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Audit discovers over D1M discrepancy in overseas students’ Covid-19 relief expenditure

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By Omar Bah

A newly released National Audit Office (NAO) report on the management of the second phase of the government’s Covid-19 response funds obtained by The Standard, has revealed a series of irregular expenditure notably in the overseas students’ relief payments.

In 2020, as part of Covid-19 relief support to Gambian students abroad, government through the ministry of finance allocated D29.1 million to Gambian students who are not under government scholarship.

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 According to the auditors as at the end of September 2020, a total of D18,997,480.00 was disbursed to Gambian embassies in respect of the overseas student relief package. The ministry of Higher Education was responsible for the administration of the payments to the embassies, who then disbursed the entitled amount to the beneficiary students. “We noticed differences amounting to D1,380,186.08 between the amount received by the embassies and the amount paid to the students,” the audit report stated.

According to the auditors, payments amounting to D76,382.42 claimed to have been made to beneficiaries had no evidence to suggest that the beneficiaries have received the monies allocated to them as there was no signatures to support the payments. They said another payment totaling D1,133,153.52 could not be traced to any transaction related to Covid-19 support to students in the cashbook, and the physical payment vouchers too could not confirm it.

“Payments made to overseas students also showed that there were 19 payments amounting to D3, 100,809.2 were raised without sufficient documentation attached to the vouchers. There were also two students who were paid twice. These students’ names were included in a payment list but were also paid each on a separate payment voucher. These two students like other recipients, did not have any photo identification, no authority for funds to be received on their behalf and did not also sign against their names,” the auditors queried.  They said there were discrepancies between the total amount received and recorded, and the amount paid out to the students. “An amount totaling D2,640,461.47 was not recorded in the cashbook,” the report noted.

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According to the report, lists of students awarded government scholarship obtained from the Personnel Management Office (PMO) and those awarded by MoHERST revealed that payments totaling USD4,100 were made to students who were already receiving stipends from the Gambia Government thus defeating the purpose of supporting overseas students without stipend support.

Reacting to these findings, MoHERST said: “These payments are supposed to be made on the regulation that every student receives USD$300. To this end, the ministry is of the view that it is the authorities in charge of payment (embassies) who can actually provide evidence and or explanation on any difference that resulted in the process. MoHERST was never directly involved in the payment process and therefore could not provide any explanation and or evidence on any difference thereof.”

Food aid

The government, through the ministry of trade, in collaboration with the NDMA had finance towards the cost of food commodities for Covid-19 emergency food support to vulnerable Gambian citizens.  The NDMA were responsible for the transportation and distribution of the food items from the Assembly Centre (AC) to the vulnerable Gambian citizens through the identified Distribution Points (DPs). A total amount of D27 million was paid by the Accountant General’s Department as at 31st October 2020 in relation to the transportation and distribution process. Large parts in the West Coast Region and all households in, NBR, LRR, CRR and URR were identified by their local councils’ authorities as vulnerable.

The NDMA, transported and distributed most of the food items procured to the vulnerable Gambian citizens from 1 March 2020 to 31 October 2020. A total of D909,859,918 was allocated as relief towards the procurement of food items and 264,500 (50kg) bags of rice was procured amounting to D323,025,000 while 279,500 (50kg) bags of sugar were procured amounting to D378,170,000. Also, 185,200 (10L) drums of oil were procured amounting to D130,787,000 while D27,383,572 million was expended on transportation of the food items.

Late distribution

According to the auditors, there were excessive delays in the distribution of food items in LRR and WCR and some of the food items got damaged while in storage. They highlighted that 28 bags of 50kg rice and 1 bag of 50kg sugar for LRR and 541 bags of 50kg rice and 65 bags of 50kg sugar were damaged and confiscated by the Food Safety and Quality Control Authority (FSQA). The damaged food items were worth D752,725.00.

Reacting to the findings, the NDMA said: “Well this was an unprecedented response in the history of the country. However, we are building capacities in respect to regional storage to meet such occurrences.”

But the auditors argued that based on the evidence they obtained during the audit and lapses identified, they did not receive sufficient information and documentation from the NDMA to substantiate transportation and distribution of the food relief to vulnerable households.

“We can only therefore conclude that the storage and distribution process did not fully comply with the laws and regulations that govern them. In conclusion, the distribution process was not carried out fully in compliance with the Stores Regulations and Essential Commodities Emergency Powers Regulations 2020, and the President’s Proclamation on 26 April 2020. These failures are likely to have meant that some vulnerable households did not receive the food items to which they were entitled,” the report added.

Ministry of Health

According to the report, the auditors noted over payment of D1, 615,548 for two hundred and twenty-seven personnel and underpayment of D1, 485,565 for two hundred and seventy-five staff.

“This mainly affected staff in URR and CRR. Based on the evidence obtained during the audit, adequate and appropriate evidence was not presented by the ministry of health to substantiate the payment of allowances to some frontline workers. Lapses in internal control meant discrepancies noted might not be addressed and funds might be diverted,” the report added.

The report added that a total of D750 million was appropriated for the Covid-19 health response, out of which D199,979,708 was spent on procurement and the usage of quarantine centres/facilities for the period 1 March to 31 December 2020. The auditors argued that procurement was carried out without proper needs assessment which is an important activity that ensures that the required quarantine centres or facilities are procured and used which will help avoid wastage of resources.

The report said an unauthorised payment voucher amounting D1,034,600 and unpresented receipts amounting to D79,385,505 were made by the ministry of health without justification.

“Procedures services totaling D8, 995,235 were also  rendered even before request for approval,” the report added.

“Our review of payment vouchers prepared by the Ministry of Health revealed that the payment vouchers of the Covid allowances have attachment lists that neither contains the payroll number nor the region of the beneficiaries.  

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