A United Nations internal audit has unearthed shocking fraud in operations of its refugee agency in Uganda orchestrated in inflated purchases, unaccounted for payments and outright theft of money purportedly spent on buying property that do not exist.
“The weak risk culture and internal control environment in the UNHCR operations in Uganda contributed to serious risk management and control deficiencies and accountability lapses in operational and administrative activities, which adversely affected the Representation’s ability to meet its objectives, including in terms of the emergency response,” said Eleanor T. Burns, the Director of Internal Audit Division of Office of UNHCR.
The audit unearthed multiple areas of mismanagement including a $7.9 million contract for road repairs awarded to a contractor with no experience in road construction.
The probe also questioned payments to trucks and bus companies worth $7.7 million.
The audit noted “pervasive non-compliance with regulations on vast sums spent on water trucking and UNHCR paid at least $10m more VAT than it needed to.”
The investigation also found a stockpile of idle goods including 288,000 blankets and 50,000 wheelbarrows. Besides15,000 solar lamps worth $279,860 went missing with no proper investigations done.
According to the audit findings, UNHCR’s expenditure in Uganda skyrocketed from $125m in 2016 to $205m in 2017, with Britain, EU, Germany, and the United States contributing 80 percent of the funds.
The audit found that from 2015-2017 UNHCR paid the government $14.6 million to set up and run a new refugee registration platform.
However the influx of the refugees overwhelmed the system in 2017 and the refugee agency added $11 million to procure a new biometric registration system. The audit said UNHCR rarely had access to the data required for planning and verification.
The audit also showed a range of inappropriate arrangements between the Uganda UNHCR and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) took place where UNHCR agreed to contract three underqualified local NGOs recommended by Kampala, one of which had defrauded UNHCR before.
The agency also reportedly paid $2,000 a month to senior Ugandan officials and provided them cars and fuel.
In addition, the OPM had not reimbursed UNHCR $250,000 of excess fuel used. UNHCR also paid $283,000 to subsidise the costs of 72 civil servants whose work contracts could not be shown to the auditors.
The audit says the UN refugee agency paid OPM to buy a plot of land adjacent to the OPM office at an inflated cost of $320,000, more than double the government’s valuation, with OPM failing to produce even a title deed to prove ownership.
In the wake of the findings, the audit made a number recommendations to address the issues identified.
The auditors said the UNHCR in Uganda should ensure full compliance with the partner selection process; and develop and implement a strategy for building capacity of local partners; implement procedures to ensure procurement is designated to partners after assessing the comparative advantage of doing so and their capacity to conduct large procurement; and more effectively monitor compliance with relevant procurement rules.
The audit report also says the UNHCR should adequately plan and coordinate project monitoring activities between its different functions and offices to ensure that risk based monitoring plans are implemented.
The UNHCR in Uganda did not responded to questions on the issues raised by the audit.
However, in a general response to the auditors, the refugee agency admitted lapses in the implementation of its programmes and said measures were being put in place for redress.
Uganda hosts refugees who fled war majority of whom are from neighbouring South Sudan and some from Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.