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Liberia Closes Local Red Cross Amid Graft Investigation Into Ebola Funds

After President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf dissolved the chapter's national board earlier this week, senior managers convened for a meeting. Then the police arrived.
March 12, 2016, 2:10pm
A Liberian Red Cross burial team in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2014. (Photo via AP)

Billions of dollars in aid were donated to West Africa over the last two years as the world's deadliest Ebola outbreak gripped Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, killing more than 11,000 people. In the epidemic's aftermath, authorities have begun to scrutinize how that money has been spent and allocated.

Concerns over potentially misappropriated funds boiled over in Liberia this week when the government shut down the local chapter of the Red Cross on Thursday. The humanitarian organization played a critical role in the fight against Ebola, and was directly involved in the effort of managing extremely contagious corpses and burial needs. But it was also engulfed by scandal, as its general secretary and head of programs were accused misusing some $1.8 million in funds meant for the Ebola response. Both were suspended in November.

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Though an investigation into graft allegations is still underway, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf dissolved the chapter's national board on Tuesday. The board argued that Sirleaf had overstepped her authority. When senior managers convened for a meeting on Thursday, police soon arrived to close the offices.

Related: New European Medical Corps Will Tackle Ebola-like Emergencies

"The human resource managers told us to leave the building with our belongings because the president had sent police officers to lock it," an employee at the offices later told Reuters. "They locked the building and left with the keys."

The Liberian Red Cross operates as an independent entity within the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). Spokesperson Benoit Matsha-Carpentier told Reuters that the parent entity had found "some irregularities" that led to the investigation. He said that the IFRC distributed donor funds to the Liberian Red Cross, and that an audit of the money allocated to the fight against Ebola had raised concern.

While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) worked alongside the local IFRC chapter during the outbreak, none of their funds were given to the Liberian office, according to public information officer Claire Aude Kaplun. All of the ICRC Ebola response funds in Liberia are accounted for, she said. The ICRC, based in Geneva, intervenes in countries during times of conflict and crisis, working closely with local offices during that time. Local chapters operate completely independently otherwise.

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"They're expected to work the same way we do, respecting the same principals," she said. "But they're an independent local body, of course, subject to national law."

Watch the VICE News documentary The Fight Against Ebola:

After appearing in Guinea in December 2013, Ebola spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting nearly 26,000 additional people. The outbreak grew to become the largest of its kind since Ebola's discovery in Central Africa four decades ago. As the spread spiraled out of control and images of bodies lying in the street made their way to international media outlets, the World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern.

Billions were pledged in response. Now that the crisis has subsided, donor accountability has become a larger issue.

In January, an analysis from Oxfam found that the international community had allocated more than $5 billion in 2015 to the three countries strictly for recovery efforts. Six months after the money was pledged, a total of $1.9 billion had not been delivered, while the organization said it was difficult to trace what had happened to the rest of it.

Related: The Outbreaks of 2015: Ebola, MERS, and Measles at the Happiest Place on Earth

Oxfam is continuing to track the funds allocated for response efforts by the international community, while calling for greater transparency overall. Beyond the allocation concerns, ensuring that the funds are going towards the needs outlined by the governments themselves is also key. This is one of the major mistakes often identified in criticisms of the humanitarian response to the earthquake in Haiti and ensuing recovery efforts.

Considering the challenge that international organizations with resources like Oxfam have in monitoring funds, the task can seem even more challenging for local officials, said Oxfam's aid effectiveness director Greg Adams.

"It's notable that this was identified as an issue by the Liberians themselves and the Liberians took actions to resolve that," he said. "Outsiders cannot impose accountability. It has to come from citizens, it has to come from the strengths and the accountability of the local institutions in that country."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB