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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Ebola Outbreaks, Corruption, and Two Questions to Ask When Donating to Any Cause

When donating money, it is important to confirm that it is going to the right place and being spent effectively. After all, donations are worthless if the delivery system is corrupt.

Image Credit: Pixabay-GentleBeatz (

Just yesterday as I was scrolling through Facebook, I noticed that one of my friends had started a fundraiser for her birthday. As I considered whether or not to donate to the non-profit, a few thoughts ran through my mind. First, is this organization doing work I support? And second, can I trust that my money will make it into the right hands and that it will be used to make a difference? After all, a donor’s greatest fear is that their money will be lost, stolen, or wasted.

When crisis strikes, generous philanthropists, as well as everyday citizens all across the world, rise up to respond. Unfortunately, greed, dishonesty, and incompetence sometimes sabotage well-meaning efforts to help others.

How Corruption Fuels Disease

When Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014, the entire world was shocked at the disease’s devastating results.Almost half of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and Liberia had to pay a bribe to receive medical care. Over the next few years, more than 10,000 people died from the virus, and the world mourned. According to the BBC, the Red Cross collected more than $100 million in donations to fight the disease. Of that $100 million, $5 million, or 5 percent, was stolen. Transparency International found that almost half of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and Liberia had to pay a bribe to receive medical care.

Liberians were so distrustful of their own government that when Ebola spread to Liberia, many citizens were skeptical. Some believed the government had fabricated the disease and was using it to solicit donations they could then steal. The harmful consequence of this belief was that many Liberians ignored the Ministry of Health’s warnings. Satta Watson, a Liberian who lived through the outbreak, described her thought process, saying,

I was hearing people tell me that what was happening wasn’t Ebola, that whatever it was had been created in labs as an effort to kill Liberians. That it was a way the government could get money from the World Health Organization so that it could then put the money in its pockets.

Instead of going to get treatment, the sick were ignoring their symptoms and refusing to seek medical help.

Systematic corruption caused a lack of confidence in the Liberian government. That mistrust caused patients to not take their health seriously, which exacerbated the crisis. Corruption not only stops donations from reaching the patients, but it can also keep the patients from coming forward in the first place.

A Public Health Risk Factor

Perhaps more accountability would be more effective than more money. As Foreign Policy explains:

There is a clear link between this governance failure and the current health crisis. In places where governments are so rarely willing or able [to] act in the interests of their citizens, we can begin to understand why the disease continues to disseminate. Health services, which barely exist in many places, are shunned because the unsanitary conditions of hospitals and health centers have made them hubs for the spread of the virus. Many hospital staff — already underpaid and ill-equipped — have become victims themselves. Foreign health workers sent to help are ignored and even chased away by scared locals.

Although the government and the medical field may seem unrelated, the Ebola epidemic exposed how interconnected the two are and how big of an impact corruption and mistrust can have on medical care.

What lessons can we learn from the fight against Ebola? Professor Taryn Vian reached the following conclusion:

If there is any message about corruption which we can draw from the Ebola epidemic it is this: corruption is a public health risk factor. Corrupt practices in the health sector reduce the resources we have to respond to epidemics like Ebola. It also weakens public trust in government health systems, trust which we need to rely on in emergency situations. Anti-corruption strategies can strengthen public health systems and response networks so they are there when we need them.

When it comes to corruption, it breaks my heart to learn about governments engaging in predatory behavior and taking advantage of their own people. This occurs especially in the province of public health, where people’s lives are on the line. How many deaths could have been prevented with $5 million worth of aid that was stolen from the Red Cross?

Corruption and fraud also sometimes occur in smaller fundraising campaigns. As the New Jersey Advance reports, a couple in South New Jersey was accused of fraudulently raising over $400,000 for a homeless veteran and never giving it to him. Other scandals on GoFundMe include mothers faking a child’s cancer and people falsely claiming a brain disease. One man even beat his own puppy to raise $14,000 for emergency surgery. Scams are nothing new, but the internet has created even more opportunities and avenues for corruption.

When donating money, it is important to confirm that it is going to the right place and being spent effectively. After all, donations are worthless if the delivery system is corrupt.

  • Catherine Alles was an Editorial Assistant at the Foundation for Economic Education. She is currently studying at Marquette University Law School.