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Bottom and Up Union in Distributing COVID-19 Assistance Programs

The Editorial Board

Billions of COVID-19 financial assistance have gone missing. Missing from the pockets of the rightful individuals but present in the wallets of financially capable individuals. While this case has been understood and recognised as corrupt practices of relevant institutions or officials, less attention is paid to the imperative of building a system that will ensure the delivery of assistance to the intended beneficiaries, which usefulness might extend to post-COVID-19 – if that world will ever come about.

Money will always play a prominent role in the lives of individuals. It’s a requirement of living in an era governed by freedom of transactions. But perhaps it is also the very reason why greediness becomes humanity’s guilty pleasure. Since people want to save themselves, want to fulfil all their wants, which some mistakenly considered as needs, they easily engaged in corrupt practices even at times such as the COVID-19 pandemic – when it is clear that many people are suffering.

The World Bank report documented 114 countries’ social protection and job responses to COVID-19. Each country has on average three assistance programs that seek to target individuals and families facing hardship due to the pandemic. National Governments announced the provision of financial assistance to low-income households, the elderly, and people with disabilities. For instance, the Sri Lankan government supported low-income families, senior citizens, and people with disabilities by giving one-time assistance of 5,000 rupees. In Indonesia, both national and local Governments offered a range of financial assistance which amount range in around Rp. 600,000 – 1,200,000. The assistance is also offered to individuals who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. In Tunisia, the Government offered a one-off cash transfer of TND200 to 623,000 households working in the informal sector but are not registered with any Government social assistance programs. But some of the Government-initiated programs are missing a key duty: reporting the exact number and profiles of the beneficiaries. Some programs only provide an estimate of spending volume, the report suggested.

Who, then, are the actual beneficiaries of COVID-19 financial aid? Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) received reports of 1,500 cases of corruption and irregularities related to COVID-19 financial relief. Many of the rightful beneficiaries never laid eyes on that money, while some others are registered as recipients despite their ineligibility of receiving the financial assistance.

What has become clear is that the majority of assistance during COVID-19 is a one-off program that will not allow households living in precarity to withstand the pandemic that has been around for nearly 18 months. What has not been previously identified is whether one-time assistance poses a higher risk than financial assistance provided to individuals who have been properly documented as living in precarity. In times of health and humanitarian crises, corrupt practices seem to escape our attention, because the main priority is always about keeping everyone safe. Then, as soon as aid and large ‘government spending’ are announced, we are forced to assume that we are all ‘safe’. After all, with social distancing or lockdown measures in place, we shouldn’t complain too much.

Minimising physical mobility comes at the expense of increased opportunity to engage in unlawful and unethical practices of expropriating COVID-19 assistance – from cash payments, grants, food allowances, to medical supplies. The ‘expropriation’ comes in two faces: either intentionally not distributing the assistance to the rightful beneficiaries or failure to identify the rightful beneficiaries.

But is this instance unique to COVID-19? Taking advantage of what can only be said as a humanitarian tragedy is a common practice. And to see that, we can review health crises that precede COVID-19, such as the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ which claimed an estimate of 40 million lives. During the Spanish flu, class played a major role in ‘who gets help first’ and ‘which category of the population has the lowest likelihood to survive’. Class is equal to power. Similar to the COVID-19 case in which individuals who hold authority in collecting and managing COVID-19 assistance have power in their hands. And they have the liberty to decide whether or not to abuse power. The disadvantaged individuals cannot control or intervene in what should have been a matter of their survival.

The Ebola virus has also been destroying affected African countries whilst containment efforts are being obstructed by widespread corruption. Weak institutions due to high levels of government corruption and low levels of transparency and accountability prevent faster recovery from crises. Ebola has been around for eight years, while COVID-19 will soon reach its second birthday. What is necessary is therefore building a system that can allow all parties to effectively monitor the collection and disbursement of assistance.

The Bottom and Up Union

COVID-19 might be the world’s worst pandemic. Not only because of the death rates but because of the corrupt practices. Building a system to ensure the delivery of financial or other forms of assistance to the rightful beneficiaries seems like a solid ambition. However, can a system that is made and operated by humans prevent corrupt practices of their own kind?

A system is usually understood as the formal organising of bodies or rules to ensure the procedural operationalisation of work. A concept of a system that represents the formal and informal bodies equally is hardly present in the discourse surrounding the mitigation of humanitarian crises, when in fact, informal bodies such as civil society organisations and grassroots actors are contributing to exposing unlawful and unethical practices by individuals and authorities.

High risks of corruption in times of crisis are difficult to alleviate unless there is a system that can continuously monitor what happens at the grassroots levels. If poor households do not get their assistance, then grassroots actors can document the evidence which will then be tackled by the authorities.

In doing this, it is imperative to allocate spending to building a system that will allow both governments and civil society to ensure the delivery of assistance to the rightful beneficiaries. The investment ought to be made not only for authorities who have already benefited from technology but also for civil society organisations that have not even laid eyes on computerised systems. Civil society organisations can act as a whistle-blower mechanism to prevent anti-corruption practices.

There should be no supremacy in terms of who owns, collects, and distribute the funds. The international-national-local power relations should be removed. COVID-19 is a collective problem and unless we want everything to be topsy turvy, we have to work together.

This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 01 — June 2021

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