Africa: 2020 in Review - Investigations

Geneva — Our reporters uncovered sexual abuse allegations against Ebola aid workers in Congo, a data breach the UN tried to keep under wraps, and more.

Sex abuse, corruption, missing aid money, data breaches, and alleged cover-ups: Our investigative reporting explored these topics and others as we looked at the multibillion-dollar aid sector in 2020.

Even before the pandemic struck, it wasn't easy chasing secrets in the aid world - potential whistleblowers are often too scared to risk their jobs or careers; collecting and sharing data is scattershot among UN agencies and NGOs; and - unlike the public sector - journalists can't turn to Freedom of Information laws to pry loose closely guarded information.

COVID-19 erected new roadblocks. Lockdowns and travel restrictions often thwarted on-the-ground reporting, and the risk of contracting the virus added another worry to an already long list of precautions taken to keep our reporters safe.

Getting answers from governments, UN agencies, and NGOs was also slowed, as all eyes were on the pandemic. "Call back in two months," a government office told us during our investigation into an Ethiopian gold mine allegedly linked to a record number of birth defects in the region. We didn't wait. We obtained leaked reports and doubled other reporting.

We did catch a bit of luck. Several tips that had been percolating after reporting on the 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo panned out.

One was about allegations of sex abuse by aid workers responding to the outbreak.

Sexual abuse and exploitation scandals have become all too common in humanitarian settings, and more often than not they have involved groups of UN peacekeepers.

But in Beni, a response hub during the outbreak, we found 50 women who described how aid workers - most allegedly from the World Health Organization - lured them into sex-for-work schemes during the Ebola outbreak.

Getting the story took nearly a year, and we collaborated on it with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Telling the story to make sure the women's voices were heard without jeopardizing their privacy was a challenge. In the end, the story was re-published or cited by news organizations around the globe, and the UN and NGOs have vowed to investigate the women's allegations.

Another investigation was driven by a whistleblower tip that came amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the death of George Floyd Jr.

A former Catholic Relief Services employee accused the Catholic charity of failing to take action against its American chief in Sudan after several complaints of racism. In the end, the American boss was fired shortly after being arrested in Sudan for racist verbal abuse. The TNH investigation coincided with our coverage of racism within the humanitarian sector and discussions on how to "decolonise" aid.

And as part of our continued coverage looking at data responsibility within humanitarian settings, we uncovered a major UN data breach and discovered that most staff had not been alerted to the cyberattack.

The prospects of budget cuts linked to the fallout from the pandemic also helped draw some whistleblowers out of the shadows for our investigation on the International Committee of the Red Cross. Could the ICRC have avoided deep budget cuts and layoffs if the organisation had done a better job of managing its finances and staff?

We're already at work on investigations for 2021, following up some of this year's reporting as well as delving into new topics. For now, here's a selection of our 2020 investigative reports on the aid sector:

(Compiled by TNH Investigations Editor Paisley Dodds.)

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