Mail on Sunday investigation reveals corruption in foreign aid
On the world’s longest beach, Mahboub Alam guns the engine of his £400 quad bike – paid for by UK taxpayers. ‘Since I got this, my life has been so much better,’ he says. ‘And at the same time, I’m protecting the environment.’ It’s an odd claim because the machine spews out carbon from its high-octane fuel. According to wildlife experts, the bikes he and others rent out for tourist rides are also crushing the beach’s red crabs, the local mascot of this 75-mile strip of sand that runs towards the Burmese border from Cox’s Bazar in south-east Bangladesh.
But you can see why Mahboub makes it – he’s been told the reason foreign aid chiefs lent him UK taxpayers’ money to buy his bike was to help to protect Bangladesh from the ravages of climate change. Before he got it, he made a living chopping down timber from nearby forests. The theory is that his new ‘alternative livelihood’ means those trees will be saved, while he is being encouraged to plant new ones. Bangladesh’s forests will thus absorb more carbon dioxide, so reducing the country’s net emissions.
As with many well-meaning schemes, there is a gaping hole in its logic. Bangladesh is poor – though with a sustained six per cent growth rate, it is set to become a ‘middle income country’ under World Bank definitions by 2021.
Nevertheless, it has enough cash of its own to be spending around £7 billion to build five huge power stations – which will burn millions of tons of coal, the dirtiest fuel in the world. It’s not just that their emissions will dwarf any savings made by aid-backed forest schemes. One of the plants is at Rampal, on the edge of the highly sensitive Sundarbans islands, a World Heritage Site and the last refuge of the Bengal tiger. They will now be under threat from fly ash, and acidic sulphur and nitrogen oxides.
But the ultimate nonsense? The Department for International Development-sponsored fund behind Alam’s quad bike has collapsed. Because the World Bank found problems with its ‘governance’ – and found it impossible to establish a Bangladeshi management system that met international standards for accountability – it is about to close, leaving millions of UK money unspent, and key projects either cancelled or unfinished. A DFID ‘review’, seen by this newspaper, admits that as a result, the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund (BCCRF) will ‘not deliver its expected outputs nor meet its financial targets’. This, it admits, will have adverse ‘political and reputational impacts’.
Last month, The Mail on Sunday secured a Commons debate into the absurdity of Britain spending a fixed 0.7 per cent – £12 billion – of its national income on foreign aid, regardless of need. More than 230,300 people signed our petition.
Until now, we have focused on traditional aid for disaster relief and development. But there is another sector which is about to begin an unprecedented boom and impose greater burdens on UK taxpayers – aid to combat and cope with climate change.
Bangladesh, sometimes dubbed the ground zero of climate change, is at this boom’s epicentre – largely the result of a diplomatic push at successive UN climate summits which, astonishingly, we can now reveal has been funded and backed by DFID. So, following our earlier reports, we investigated how climate change aid is already being spent in Bangladesh. Now we can reveal:
- A £12 million DFID scheme to build ‘flood resistant’ houses which have flimsy bamboo walls so porous they will not resist a shower, much less a flood;
- An admission from DFID that our money risks being lost through corruption. A review admits Bangladesh is ‘a high risk environment’ in terms of ‘fraud and corruption’, and ‘working with the government increases this risk’;
- Because the DFID-backed BCCRF has collapsed, there is now no Bangladeshi institution that meets international standards for transparency to distribute climate change aid. The money might be there, but there is no way of spending it;
- DFID-funded ‘environment learning centres’ in Bangladeshi schools are disseminating the bogus claims that global warming is caused by CFCs, the banned chemicals once found in aerosols.
Our investigation into the story behind Alam’s quad bike, and the burgeoning billions we are set to fork out in climate change aid, began with the UN climate change summit in Paris last December.
There the world agreed that by 2020, industrialised countries such as Britain must pay £70 billion into the global Green Climate Fund every year. The fund already stands at £7 billion, and even before the summit, David Cameron pledged £5.8 billion over the next four years – just the start of a vast commitment that, under the Paris deal, will get steadily more onerous.
For Bangladesh, the Paris deal represented a stunning victory. For five years it had led a group of 48 Least Developed Countries trying to make rich nations pay aid above ordinary development finance to cope with climate change.
In a bizarre paradox, Bangladesh’s campaign was funded by DFID. An internal Ministry document says that ‘in the past, despite sending large teams, Bangladesh delegation teams did not have a high impact… DFID has provided support… to strengthen the delegation and improve its performance.’ So far, a spokeswoman said, Britain’s support has cost £500,000.
But will the ‘new and additional’ money – that is on top of the 0.7 per cent pledge – promised at Paris be well spent? The global think-tank Transparency International gives Bangladesh an anti-corruption rating of just 25, with any score below 50 indicating ‘serious’ corruption. It rates it 139th for transparency out of 168 countries. The local branch, TI Bangladesh – itself funded by DFID – has issued damning reports about climate fund misuse.
They include the government’s own Climate Change Trust Fund schemes that resulted in ‘cyclone-proof’ houses with no walls – only pillars and roofs – so contractors could maximize profits, and shoddy shelters and dykes to hold back the sea.