Cover Story

International Journal of Government Auditing – Summer 2015

Title of this article--Auditing the funds donated to fight ebola: an integral element in the fight against the virus--superimposed on a map of the world

I would continue to stress that auditing the funds donated to fight Ebola is indeed part of the fight against Ebola itself.

It is with great pleasure that I present this editorial for the current issue of the Journal.

Ebola virus disease (EVD), previously called Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a severe illness that often results in fatalities within a three-week period of contracting the disease. It is this aspect of EVD that gave it the chilling aura of hopelessness and helplessness with which it came to be associated in the early days of the fight.

The Ebola virus disease first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in Nzara, Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was named after the River Ebola which is in the hamlet where the first outbreak occurred.

The current outbreak, the first of its kind in West Africa, emerged in the Republic of Guinea in December 2013 and spread rapidly within the three countries of the Mano River Basin: first, to Liberia and then, in May 2014, to my country, Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone reported its first confirmed case in a small village in Kissi Tongi, some 200 miles from the capital of Freetown. Since then, infections were subsequently reported in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, the United States and the United Kingdom.

According to Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Centre (NERC), as of the end of April 2015 there were 8,595 confirmed EVD cases. These cases ultimately resulted in 3,535 deaths, representing 41 percent of total confirmed cases.

At the onset of the outbreak, the head of State, His Excellency Dr. Ernest Koroma, and the Government of Sierra Leone made an impassioned appeal to both local and international partners for various kinds of support to fight the virus.

Within weeks of this appeal, well-meaning Sierra Leoneans at home in Sierra Leone and in the diaspora began responding with both financial and material support.

Such was the alarm caused by the virulent nature of the disease and its devastating toll on human life that within a short space of time, the local media went into overdrive publishing graphic text and pictorial illustrations of the ravage unleashed by the epidemic—in particular, among our country’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. The response was dramatic; soon, both local and foreign businessmen donated billions of Leones into the Ebola basket fund that had been set up.

One local daily newspaper went as far as creating a column captioned “Ebola Donations,” which, on a daily basis, gave a comprehensive up-to-date list of all donations, complete with the amount donated and the names and addresses of the various donors. The individual donations ranged from as little as Le 500,000 (approximately 100 USD), to as much as hundreds of millions of Leones (hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars). In many offices (both public and private) around the country, employees’ associations voluntarily donated to the fight.

“The audit resulted in the initial recovery of over three billion leones (approximately 600,000 USD), and more recoveries are still being made by the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament of Sierra Leone. ” —Lara Taylor-Pearce

Other individuals and organizations made in-kind donations. These included medical supplies, food, clothing and other non-food items for quarantined homes and survivors. Women, children and other vulnerable groups were the primary beneficiaries of these donations. Some donors even provided vehicles and medical equipment.

These donations, especially the cash donations, were handed over to the government either through the Office of the President or the Ministry of Health and Sanitation. There were few instances where donations, especially of food and clothing, were delivered directly to beneficiaries.

At the Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL), the country’s Supreme Audit Institution (SAI), we observed with keen interest as these donations were constantly being reported in the media. In fact, in some cases, some organizations and individuals bought full- or center-spread spaces in newspapers, and air time on radio and television, to showcase their very generous donations.

The ASSL, which is only now celebrating ten years as an independent institution (2004), came into being as part of the country’s effort to implement the main objective of the Lima Declaration of Guidelines on Auditing Precepts, which is to promote independent government auditing. The predecessor organization was the Government Audit Department, established in 1962.

The ASSL derives its mandate from the powers vested in me as the Auditor General of Sierra Leone and Head of the Audit Service Sierra Leone. The mandate, which is detailed in Section 119 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, empowers me to “audit all public funds.” Simply put, this means that all custodians of public funds (i.e., funds belonging to the government and people of Sierra Leone), are by default my clients and are therefore subject to my unhindered auditing at any time of my choosing.

This implies that funds donated to the government in the fight against Ebola were public funds and were therefore subject to my audit. It was therefore not a question of whether these funds were to be audited by my office, but one of when they should be audited.

The Ebola virus outbreak is a novelty to Sierra Leone, and as such we found ourselves in uncharted waters bereft of the benefit of hindsight and relevant audit methodology. This dearth of hindsight meant that, from an auditing perspective, we had no reference point to serve as a guide for this type of audit. However, our experience from the audit of the management of the funds (which came after the event) donated to Sierra Leone’s 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations in 2011, where huge sums of money were spent and not properly accounted for, taught us that such funds are better audited on a real-time basis.

There have been a few instances recently where SAIs have embarked on the realtime audit of large national projects and government response to emergencies. For instance, the National Audit Office of the People’s Republic of China (CNAO) conducted a real-time audit on the Wenchuan post-earthquake Recovery and Reconstruction Project in September 2008. In the United Kingdom, the National Audit Office conducted a number of real-time performance audits during preparations for the hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games. In both instances, these interventions highlighted significant problems which were addressed during those audits and led to the realization of savings and value for money.

It was in October 2014 that we engaged the two institutions that were charged with the responsibility at the time to lead this fight; namely, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), which is now called the National Emergency Response Centre (NERC). At that time, these two agencies had admittedly spent in excess of Le 84 billion (approximately 17 million USD) on the fight. This money was from the donations I have already mentioned and from tax revenues the government allocated to this fight at the time.

These funds were spent on the purchase of personal protective equipment, medical supplies, consumables, and incentive/hazard payments to healthcare workers.

It was clear from our audit that lapses were pervasive in the public financial management system in Sierra Leone, especially with issues related to procurement. These lapses ultimately resulted in the loss of public funds and a reduction in the quality and speed of the government’s response to the EVD.

The audit resulted in the initial recovery of over three billion leones (approximately 600,000 USD), and more recoveries are still being made by the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament of Sierra Leone (the parliamentary committee charged with looking into reports by the Auditor General).

From the reaction of the general public, including the mainstream and social media, it was clear that they were pleased with the timeliness of the report and its startling revelations.

I believe that this timely intervention has gone a long way to making the continuing response to this problem more efficient. It has also contributed to the reduction in the number of reported new cases from multiples of tens to single digits by the end of April 2015.

It is worth noting that donor funds channeled through implementing agencies such as the United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations were not covered during that phase of the audit. These funds were approved by the Sierra Leone Parliament and would ultimately have to be audited by my office.

I would continue to stress that auditing the funds donated to fight Ebola is indeed part of the fight against Ebola itself.

As public sector auditors, it will yield greater benefit to our citizenry if such timely audits are conducted during such situations.