An Associated Press investigation has found that more than a dozen United Nations aid workers deployed to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by five years of conflict in Yemen are being accused of graft to enrich themselves from an international outpouring of donated food, medicine, fuel and money.
The AP obtained UN internal investigative documents, and interviewed eight aid workers and former government officials. The upshot: internal auditors from the World Health Organization are investigating allegations that unqualified people were placed in high-paying jobs, hundreds of thousands of dollars were deposited in staffers’ personal bank accounts, dozens of suspicious contracts were approved without the proper paperwork, and tons of donated medicine and fuel went missing.
Critics of such corruption say it threatens the international lifeline on which the majority of Yemen’s 30 million people rely. Last year, the UN said international donors pledged $2 billion for humanitarian efforts in Yemen.
The main focus of WHO’s investigation into its Yemen operations is Nevio Zagaria, an Italian doctor, who was chief of the agency’s Sanaa office from 2016 until September 2018, according to three individuals with direct knowledge of the investigation.
I would like to thank & congratulate the WHO team that I had the privilege to lead over last 21 months. Big thanks to those who made the final draft of the publication “faces of #Yemen forgotten war” possible, highlighting the human suffering & advocating for peace in Yemen.
— Dr Nevio Zagaria (@DrNevioZagaria) October 1, 2018
The only public announcement of the probe came in a sentence buried in the 37 pages of the internal auditor’s 2018 annual report of activities worldwide. The report did not mention Zagaria by name.
The report, released May 1, found that financial and administrative controls in the Yemen office were “unsatisfactory” — its lowest rating — and noted hiring irregularities, no-competition contracts and lack of monitoring over procurement.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic confirmed to the AP that the investigation is underway. He said Zagaria retired in September 2018, but he would not confirm or deny that Zagaria specifically was under investigation.
“The Office of Internal Oversight Services is currently investigating all concerns raised,” he said. “We must respect the confidentiality of this process and are unable go into details on specific concerns.”
Four current and former workers said the WHO’s Yemen office under Zagaria was riddled with corruption and nepotism.
Zagaria brought in junior staffers who worked with him in the Philippines and promoted them to high-salary posts though they were unqualified, three individuals said.
Two of them — a Filipino university student and a former intern — were given senior posts, but their only role was to take care of Zagaria’s dog, two of the officials said.
“Incompetent staff with heavy salaries” undermined the quality of work and monitoring of projects and created “many loopholes for corruption,” a former aid official said.
Zagaria also allegedly approved suspicious contracts signed by staffers with no competitive bidding or documentation for the spending. According to internal documents, local firms contracted to provide services at WHO’s Aden office were later found to have hired WHO staffers’ friends and family and overcharged for services. The owner of one firm was seen handing cash to one staffer, the documents show — an apparent kickback.
Under Zagaria, aid funds meant to be spent during emergencies were also used with little accountability or monitoring, according to internal documents.
Under WHO rules, aid money can be transferred directly into the accounts of staffers, a measure meant to speed up the purchasing of goods and services in a crisis. The WHO says the arrangement is needed to keep operations going in remote areas because Yemen’s banking sector is not fully functioning.
Because they are supposed to be restricted to emergencies, there is no requirement that spending of these direct transfers be itemized. Zagaria approved direct transfer of cash worth a total of $1 million for certain staffers, according to internal documents. But in many cases it was unclear how they spent the money.
Zagaria did not respond to emailed questions from the AP.