Voices in Transparency – Isabelle Kermeen
August 21, 2020
This piece is part of a series to highlight the voices and work of women in the transparency field, as part of Global Financial Integrity’s work coordinating the Women in Transparency Network. This interview features Isabelle Kermeen, Communications Manager at Integrity Action. Integrity Action helps citizens to monitor and improve the delivery of vital projects and services, like education or infrastructure.
“I have seen misuse of power or funds throughout my career, as I am sure many have, but I remain hopeful that the transparency work being done is progressing us towards a more accountable world.”
On getting started:
I first started to think critically about transparency and corruption around the time I left school. In conversation with a friend from Kenya, she expressed frustration and a fear to engage with issues and call out corruption when it’s the people with most power who are responsible for the wrongdoing. It brought to the forefront issues of inequality and injustice that ignited something in me – trite though it may sound – which is where my desire to work in social and environmental justice stemmed from.
To start, I worked for a Sri Lankan NGO after the civil conflict ended in 2009 which was my first exposure to accountability. The global conversation was shifting from aid effectiveness to development effectiveness. There was agreement on the need for a more holistic approach, a focus on countries developing in an equitable and sustainable way, rather than solely looking at whether aid was effective. We were focusing on sustainable development and in the post-conflict period in Sri Lanka there was a need to ensure an effective and sustainable recovery. It was especially pertinent as a lot of foreign capital was flowing in to assist recovery efforts, but much of it was in the form of loans rather than grants, which enabled a lot of infrastructure to be built or rebuilt, but also contributed to increasing national debt. In addition, many programs were going ahead with little or no regard for environmental impact and the related measures. Our organization pushed for effective, equitable and sustainable development, and worked with regional bodies like the Reality of Aid Network.
Some time later I worked for a few years in the UN agency responsible for coordinating humanitarian efforts (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs or UNOCHA) in Sudan, where I saw firsthand how complicated the delivery of humanitarian aid (and indeed development assistance) can be when considering issues of transparency and corruption. This is not to say that these issues exist only in the countries receiving assistance; not at all. But the need for principled, impartial humanitarian assistance is great and I have a lot of respect for the actors that will desist their operations when they cannot guarantee an impartial and principled response, such as ICRC and MSF. Unfortunately, aid organizations might have to do favors to gain safe access to people in need in difficult to reach areas in Sudan and other places. Although not directly linked to transparency issues, I found the withdrawal of MSF from the refugee operations on the Greek island Moria during the 2016 breathtaking: they decided to stop working if humanitarian principles could not be upheld following the EU/Turkey deal.
I then moved to the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Vienna, Austria, working on academic learning and research surrounding corruption-related issues, as well as supporting state parties on combatting corruption. I learnt a lot from experts in the field and especially remember an associate and passionate anti-corruption fighter Malika Aït-Mohamed Parent’s long list of examples of corruption, some of which are specific to the aid sector. I have seen misuse of power or funds throughout my career, as I am sure many have, but I remain hopeful that the transparency work being done is progressing us towards a more accountable world.
On current work:
My current role is Communications Manager at Integrity Action. We take a positive, proactive approach to encouraging integrity rather than preventing corruption. And we do it by working with citizens who through our programming, build lasting relationships and trust with the local authorities and organizations delivering projects and services.
Community members are trained to monitor how projects and services are delivered, in comparison with what was promised. Issues are reported in our mobile app DevelopmentCheck and all data is available online in real-time. The citizen monitors are also trained to identify which stakeholders or power holders they can engage with to raise issues and get them fixed, and “fixes” are also reported in the app. This leads to a constructive, problem-solving approach to integrity problems, rather than finger-pointing or shaming. Our work means that for instance, girls in South Kivu, DR Congo who would previously stay home during their period from schools lacking gender segregated toilets can now attend school all month long, because student monitors identified this as an issue, reported it and were able to get appropriate toilets constructed (see page 22).
Integrity Action also worked in the post-earthquake response in Nepal where families still hadn’t had their homes rebuilt several years after the earthquake, despite the availability of funds. Our app was used to monitor and ensure families were able to move back into suitable homes and that these were constructed as promised. And in Armenia where there is a high risk of seismic activity, we worked on an ADB-funded project where communities monitored the construction of schools to ensure adherence to contractual specifications and quality.
On a dangerous myth:
I think we all have a responsibility to speak up when we encounter behavior that goes against what we understand as integrity and accountability. For me, the myth of goodwill is a cause that needs more attention. That is, the belief that people working in the non-profit and specifically the development sector are inherently good because they are working for a good cause – they cannot possibly be corrupt if they are aid workers or charity workers. This is such a dangerous myth.
As I mentioned before, there are people who seek to benefit from the non-profit or social justice work they are involved in. The non-profit and the international development sector in particular could be more open about the risk of corruption in all its forms, and organizations could have stronger processes in place to prevent the misuse of funds. As a communications professional, I think the language we use plays an interesting role here. “Corruption” is quite a dirty word, and it’s not really that widely accepted that it happens everywhere. I think taking a more proactive approach and not being afraid to talk about it would be an important step towards addressing it. Also realizing that corruption has many forms – rushed spending at the end of a project can be misuse of funds, if it ends up being spent on something that isn’t really needed instead of something else that was part of the original plan.
On increasing transparency within the NGO and non-profit sector:
Organizations working in international development should be obliged to publish more information about their funding sources and contracts. At Integrity Action, we’ve taken this step and our contracts are available on our website, as well as our board meeting minutes. The sector comes under an enormous amount of scrutiny, yet any organization that stands for what it is doing should be proud to publish its contracting information openly. If there is more sensitive programming, such as initiatives related to peace building, access negotiations, or working in disputed or conflict-affected territory, then of course, some information could be redacted or not published – the idea isn’t to put the important efforts of organizations working on sensitive topics or those communities at risk. But a lot of development and humanitarian actors could be more transparent about where the money is coming from, how it’s used and how decisions are made.
Secondly, donors need to improve accountability towards aid recipients. I discussed this in a recent blog, noting that donors need to make an effort to reduce the distance between themselves and the people who require assistance. A funder mobilizes funds in an appropriate way on the basis of the information they have about people in need, but the link between the donor and the people in need could be stronger, with clearer information on where the money is coming for and what it is supposed to be for so that the people in need can understand it. Donors could also listen to affected communities more closely and tailor the way they make funding available to be more useful for people in need.
On the need for greater transparency and the Covid-19 pandemic:
For me, this comes back to international development– there is an influx of funds to address a crisis, which might lead to rushed spending, lack of oversight and sufficient processes in procurement or implementation and duplicated efforts. It happened after the Indian Ocean tsunami, it happened in Haiti and it is happening again. But it’s also closer to home. The UK government’s recent example on procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) is just one example of misuse of funds during a crisis.
We also need to question how policies to protect people are made; in settings where the most vulnerable are likely to find it impossible to socially distance, what are the risks of introducing stringent lockdown measures? Are the risks of not being able to work and provide an existence for one’s family comparable with the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus? Are governments listening to peoples’ needs when it comes to developing policies that will have a great impact on their lives?
But let’s also be positive – we’ve seen fantastic examples of social accountability initiatives that demonstrate that it is still possible to demand and ensure integrity during a crisis and specifically when social distancing is required. My recent roundup piece on the Integrity Action blog highlights some key examples in different countries, such as our partner organization Integrity Watch Afghanistan, where community monitors have continued monitoring health service delivery safely, dressed in full PPE, and also holding authorities responsible for providing PPE in clinics. And in this piece we highlight the work of our partner organizations in Kenya who found that citizen monitors were extra keen to continue monitoring local infrastructure projects (when it was safe to do so, from a social distancing perspective). And the Open Government Partnership has a great resource bank with open government initiatives to address Covid-19, and Open Gov Hub has collated examples of accountability-related responses to the pandemic.
On a transparency challenge in the UK:
An important topic we mustn’t lose sight of is the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID). These institutions traditionally play different roles and I believe it is a mistake to merge them, but now that the decision has been announced, our role must be to question how this is done and keep an eye on its impact. The work and purpose of diplomats is very different to the work of development professionals and there are potential risks to the impartiality of aid efforts if these both fall under the responsibility of the same department. The 2020 Aid Transparency Index by Publish What You Fund highlighted that while DFID has a score of very good, the FCO scored just fair. The Index assesses donors across 35 transparency-related indicators and uses a thorough peer-review process, which Integrity Action’s CEO Jasmina Haynes this year contributed to, so the assessment ensures in-depth scrutiny of many facets of each donor’s way of working. The challenge will be ensuring the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office upholds high standards of transparency as DFID has, rather than slipping. We’re working on an exciting new initiative in the UK aid monitoring space and I hope to be able to share more on that soon.