Syria Humanitarian Assistance:

Some Risks of Providing Aid inside Syria Assessed, but U.S. Agencies Could Improve Fraud Oversight

GAO-16-629: Published: Jul 14, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2016.

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melitot@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

Delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance to people inside Syria is complicated by three factors including a dangerous operating environment, access constraints, and remote management of programs. Active conflict creates a dangerous environment characterized by attacks on aid facilities and workers, and humanitarian organizations face difficulties accessing those in need. Additionally, U.S. agency officials must manage programs in Syria remotely, increasing risks to the program, including opportunities for fraud. Despite these challenges, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. humanitarian assistance has reached 4 million people inside Syria per month.

Examples of destruction to health facilities after aerial attacks

Examples of destruction to health facilities after aerial attacks

The Department of State (State), USAID, and their implementing partners have assessed some types of risk to their programs inside Syria, but most partners have not assessed the risk of fraud. Of the 9 implementing partners in GAO's sample of funding instruments, most assessed risks related to safety and security, but only 4 of 9 assessed fraud risks. Such an assessment is important as USAID's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has uncovered multiple instances of fraud affecting U.S. programs delivering humanitarian assistance to Syria. In May 2016, USAID OIG reported that 1 of its active fraud investigations resulted in the suspension of 14 entities and individuals. Given the challenging environment in Syria, fraud risk assessments could help U.S. agencies better identify and address risks to help ensure aid reaches those in need.

Partners have implemented controls to mitigate certain risks, but U.S. agencies could improve financial oversight. For example, almost all partners in our sample have controls to mitigate safety risks and some use technology to monitor the transport of goods. Additionally, U.S. agencies have taken steps to oversee activities in Syria, such as quarterly meetings with partners and spot checks of partner warehouses. Further, in October 2015, USAID hired a third party monitor to improve oversight of its activities and help verify progress of its programs. However, the monitors' training curriculum lacks modules on identifying fraud risks. Without such training, monitors may overlook potential fraud risks and miss opportunities to collect data that could help USAID improve its financial oversight.

Why GAO Did This Study

The conflict in Syria has created a complex humanitarian challenge, with an estimated 13.5 million people inside Syria in need of assistance. In response, the United States has provided more than $5 billion since 2011 in humanitarian assistance, with about half supporting those inside Syria. Without an embassy in Syria, State and USAID oversee assistance remotely from neighboring countries.

In this report GAO examines humanitarian assistance provided by State, USAID, and their implementing partners to people inside Syria, including (1) factors affecting delivery of such assistance; (2) the extent to which State, USAID, and their partners have assessed risks to the programs; and (3) implementation of controls to mitigate identified risks and ensure appropriate financial oversight of humanitarian assistance. GAO selected a nongeneralizable sample of 12 funding instruments involving 9 implementing partners and analyzed the partners' risk assessments and control activities, interviewed relevant officials, and conducted fieldwork in Jordan, where several implementing partners are based.

What GAO Recommends

To provide more complete information to assist oversight activities, State and USAID should require their implementing partners to conduct fraud risk assessments. In addition, USAID should ensure its field monitors are trained to identify potential fraud risks and collect information on them. State and USAID concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Thomas Melito at (202) 512-9601 or melitot@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: USAID concurred with our recommendation. In response to GAO's recommendation, USAID's Office of Food for Peace updated its Annual Program Statement to require all partners, as part of their application for funding, to complete a risk assessment that specifically examines the potential risk related to fraud, corruption and mismanagement, and USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance updated its proposal guidelines to require that implementing partners? proposals for Syria include a risk assessment and mitigation strategies for risk of fraud, waste, and abuse.

    Recommendation: To improve the financial oversight of U.S. programs to provide humanitarian assistance to people inside Syria, the USAID Administrator should update guidance to require non-governmental organizations to conduct risk assessments addressing the risk of fraud.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: USAID concurred with our recommendation and stated that it planned to hire a new compliance officer who would deal full-time with fraud mitigation and other compliance issues for USAID Syria and Iraq humanitarian assistance portfolios. In May 2018, USAID provided GAO with the contract for the person hired as a compliance officer (now known as a "risk mitigation officer"); the duties and responsibilities section of the contract confirms that the individual will deal with fraud mitigation and other compliance issues. In addition, USAID provided GAO with an Implementing Partner Risk Review Form which, according to USAID, the risk mitigation officer completes pre-award and at other points in the award lifecycle for Syria programs. We deem these actions sufficient to close this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the financial oversight of U.S. programs to provide humanitarian assistance to people inside Syria, the USAID Administrator should use risk assessments submitted by implementing partners to inform USAID oversight activities, for example, using information from assessments to ensure that control activities for programs are designed to mitigate identified risks.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: USAID concurred with our recommendation and stated that it would work to provide the third-party monitoring organization with information specific to the Syria context that identifies methods to detect fraud, and ensure that field monitors are trained on fraud risks and methods for identifying fraud. In March 2018, USAID provided GAO with updated training modules with specific training for identifying fraud. In addition, USAID noted in its response that the third-party monitoring organization used the USAID OIG Fraud Awareness Handbook as a reference in creating materials for the fraud awareness training.

    Recommendation: To improve the financial oversight of U.S. programs to provide humanitarian assistance to people inside Syria, the USAID Administrator should ensure that field monitors in Syria are trained on assessing and identifying potential fraud risks.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: USAID concurred with our recommendation and stated that it would seek to have site visit forms revised to incorporate information mentioned in our recommendation. In March 2018, USAID provided GAO with an updated site visit template which includes specific guidance for indicating potential fraud incidents during site visits for third-party monitors.

    Recommendation: To improve the financial oversight of U.S. programs to provide humanitarian assistance to people inside Syria, the USAID Administrator should instruct the third party monitoring organization monitoring Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance programs in Syria to modify the site visit forms to include specific guidance for documenting incidents of potential fraud.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: State concurred with GAO's recommendation. In response to GAO's recommendation, State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) included language in its 2017 voluntary contribution agreements that specifies that activities funded by the contribution would be conducted in accordance with the recipient's risk management framework, including assessments of the risk of fraud.

    Recommendation: To ensure that State has a comprehensive understanding of the risks facing its implementing partners providing humanitarian assistance to people inside Syria, the Secretary of State should include in its voluntary contribution agreements with implementing partners a requirement that the partner conduct risk assessments addressing the risk of fraud.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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