The Government department in charge of Britain's £5.6bn aid budget has been accused of "unjustifiable secrecy" because it is refusing to disclose the names of charities and developing countries found to have fraudulently obtained money donated on behalf of UK taxpayers.
Figures obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Department for International Development has lost nearly £720,000 over the past five years as a result of "fraud, corruption and abuse" by governments in the developing world or NGOs using British funds.
But DfID has refused to release a detailed list of the projects and countries where fraud has been uncovered, saying that to do so would jeopardise the UK's relationship with foreign governments and risk further abuse by detailing the nature of the offence. And it has also refused to give details of exactly how much money has been misused
The decision to protect the identity of corrupt charities and governments was greeted with anger by campaigners and opposition politicians, who said the policy ran contrary to pledges of transparency in the aid system and risked undermining public confidence in Britain's strong stance on supporting the developing world.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "This is information that should be unquestionably put in the public domain. In the context of DfID's overall budget, these are the sort of sums that would have been misappropriated by junior officials or an NGO and it is difficult to see how disclosure would be capable of harming international relations. It may well be true that the details of certain claims cannot be disclosed, in particular if they relate to as yet unproven allegations. But to insist on blanket anonymity smacks of unjustifiable secrecy."
DfID took five months to reply to the FOI request from The Independent for details of anti-corruption investigations conducted by its Counter Fraud Unit. But it said it had recovered, via investigations, £719,000 since 2005 relating to "budgetary support" or direct funding of developing world governments and money supplied to charities, including thousands of local NGOs.
The department said the list identifying specific fraud cases was being withheld to protect Britain's "good working relationships" with foreign governments and international organisations.
In its FOI response, DfID said: "Disclosing sensitive information relating to them would be likely to damage these relationships; harm DfID's ability to work with and influence other donors in eradicating poverty and undermine the UK's ability to respond to international development needs."
The department has adopted a robust stance on investigating allegations of fraud or corruption. In December last year, the Government announced it had frozen funding to the Ministry of Education in Kenya and issued visa bans against 20 Kenyan officials after $1.3m (£850,000) to buy learning materials went missing. The Nigerian authorities are also trying to trace £165,000 of DfID funding for training teachers which has disappeared. Over the past three years, DfID has also given funding of £4.7m to specialist units in the City of London and Metropolitan Police forces dedicated to investigating fraud. Scotland Yard's Proceeds of Corruption Unit has seized or frozen assets of more than £140m since 2006. But DfID said it was "not aware" that any of the recoveries or seizures by the two police forces included money that it had donated abroad.
Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative spokesman on international development, told The Independent that while the naming and shaming of foreign governments or charities found to have acted fraudulently should be considered on a case-by-case basis, there was no justification for blanket anonymity.
He said: "Taxpayers will be rightly angered that their money appears to have been misspent."
A DfID spokesman said: "We do not tolerate corruption and actively pursue those who misuse resources meant for the poor. Every one of DfID's programmes is subject to rigorous safeguards and careful monitoring to minimise the risk of fraud or misuse of UK funds. DfID's counter-fraud unit has recovered £719,000 relating to budgetary support or NGO funding over the past five years, which is a clear signal of DfID's commitment to fighting fraud and corruption wherever we find it."
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