IMF: Scant Transparency for Covid-19 Emergency Loans

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(Washington, DC) –  The International Monetary Fund (IMF), despite overall progress in its anti-corruption efforts, has not ensured sufficient oversight of its Covid-19 emergency loans, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International said today. As a result, it is hard for members of the public in many countries to track the governments’ Covid-19 spending, to identify potential corruption, or to determine whether the deprivation of basic rights connected to the pandemic is being addressed.

Since March 2020, the IMF has provided about US$108 billion in financial assistance to 85 countries to support their response to the pandemic. Due to the IMF’s improved attention to combating corruption, about half of these loan agreements included specific anti-corruption measures related to Covid-19 spending and procurement. In some cases, the IMF obtained strong transparency commitments that spurred the publication of valuable information. Some governments amended procurements rules to enable publication of the names of beneficial (that is, real) owners of companies awarded contracts. This information is key to preventing conflicts of interest and tax evasion and allowing the public to track who benefits from public contracts. However, weak implementation impeded the potential of this progress.

“The IMF’s call to governments during the pandemic to ‘spend as much as you can but keep the receipts’ showed concern for corruption risks,” said Sarah Saadoun, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But this approach will only be effective in addressing rights issues if it ensures that those ‘receipts’ are publicly accessible, comprehensive, and credible.” 

Robust IMF lending is critical for many governments to have sufficient resources to respond to the pandemic by providing adequate and accessible health care as well as addressing its economic impacts. It is equally critical for governments to spend these funds transparently and accountably so they reach those in need.

Human Rights Watch and Transparency International assessed the effectiveness of the IMF’s approach during the pandemic by analyzing how well four governments – Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ecuador – carried through on the measures included in their loan agreements. Between January and March 2021, the organizations analyzed documents published by these governments, as well as loan agreements and other documents published by the IMF.

Transparency International also conducted a comprehensive review of anti-corruption measures included in emergency loan agreements prior to July 23, 2020, at which point most of the IMF’s immediate Covid-19 support had been approved. In Nigeria and Cameroon, Human Rights Watch interviewed medical staff and people who lost earnings due to the pandemic. Human Rights Watch, in March 2021, wrote to the finance ministries of each of the four governments and the IMF. Only the IMF responded, which is reflected below.

The IMF’s approach to stemming corruption for its emergency lending relies heavily on public oversight, particularly from civil society groups and the media. To facilitate oversight, the data needs to be accessible and sufficiently detailed to assess and track spending, and conditions need to be in place to ensure that concerns can be raised safely. The IMF also needs to remain actively engaged to ensure robust implementation by governments, including through future surveillance and lending programs.

To its credit, the IMF has increased engagement with civil society groups since the onset of the pandemic, including by initiating workshops and calls with IMF staff. The IMF also met with civil society groups, though typically after loans were already approved.

A View from Four Countries

An in-depth analysis of Egypt, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Cameroon found mixed results in meeting the IMF’s transparency commitments. There remained inconsistencies in the types of measures to which governments committed, their implementation, and the role of the IMF in ensuring compliance. The transparency commitments in the emergency loans spurred all four governments to produce information about their spending and contracts that they would have otherwise not published. However, the amount, accessibility, and quality of the disclosed information varied widely and was inadequate for meaningful oversight for any of the four countries.

The review identified several factors that weakened the effective implementation of commitments:

  • Transparency commitments lack adequate specificity. As a result, the types of information the four governments disclosed, the time period covered, and the level of detail varied widely.
  • Relevant information is hidden, hard to find, and inaccessible. In all four cases, finding published information was difficult. For example, Egypt’s procurement website is not accessible outside the country, even using VPN servers. Cameroon published a list of companies that were awarded government contracts and some beneficial ownership information, but the only link to the document accessible online is on page 47 of an IMF report, not on any government site. And the documents Ecuador published are scattered across three government websites and not necessarily available.
  • Beneficial ownership information is inadequate. In almost all cases, there was not sufficient identifying information about beneficial owners to ensure that people were not illicitly profiting from government contracts. Moreover, governments did not specify how they would provide the information they committed to disclose.
  • Inconsistency in the IMF’s approach to measures and follow-up. The specific measures the IMF required varied widely from one government to another and only in certain cases did the IMF tie compliance to future lending. Significantly, Cameroon and Ecuador only followed through on their initial commitments because the IMF made approval of a second loan request dependent on their doing so. The IMF did not do so for Egypt, despite Egypt’s poor implementation of its commitments.

Recommendations

Good governance, including anti-corruption efforts, should be at the heart of rebuilding resilient and inclusive economies, particularly as governments are looking to bolster spending on health, social protection, and other fundamental rights, while reducing inefficiencies in spending and raising revenues. Corruption alone costs governments as much as $1 trillion in lost tax revenues.

To build on its progress and ensure an effective approach to anti-corruption, the IMF should:

  • Ensure that governments receiving the money make specific, concrete, and time-bound commitments as part of the loan agreements.
  • Work with governments to clarify and detail best practices for fulfilling transparency commitments, including those related to user access, and beneficial ownership information.
  • Host a database of relevant documents to standardize the format and facilitate universal access. Pursue a consistent approach to assessing government implementation and linking findings to surveillance and lending transparency.  
  • Demonstrate how its spending secures basic rights for all without discrimination, including the right to health and to an adequate standard of living. It should consult with civil society as part of its assessment and publish the results.
  • Publicly report on the level of implementation of the transparency/anti-corruption commitments that governments made as part of the loan agreements.
  • Revise its 2011 policy on emergency assistance or separately develop guidelines for addressing corruption risks in crisis situations.
  • Ensure that governments credibly carry out commitments to conduct and publish audits in a timely manner.

“The IMF has made progress ensuring greater transparency in its loan agreements, but this needs to go much further,” said M. Emilia Berazategui, Global Advocacy Lead at Transparency International. “Successful anti-corruption outcomes take time and perseverance. If the IMF wants to ensure that the most vulnerable communities receive the support and resources they are promised, it is critical that they continue to press governments to prioritize integrity and transparency. The Covid-19 pandemic has made clear that this is a matter of life and death.”

For additional information on each of the four governments’ implementation of anti-corruption measures in their respective loan agreements and on the need for greater IMF oversight of emergency loans, please see below.

IMF’s Covid-19 Emergency Loans

The IMF initially pledged to use its $1 trillion lending capacity to help countries cope with the most serious health and economic crisis in recent history. It has approved only 10 percent of this amount, in part due to technical restrictions as well as many countries’ mounting debt. Recent developments in the G20 and G7 are likely to help boost countries’ reserves, and the G7 has specifically pledged to “work with the IMF to make progress on enhancing transparency and accountability.” Moreover, the $100 billion the IMF has spent thus far has disproportionately targeted just a few countries. According to a Transparency International analysis, 80 percent went to 10 countries, including Egypt and Nigeria, as of July 23, 2020, at which point the majority of these loan agreements had already been approved.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on human rights has made many people acutely dependent on IMF funds and has also increased the risk of funds being lost to corruption or captured by elites. Powerful actors may use the crisis for their own benefit because of dramatic increases in spending and possible pandemic-related interference with oversight mechanisms.

Those risks are exacerbated because the IMF’s emergency loans are single, up-front payments deposited into governments’ central accounts, limiting the IMF’s ability to ensure oversight. To address this, the IMF took a back-end approach by retroactively assessing the use of funds, which IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva described as asking governments to “keep the receipts.”

In practice, the IMF’s expectations of governments have varied. Roughly half of all emergency loan agreements included specific measures related to governments publishing information on Covid-19 spending and procurement, as well as conducting audits. The specifics of these commitments also varied. Many governments pledged to publish procurement contracts and the beneficial owners of companies awarded contracts – a significant advance in the IMF’s approach to governance. Some governments pledged to conduct independent audits of crisis-related spending and publish the results, while others said they would rely on state agencies.

In a March 24 letter to Human Rights Watch, the IMF said it is monitoring the implementation of transparency commitments and that “analysis of this implementation has been and will continue to be published in IMF staff reports for these countries.” It also noted that “capacity to implement governance measures varies across countries” and that anti-corruption measures in emergency loans, as well as other measures to address governance vulnerabilities, are included in subsequent loans.

Egypt

Even before the pandemic, IMF-driven economic reforms had made it harder for the 32 million Egyptians living under the poverty line – one-third of the country – to make ends meet. The principal social protection program, Takaful wa Karama (Dignity and Solidarity), already stretched thin, reached only 15 million people even after it was expanded to soften the blow of the pandemic’s devastating economic impact. Chronic underfunding of health services made Egypt ill-prepared for the pandemic, a problem authorities sought to obscure by detaining healthcare workers who publicly disclosed key deficiencies such as lack of personal protective equipment.

To address these problems, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in March 2020 announced a 100 billion Egyptian pound (US$6.4 billion) package, including 40 billion pounds ($2.3 billion) in health spending. The IMF approved two loans to help finance this response: a $2.77 billion Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) on May 11, and, on June 26, a 12-month Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) worth $5.2 billion.

While the dire need for these resources is clear, in recent years the Egyptian government has undermined the independence of its anti-corruption institutions and weakened the role of the judiciary, significantly exacerbating corruption risks. For example, in 2015, the president amended the law to grant himself the authority to fire Hesham Geneina, the head of the Central Auditing Agency, the country’s main anti-corruption institution, after Geneina reported that corruption had cost the country $76 billion over three years. Authorities also prosecuted Geneina for his statements and a court handed down a one-year suspended sentence in 2016.

As part of its RCF agreement, the Egyptian government committed to publish all Covid-19-related spending; publish procurement plans and awarded contracts, including the names and beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts; and to conduct an audit, including ex-post validation of delivery and publish the results. The subsequent SBA includes anti-corruption requirements that go beyond Covid-19 spending.

In a signal of the Egyptian authorities’ difficult relationship with transparency, they did not authorize the IMF to publish the loan agreements until several months after signing them. In most cases they are published within days of approval, recognizing that the terms they include are indispensable for public oversight. The Egyptian government has published only sparse information on Covid-19 spending on the Finance Ministry’s website. This includes a broad overview of 81.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($5 billion) worth of measures the government took in response to Covid-19; a similar document totaling 110 billion pounds ($7 billion) is available as an Annex in an IMF document.

The government published several procurement documents, which cover $280 million spent on Covid-19 tests, medical supplies, and other Covid-19-related materials and include only the names of companies awarded contracts, the contract amount, and the entity receiving the goods, which, for the vast majority of contracts, is the Health Ministry. Some of these documents explicitly only cover contracts awarded prior to October, and the total amount covered is far less than the $2.3 billion allocated to health spending. Human Rights Watch and Transparency International have not been able to find published contracts or beneficial ownership information, despite the government’s commitment in the emergency loan agreement to publish this information. In its letter, the IMF said authorities had “amended the procurement law’s executive regulation with the view to publish information on beneficial ownership for awarded contracts on the procurement portal.”

In October, Human Rights Watch found that the government had at some point earlier in the year blocked access to a website (etenders.gov.eg) for publishing public tenders available to people outside of Egypt. Procurement notices could provide valuable information regarding the nature of the contracts awarded to companies listed in other documents.

Beyond the lack of transparency, the Egyptian authorities’ relentless, nationwide repression and reprisals against perceived government critics makes it unsafe for journalists, civil society organizations, or others to expose spending irregularities, report on corruption allegations, or question military spending and finances.

Nigeria

In April 2020, Nigeria received US$3.4 billion in emergency financial assistance from the IMF to support its Covid-19 response. Two months later, Nigeria’s federal government announced a 2.3 trillion Naira ($6 billion) stimulus.

But according to official figures, many of Nigeria’s poorest citizens have yet to see the benefit of this assistance. Nationwide surveys by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) found that by July 16, just 12.5 percent of the poorest quintile of respondents had received some form of food assistance since the pandemic began. By August, the NBS found that 32 percent of respondents nationwide were experiencing severe food insecurity, compared with 14 percent in the same period in 2018.

Human Rights Watch and Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, a Nigerian nongovernmental organization, interviewed urban families experiencing poverty in Lagos State between March and December. They said that they had survived the impact of the pandemic on their jobs and livelihoods by skipping meals, incurring debt, and relying on handouts from neighbors and local groups. “We heard about all the money the government was supposed to be getting for Covid-19 – billions of Naira – and the government talked about the food they were distributing, but most of the communities never got any,” said one community health worker.

Against these difficult conditions, civil society groups have highlighted how crucial it is to keep governance safeguards from slipping through the cracks, leaving life-saving resources at risk of theft or malfeasance. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, 20 percent of people in the country had to pay a bribe in order to access public clinics and health centers.

In its request for IMF assistance, the Nigerian government committed to several transparency and governance measures, including publishing monthly reports on its Covid-19 spending in its transparency portal, opentreasury.gov.ng; publishing procurement plans and notices for all emergency-response activities, including the names of awarded companies and beneficial owners; and conducting an independent audit of crisis-mitigation spending and related procurement processes. Despite civil society’s call for the inclusion of a specific commitment in the loan linked to ensuring the set-up of safe reporting mechanisms for whistleblowers, this was not taken into account.

In a positive step, the federal government established a publicly accessible procurement register related to emergency Covid-19 processes. The register is a valuable public resource on Covid-19 spending and includes information on the stated purpose of a contract, amount paid, company name of the award winner, duration, source of funding, and items procured. In August, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the reenacted Companies Allied and Matters Act into law, which among other things, provides a legal framework for the establishment of a federal beneficial ownership registry. Companies are required to disclose this information to Nigerian Companies Register by March 31, 2021. Reports have emerged of anti-corruption agencies proactively investigating allegations of procurement fraud and misuse of Covid-19 funds. In addition, a Covid-19 response data hub has been established, which includes a resource and donations tracker updated by the Ministry of Finance.

Despite signs of progress, gaps in the implementation of transparency commitments agreed to in the June 2020 loan remain. A review of select completed procurement processes worth over $10,000, as well as an open data platform and Nigeria’s corporate registry, found no beneficial ownership information for awarded companies or contract documentation as of March 5, 2021. An IMF Article IV report highlighted this weakness and that users have found it difficult to access the expenditure information that is being published. Several links under the Covid-19 reports tab on opentreasury.gov.ng, including a link to the Covid-19 Comprehensive Financial Report, appear broken. The Nigerian government did not respond to a letter, but the IMF blamed “challenges to the Internet Service Provider” and said the Nigerian authorities are currently working to resolve them. The IMF also said that while authorities are “increasingly providing the needed information,” it understands some procurement requirements “were relaxed” due to Covid-19 and “it is not clear when the additional information will be made public.”

In October 2020, the government announced it would release a first interim audit report of its Covid-19 spending. This report was never released to the public, despite an official from the Auditor-General’s office indicating the report was already submitted to the National Assembly in September 2020. An interim report was produced by January 15, 2021; however, this report does not appear to be publicly available. In its letter, the IMF noted that the Auditor-General’s office commissioned an audit but the “timeline for final publication is not yet clear.”

Ecuador

The IMF approved an emergency loan of US$643 million on May 1, 2020, providing Ecuador a much-needed source of revenue to combat the immense financial and human costs of the pandemic. In October, the IMF approved a $6.5 billion 27-month program under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) to support the stabilization of the economy, expand social protections, and strengthen domestic institutions.

As part of the emergency loan, Ecuador committed to publish Covid-19 spending reports; Covid-19 public procurement contracts, as well as the names and beneficial ownership of companies awarded contracts; validate delivery of products and services; conduct a Covid-19 specific audit and publish the results. Since the government had yet to publish beneficial ownership information when it requested an EFF, the IMF made approval of that loan contingent on Ecuador revising its procurement law to enable it to collect and publish this information.

In September, the government adopted a resolution requiring all public contractors and subcontractors to provide beneficial ownership information and mandating authorities to publish the information on an unspecified website. It further mandated that bank accounts and their movements linked to beneficial owners of entities engaged in public procurement laws would no longer have the same secrecy protections as those of ordinary entities. To ensure the sustainability of the requirements, it is important that they become part of the national Public Procurement Law.

To assess the implementation of this law, Transparency International analyzed procurement contracts in the public procurement website with a total value of $500,000. Some of these contracts, all of which were valued at over $10,000, were related to Covid-19 and were awarded within a six-month period after the emergency loan; others were unrelated to Covid-19 and were awarded after the EFF was approved in October.

While the public procurement website contains a wealth of valuable information, the analysis found some gaps. Most awarded contracts were available in the register, making Ecuador the only government of the four analyzed to publish at least some contracts. However, some were absent; for example, in one set of procurements grouped in an emergency resolution, only 17 of the 32 contracts had been uploaded.

Only one procurement process contained a section dedicated to beneficial ownership – which was labeled “optional” and left blank. A separate database did include beneficial ownership for companies awarded contracts, but getting this information required cross-checking multiple databases, hindering ease of access. In addition, in some cases, the listed beneficial owner was another corporate entity, and in some cases, companies were not registered in the system at all.  

In December, the IMF released its first review of the EFF. It stressed the importance of transparency for Covid-19 funding and praised Ecuador’s amendments to the national anti-corruption framework as well as the examination by the Comptroller General’s Office of more than 300 Covid-19-related procurement processes. However, it did not note the missing contracts, problems with beneficial ownership information, or the lack of a consolidated website for procurement-related information.

In its letter to Human Rights Watch, the IMF praised Ecuador’s “significant progress towards the fulfillment of commitments on procurement transparency,” including a “procurement website centralizes information providing access to relevant procurement documents, including contracts.” However, it acknowledged that “while information on beneficial ownership of awarded companies and ex-post validation is technically available, it is not yet easily and consistently accessible to the public in the procurement website.”

Cameroon

Cameroon’s health sector is among the most underfunded in Africa. Two-thirds of total spending on health in the country comes from people seeking treatment – double the regional average – and studies have shown that the majority of families do not seek health care because costs are too high. The country also lacks a social safety net, and nine out of ten workers are employed in the informal economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought fresh urgency to increasing funding for healthcare centers and supporting people who lost earnings. In April 2020, the health minister announced a 58 billion XAF (US$105 million) response plan, and on May 4, the IMF approved a $256 million emergency loan to help finance it. In October, the IMF approved a second $156 million loan to finance a more robust $825 million three-year package to support the country’s health system and help businesses and households affected by the pandemic.

As part of the May loan, the Cameroonian government pledged to use the funds transparently and committed to issuing semiannual reports on Covid-19 spending; commission an independent audit; and publish “documents related to results of public procurement and [beneficial ownership information] of companies awarded contracts.”

From the beginning, virtually no public information was provided regarding the government’s Covid-19 spending. Healthcare centers made urgent appeals for support from an emergency health fund into which they have been paying 10 percent of their revenues since 1993, according to medical staff whom Human Rights Watch interviewed from various regions in April and May, but they said they had received no support. The government does not publish any information about the fund and did not respond to a Human Rights Watch letter regarding it. The president established a second solidarity fund and appealed to private companies and citizens to contribute, but that fund was also not transparent.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, medical staff reported shortages in basic hospital goods, including thermometers, disinfectants, and medicines, as well as ventilators and oxygen, and protective gear for doctors and nurses, such as masks, gloves, and glasses. One doctor said his hospital only received 12 masks, 20 boxes of gloves, and 4 full body gowns for its 50 employees until his district’s 10 medical facilities finally received a combined total of 10 million CFA ($17,000) in August.

People who lost jobs or wages due to the pandemic told Human Rights Watch that they received little or nothing to stave off hunger. One woman, who works as a secretary at a hotel in Douala and now earns one-third her usual salary, reported in December that she was having trouble paying for her children’s food, school fees, and other costs, stating, “The state hasn’t helped us.” Another woman, an events manager at a hotel whose salary was cut, said she had to ask her brother to take care of her two children because she could no longer afford to do so. Both women worked at hotels that the government had requisitioned between March and May to house people who may have been exposed to Covid-19.

Based on over a dozen interviews Human Rights Watch conducted, the hotels received only very partial or no compensation for their costs, adding financial strain at a time when the industry was already struggling with pandemic-related restrictions leading to layoffs and steep wage cuts. The government has not published any information regarding its contracts with or reimbursements to such hotels.

After public pressure, the Health Ministry, citing the “urgency of transparency,” published a two-page statement on July 29 about how it spent about 22 billion FCA ($40 million), which it said was its total expenditure to respond to Covid-19 in the preceding five months. It included only vague categories that provide no real possibility for the public to verify. In its letter, the IMF said that the Ministry of Finance is preparing a report on its Covid-19 spending, which it expects the government will share “in the near term.”

Before the IMF approved a second emergency loan, it required the government to change its rules to enable it to publish beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts, and to publish “the backlog of all Covid-19 related contracts awarded since May 4, including the beneficial ownership.” In a positive step, in October the government issued a circular requiring companies to include beneficial ownership information in their contract bids and mandating adding the information to a national register once a contract is awarded.

In practice, however, the government never uploaded this information into a central database. Instead, it produced a list of the names of companies awarded contracts, beneficial owners, and the contract amount, but there are no links to that document on any government website. The only link appears to be on page 47 of an IMF loan agreement. In addition, for nearly all companies, only one beneficial owner is listed, making it highly unlikely that the information is complete.

The government has not published the contracts themselves, and the IMF revised – it says “clarified” – the terms of the November loan agreement to no longer require the government to do so. With regard to the commitment to conduct an independent audit, the state agency, Contrôle supérieur de l’État du Cameroun (CONSUPE), has reportedly begun an audit and the finance minister has called for tenders for an independent audit.



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