organisations fight corruption in Congo and beyond. In an investigation that spanned more than nine months, TNH traced the anatomy of the scam using leaked documents and interviews with fraud ringleaders, aid workers, IDPs, and anti-corruption specialists. Our reporting explores the impact such scams may have on the future of communities and aid organisations working in one of the world's longest-running humanitarian crises.
GOMA & KALUNGU - When four Congolese business owners were caught trying to bribe a Mercy Corps worker with bags of cash in November 2018, staff members at the international NGO were shocked. But the organisation was about to make an even bigger discovery: a multi-layered aid scam that was siphoning off money - aid officials think millions - meant for the Democratic Republic of Congo's most vulnerable.
The scam - known about by aid organisations since late 2018 but made public for the first time now, after a more than nine-month investigation by The New Humanitarian - involved corrupt aid workers, business owners, and community leaders. Together, they zeroed in on the humanitarian sector's flagship rapid response programmes - the main mechanism for helping displaced people in Congo, where hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid are spent every year.
After the November 2018 incident, Mercy Corps launched an internal investigation into the scam. The probe lasted nearly a year and found evidence that while the NGO had been affected since early 2018 - roughly the same time it began doing rapid response - similar schemes had most likely been in play for more than a decade and affected multiple NGOs doing rapid response programmes that use the same UN guidelines.
Some $639,000 was lost by Mercy Corps and partners in just a few months - including $65,000 by the Danish Refugee Council - TNH found after obtaining leaked documents and interviewing more than a dozen Mercy Corps staff members, the scam's ringleaders, aid officials, and aid recipients. A senior Mercy Corps official, who was involved in the investigation but asked not to be named, believes other aid agencies that were part of the Rapid Response to Population Movement (RRMP) programme lost $6 million in around two years.
When a conflict or natural disaster occurred, aid groups would receive reports from local community leaders that exaggerated the number of people who had fled their homes. Business people would then pay kickbacks to corrupt aid workers to register hundreds of additional people for cash support who were not actually displaced. The merchants would then receive the aid payments and share with the local leaders.
Of the 19 Mercy Corps aid workers alleged to be involved in the scam, some were using the extra cash to buy new cars, Armani glasses, and iPhones, according to several of their colleagues who spoke to TNH. One even started building a hotel, colleagues said.
The only criminal punishment anyone in the scam has faced to date is one night in prison after shoving an aid worker during an altercation over fraudulent payments.
Real displaced people caught in Congo's endless wars said the scheme was galling. "To think that aid was there, and people were stealing... it is awful," said Miridi Basiraye, the leader of a group of internally displaced people in Kalungu, a town in eastern Congo.
The complexity of the scam and collusion between different parties have stunned seasoned aid workers, who are more used to dealing with small-scale corruption involving staff members and beneficiaries. They have also triggered counter-fraud specialists to call for major reforms to the way humanitarian organisations operate, in Congo and beyond.
The fraud scheme showed how, after some 25 years, humanitarian aid in Congo is no longer just a lifeline for those fleeing conflict but an opportunity - for local power brokers, business owners, and aid workers at both international and local organisations - to cash in on the country's endless wars.
In late 2018, early reports of fraud affecting Congo aid efforts reached TNH. In January 2019, an OCHA press release noted that fraud had been uncovered in eastern Congo. Over the ensuing months, TNH closely followed as the reports were better substantiated and began an in-depth investigation in mid-2019.
TNH's investigation is based on two leaked Mercy Corps documents: an 18-page internal investigative report detailing the fraud, and a presentation of the scheme circulated to members of the humanitarian community in Congo.
TNH also obtained a 70-page draft operational review on corruption in humanitarian aid in Congo, minutes and information notes from an anti-fraud taskforce, and a UNICEF document on its handling of the fraud. The documents were provided by different sources working for NGOs involved in rapid response programming.
TNH has interviewed 13 current and former Mercy Corps staff members - including alleged ringleaders - several other senior UN and aid officials, six complicit business owners, journalists, civil society leaders, and displaced people in reporting trips to Minova and Kalungu.
'We did not see this coming'
During the year the fraud scheme was discovered, Congo's humanitarian situation was classified as a "level three" crisis - the gravest classification possible - putting the country on a par with Syria and Yemen.
Yet the multi-million dollar budget was shrinking for the RRMP, the largest rapid response programme and one of the biggest aid programmes overall in Congo, helping millions of conflict-affected people every year.
Investigators concluded that the speed of rapid response programmes - which provide NGOs with advance financing to respond to population movements soon after they occur - meant few efforts were made to check who was being registered as displaced and where millions of dollars of aid money were ultimately going.
But, while rapid response was targeted, the systems that proved most vulnerable to abuse were widely used in other relief programmes, suggesting that fraud ran much deeper within the humanitarian sector after more than two decades of aid organisations delivering assistance in much the same way.
The initial discovery of the scheme was not easy news for Mercy Corps to break to its donors. "We did not see this coming," said Whitney Elmer, the aid group's country director in Congo. "Not to this scale."
Business owners, who played a key role in the fraud, gave Mercy Corps investigators the names of nine other aid agencies - in addition to Mercy Corps and the Danish Refugee Council, which said it had launched an internal review but provided few details - allegedly affected by the same scheme, in some cases providing details of complicit aid workers and timelines of their involvement.
Five of the nine - which TNH is not naming as the allegations could not be fully substantiated - said they had conducted investigations but found nothing. Of those that disclosed details of their investigations, none, however, had looked as far back as Mercy Corps did - over a decade - and most only spent a few weeks on the ground making inquiries. Two said they did not conduct investigations because they had not received sufficient evidence to suggest they were implicated. One said it was not aware of the case, and another did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Following the discovery of fraud within Mercy Corps' programmes, however, aid agencies did join forces to launch an anti-fraud taskforce and commissioned an operational review - backed with a £200,000 grant from the UK's government aid agency, DFID, which funded RRMP until it was brought to a close last year - examining the integrity of humanitarian assistance in Congo.
A 70-page draft version, circulated among aid groups last month and seen by TNH, does not take a position on the findings of the Mercy Corps investigation, but it does describe many of the same schemes: exaggerated reports of displacements, collusion between aid workers and local communities, and distributions of aid to ineligible beneficiaries.
The alleged fraudsters, meanwhile, were eventually fired or had their contracts terminated by Mercy Corps, officials at the aid group told TNH. The NGO did not share the names of those former staff members with other aid groups because it believed doing so would violate Congolese labour law, the officials added.
At least three of the alleged fraudsters told TNH they had since joined other international NGOs.
Although RRMP was brought to a close late last year after funding dwindled, other rapid response mechanisms are still used almost every day.
A 'particularly striking' scale of alleged collaboration and collusion
In its investigation, Mercy Corps, one of the larger aid operators in eastern Congo, interviewed more than 220 staff members, business owners, local leaders, beneficiaries, and members of militia groups who provided corroborating details about the fraud scheme. The mark was always the same: rapid response programmes.
The long-running scheme was discovered by accident in November 2018 when four business owners from the town of Minova turned up at Mercy Corps' headquarters in Goma - the largest city in eastern Congo - holding bags of cash worth $20,000 between them.
Merchants would normally pay bribes away from an aid group's headquarters, but the cancellation of previous aid projects - by Mercy Corps investigators who suspected something was amiss - left business owners out of pocket, and the Minova four nervous their investment might not see a return.
On arrival, they asked to meet a young woman called Cynthia. She had previously presented herself as a Mercy Corps staffer and offered each of them 100 beneficiaries in exchange for $5,000. In fact, she was an intermediary acting on behalf of the corrupt aid workers.
With nobody by the name of Cynthia working for Mercy Corps, the merchants were instead brought to an internal compliance department and asked what the money was for. Secrets were soon unravelled.
The investigators asked the merchants to call Cynthia and arrange an early evening meeting in a suburb of Goma. Cynthia agreed, not knowing two Mercy Corps staff members would be joining.
The staffers were asked to take a picture of the woman from a distance and told not to approach her. But the instruction was ignored, a scuffle broke out, and Cynthia shoved one of them into a gutter so hard he broke his foot and was carted straight to hospital.
Local residents stepped in to detain Cynthia until police officers arrived and took her to a Goma prison. Mercy Corps officials were given permission to interrogate her the following morning - but were met with silence.
Concerned for her safety inside the shabby jail, the officials asked for her to be released. She was driven home later that day in a Mercy Corps vehicle - her one night in prison for a shove the only criminal punishment anyone involved in the scam has faced to date.
First introduced in 2004, the system proved well suited to Congo, where sudden-onset violence often catches aid groups off guard. Instead of waiting for donors to fund a conflict or natural disaster response, aid groups got advance supplies and money to respond far quicker.
Several rapid response mechanisms were created over the years, comprising a large chunk of Congo's annual humanitarian funding, now worth more than $1 billion. Similar systems have been rolled out to crisis-affected countries around the world.
Aid officials said the focus on speed meant organisations cut corners, heightening corruption risks in a country that the global watchdog Transparency International says is among the world's most corrupt.
But executing the scheme involved a degree of collusion - from senior aid workers to the chiefs of far-flung villages - that few aid workers saw coming.
Mercy Corps was conducting emergency aid operations in Congo long before it started rapid response work and found no evidence of widespread corruption in past programmes. The reason was simple, Elmer said: "We had a lot more time."
Interventions were often launched on the basis of unvetted sources issuing alerts that often proved to be false. And when aid groups did conduct assessments on the ground to verify the information and get a sense of the needs, their research would be based on focus group discussions with the same local leaders who had sent the alerts.
Perceived safety risks due to recent conflict meant expatriate staff - whose presence is normally viewed as a fraud prevention measure because they are less connected to local communities - were rarely present on the ground.
And pressure on RRMP NGOs to reduce costs and staff numbers over the years meant fewer people in the field and a greater reliance on local daily workers often hired on the recommendation of community leaders involved in the fraud.
Two senior aid officials said that, from 2017 onwards, UNICEF asked NGOs involved in RRMP to increase the rapidity of their interventions. One said the "obsession" with speed "accentuated all of the risks" involved in rapid response. UNICEF did not respond to the criticism when asked.
Other vulnerabilities that are not unique to rapid response helped the fraudsters. Data systems used to collect beneficiary information and register them for assistance were easily manipulated, allowing corrupt staff members to add fake or false entries.
Sloppy reference checks on new recruits, and the absence of a corruption blacklist shared among NGOs, meant corrupt staff members were able to go from one job to another.
First, community leaders who were trained by aid organisations to report displacement numbers would provide exaggerated - or in some cases entirely fabricated - accounts of emergencies that meant cash aid was diverted to areas where it wasn't fully needed.
With aid officials convinced that hundreds, even thousands, of extra people were in need of assistance, business owners - heavily involved because of their economic status and access to credit - would next offer members of local communities who were not displaced $10 for their voter cards.
For each card, which functioned as an ID, the business owners would then pay an extra $50 per name to aid workers who took part in the scheme and would ensure the names on the cards were added to a database of people in need of assistance.
On distribution day, the false beneficiaries - or someone representing them - would arrive with their voter cards, take the cash aid or vouchers with a monetary value of $120 on average, and hand it back to the business owners, who would pocket tens of thousands of dollars between them for each individual intervention.
"The manipulation of beneficiary lists is really common in the sector," said Oliver May, former head of Oxfam's anti-fraud unit. "What is particularly striking here is the scale of collaboration and collusion that has been alleged."
'These NGOs are helping people who aren't actually in need'
The fraud took place in different parts of eastern Congo, investigators found, but its centre of gravity was the town of Minova - a small commercial hub in South Kivu, one of Congo's most conflict-torn provinces.
The town's proximity to the sprawling city of Goma - where complicit business owners often had commercial interests, and where aid organisations had offices - made it ideal for the fraudsters.
Minova and the neighbouring town of Kalungu are also home to thousands of displaced people, who live in camps that pockmark the emerald-green hills or are crammed into the houses of host families who are often just as poor as their guests.
TNH spoke with a woman who said she arrived in Kalungu in January 2018, after fleeing clashes between different militia groups that she said cost the lives of more than a dozen of her friends around a cluster of villages known as Ziralo.
With no fields of her own to farm in Kalungu, she found work transporting firewood, earning just over $1 a day to feed six children. When Mercy Corps arrived, she said she received aid alongside others who were not displaced. Seeing the fraud made her angry.
"We felt terrible," said the woman, whose name is being withheld over security concerns. "We said... these NGOs are helping people who aren't actually in need."
But, as a guest in another community, she feared her family might be asked to leave if they reported or criticised the wrongdoing. "We were living in terror," she said.
The fraudsters had no such dilemmas.
"When I heard about this opportunity, it brought me many ideas," said one complicit shopkeeper who spoke to TNH on condition of anonymity and said she would earn $400 on a normal month. "Paying for my children at school... paying doctors when they get sick."
Complicit business owners - six of whom spoke with TNH - had varying income levels. One made $500 on a good month selling food and clothes - not much for her 14 children; another made $1,000 shipping goods from town to town.
All said they borrowed hefty sums from local loan sharks and family members to afford the bribes and to rent voter cards - key components of the scam. With far more money up for grabs than they would normally earn, the debt was worth accruing.
But the business owners and aid workers weren't the only ones to benefit. Money was shared with influential community leaders and even armed groups, generating a steady interest in manipulating aid at all levels, the Mercy Corps investigation found.
"One of our assumptions of why this did not come out earlier is that many people were probably benefiting in one way or another," said one senior Mercy Corps official, who asked not to be named.
'People know how to game the system'
Shortly after its investigation started in late 2018, Elmer said Mercy Corps took a risk: it alerted other NGOs whose names had been mentioned by the business owners, as well as the wider humanitarian community in Congo.
"Given we believed others may be affected, we wanted them to be aware and be able to look into these issues on their own," Elmer said.
It was an unusual step for a humanitarian organisation - which has no obligation to report fraud to anyone but its donors - allowing other NGOs to join forces under the sector-wide anti-fraud taskforce.
Elmer said it was necessary because most of the rapid response processes used by the NGO were drawn from UN guidelines that all humanitarian organisations doing rapid response and other emergency aid programmes in eastern Congo also used.
The rigged alert system to communicate displacements - spearheaded by the UN's aid coordination agency, OCHA - was not just used for rapid response, for example, but was the basis on which "more broadly, humanitarian response interventions are launched", said Elmer.
Aid groups said its manipulation raised questions over how often displacement figures had been exaggerated, how many interventions had been launched on misleading information, and how many times populations in genuine need had missed out on assistance.
Beneficiaries had also become overly familiar with questionnaires used in rapid response and other programmes to determine people's eligibility for assistance. When asked questions - size of family, number of children - people would often lie to ensure they received maximum support.
Mercy Corps officials and anti-corruption analysts said the case shows what can happen when long-suffering communities - known colloquially by some aid workers in Congo as "professional beneficiaries" - have years to figure how relief programmes work, and how to rig them.
"Aid organisations have been running the same for years," said François Grünewald, director of France-based URD, an independent think tank that analyses practices and policies in the humanitarian sector. "People know how to game the system; they know it by heart."
'Are cases like this the starting point' for change?
UNICEF, which was the custodian of RRMP, has recently launched a forensic audit of several NGOs in Congo involved in the programme. COVID-19 restrictions have slowed down progress, but a final report is expected in October.
Some aid officials said UNICEF, which designed many of the processes of RRMP, should have launched the audit much sooner. UNICEF's country representative, Edouard Beigbeder, said he wished the process had gone quicker.
New York-based investigators from UNICEF's internal oversight body, OIAI, did conduct an investigation in March 2019, but Beigbeder told TNH in a February interview that they had not shared the results with his team in Congo, leaving him unable to confirm whether the fraud discovered was isolated to Mercy Corps, or systemic. A UNICEF spokesperson said OIAI "worked together" with the Congo office to review the Mercy Corps investigation.
RRMP was brought to a close last year with donor support dwindling. Aid officials and donor sources told TNH the decision to pull funds was related to the fraud discovery and UNICEF's slow response. Beigbeder said this was not the case, adding that the programme needed "reinventing" after losing some of its effectiveness.
Mercy Corps - which is still doing rapid response - said it has developed a new scoring system that measures the credibility of alerts, and has added additional controls to its monitoring systems. Other NGOs doing rapid response work said they have also changed their systems, but they generally provided less detail.
Elmer said Mercy Corps has changed its systems to help combat large-scale fraud, starting with alerts, which are now run through a credibility scoring system based on: who is providing the information and their economic and political interests; how many sources confirm the same thing; how diversified the sources are; and if the sources have provided false information in the past.
A team containing a mix of national and expatriate staff is sent to the ground to conduct an emergency needs assessment before a decision is made to launch an intervention, Elmer said.
And registration of beneficiaries is done through a new mobile data collection system that the aid group says keeps information locked away in the "cloud" and is much harder to manipulate.
Questionnaires used to determine whether an individual gets assistance have been revamped, while a new recruitment strategy has seen the NGO focus on younger candidates less exposed to bad practices in the sector.
UNICEF said its new rapid response mechanism will not have a cash transfer component, adding that the agency will provide close "oversight" over its partners, both "when assessing needs on the ground and in the actual response".
OCHA's country director in Congo, Joseph Inganji, said the agency is looking to expand its network of informants for alerts and provide more training to alert givers. Fixing the alert system is an ongoing process, he said.
UNICEF said it is designing a new rapid response programme with a "quicker response time" than before; senior aid officials told TNH that was a bad idea. The operational review found that rapid response has weakened the quality of aid delivery and recommends aid groups reduce their "reliance" on it.
Aid officials said other rapid response mechanisms still being used in Congo are now prioritising compliance over speed. But those officials added that the change has come at a cost: aid is now arriving more slowly to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by conflict in recent months.
The operational review also concludes that while the taskforce that was set up has decreased the "taboo" around discussing corruption, aid groups remain reluctant to share information that might help each other combat the problem.
Aid officials from NGOs involved in the taskforce have urged that more money be put into anti-corruption measures - a call that has been widely echoed by experts.
As one of the larger NGOs in terms of staff numbers, Mercy Corps was ideally placed to investigate the fraud. Other NGOs said they have fewer resources to spend on compliance and risk management.
Often, it takes such a loss to shake some humanitarian organisations into action, said May, the former head of Oxfam's anti-fraud unit who now works at Deloitte.
Oxfam, for example, was turned inside out after a newspaper revealed that the aid organisation had covered up an investigation that found staff working in Haiti had sexually exploited victims of the 2010 earthquake by visiting sex workers.
"It took the sector-wide sexual abuse crisis for safeguarding to start to receive anything like the level of resource that was really needed for the sector to manage that risk," May told TNH. "What's it going to take for fraud? Are cases like this the starting point for that?"
In Kalungu, where fraudsters struck multiple times, some corrupt officials have been fired, residents and civil society organisations said, but displaced people keep coming - only now, they feel nobody believes them.
Basiraye, the new chief of IDPs in Kalungu, held up a scrappy piece of paper listing displaced people who had arrived in the town since August - victims of one of the many complex conflicts that Congo just can't stop producing.
On a nearby table sat two of them: Zawadi Makorani, a 41-year-old farmer with nine children who needed food, clothes, and soap to wash; and Evariste Bendera, another father of nine kids, whom he said he couldn't always feed.
Few of the newly displaced had received support since arriving, Basiraye said. He insisted with increasing intensity that the numbers on his list were "not a lie" and the people at the table behind him were "absolutely refugees".
"The Bible says that it's wrong to steal," he said. "But now... we are asking again: please help us."
At a glance: Aid diversion in Congo
- $639,000 was lost over several months in a multi-layered fraud scheme discovered by Mercy Corps
- Around $6 million may have been lost to multiple aid organisations over two years, aid officials say
- Staff members allegedly involved in the scheme were let go by Mercy Corps, but some now work at other aid organisations
- Rapid response programmes were most affected, including the UN-administered RRMP
- An anti-fraud taskforce formed by aid groups has commissioned an operational review into corruption in humanitarian aid; UNICEF is conducting a forensic audit
- Anti-corruption specialists call for more funds devoted to counter-fraud measures
- Systems used to provide aid have remained too static over Congo's 25-year crisis, aid officials say, opening the way for fraud
- Similar systems are used in other countries