Middle East

Syria aid money chaotically managed, say ex-staff

Displaced Syrian children line up for food distribution in the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp Image copyright AFP
Image caption Displaced Syrian children line up for food in the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp in Aleppo

Mismanagement by the Syrian opposition's aid agency has hampered efforts to help millions suffering in the country, former employees have claimed.

They say inadequate monitoring by the Assistance Co-ordination Unit (ACU) meant millions of dollars were not properly accounted for.

The claims follow a strike by ACU staff demanding reforms at the organisation.

The ACU's president, Suheir Atassi, has denied the allegations.

The ACU, based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, is an arm of the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella grouping of anti-Assad politicians.

The unit was established in late 2012 at the diplomatic initiative of the United States, Britain and France. Western governments paid to equip the offices and train staff.

They wanted the ACU to play a leading role in coordinating both humanitarian aid and projects to rebuild essential services in Syria.

It set up a network of doctors operating an early-warning system which detected the outbreaks of disease, including the deadly polio virus which has now re-emerged.

In its first year the unit received $47m in donations, mostly from Gulf states. It says that by the end of 2012 $34m had already been spent inside Syria.

But the organisation has been dogged by infighting, amid accusations of inflated salaries, incompetence, and a lack of accountability.

"The mind-set was we don't need experts, we can do everything," said Bassam al-Kuwatly, one of several members of staff who has left the unit.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionTim Whewell reports for Newsnight on the allegations facing the ACU

"At the same time, the daily work was very chaotic, unorganised."

"A lot of aid doesn't go through, goes through late, doesn't go to the right place, is distributed the wrong way," he told the BBC.

Efforts partly funded by Britain to establish a network of ACU monitors to act as "eyes and ears" inside Syria, to report on where aid is most needed have had limited success.

By December only 90 had been recruited, though the ACU says 250 are needed.

Another former employee, Mohammed Ayoub said he saw some representatives of local councils in Syria being handed large bundles of cash in plastic bags.

"In many cases there was no proper documentation saying how the money was spent. For example, if you tell me that you have a project that cost $150,000, no-one went there to make a study that showed it only cost $80,000. That's a big problem."

"All the donors knew that there was no proper system, that there was not enough monitoring of relief activities inside Syria, and they kept pumping money inside Syria."

Large sums of cash were kept in one of the ACU office's toilets according to Simon Parry, a British consultant who helped train the staff.

"One of the things that was joked about at the ACU is where would the funding come from? Probably the toilet. Because that's where the cash was kept, in the toilet, " he said.

"Often it was in the millions. The toilet wasn't in use, but it was in use as a strong room."

There is no evidence of misappropriation of aid money.

'Easy money'

Following the end of the staff strike last month, Suheir Atassi told the BBC in her first interview about the ACU with a Western agency that the unit would now be restructured and would seek an external auditor.

"We believe we grew up so fast, we had a lot of pressure in the past, so we weren't able to look into these details. These are going to be looked at very carefully in the future."

But she denied money was ever wasted.

"When a group comes with a complete project, mentioning everything, the monitoring and the details and how the money is going be spent, at that time we say yes, but we don't say yes to people who just want easy money."

Mark Ward, the American diplomat who oversees US aid in the region, and who together with counterparts from Britain and France had the original idea to set up the ACU, admitted that working with them had sometimes proved to be frustrating.

"It's always hard to get activists, who are focussed on getting rid of a terrible regime, and get them to take a little bit of time to focus on accountability and financial systems that bore them to death."

But he added: "Without the ACU we are back to the day when it was just the group with the best cell phone that got the assistance."

More on this story