‘Donors said: If we don’t have Goal, who is going to do this?’

New general manager believes troubled aid agency is winning back trust of its funders

Goal general manager Celine Fitzgerald: “It’s not like there’s a queue of other agencies that can do this. There isn’t.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Goal general manager Celine Fitzgerald: “It’s not like there’s a queue of other agencies that can do this. There isn’t.” Photograph: Alan Betson

a
 

Goal has changed beyond recognition since it was set up by the former journalist John O’Shea in 1977, but some things have remained constant. One is its self-image. Goal was lean, nimble, fast-moving. It would go to conflict and disaster zones where many others would not venture, and get there quicker than anyone else. It prided itself on how little it spent on its own operation.

That idea still finds expression in its Dun Laoghaire headquarters: a spartan, nondescript building where around 100 staff run an organisation that, by 2015, had become a vast global outfit with an income of €210 million and programmes in 19 countries, including some of the world’s most hostile environments. The underdog had become the biggest Irish aid agency and an important player on the global aid scene.

In the past nine months, the agency has been shaken by a scandal that has called into question some of these very qualities. By Goal’s own admission, its famously lean internal structures had failed to keep pace with its growth. When the organisation’s Syria operation was drawn into a US government investigation into alleged collusion and kickbacks last year, the problem was cruelly exposed.

“Goal had all these functions – they had internal audit, they had compliance – but did they have them in the numbers that they needed?” asks Celine Fitzgerald, who was appointed as general manager in November on a 12-month contract to lead Goal through the current crisis. “I think they were getting there, but there was a lag effect. The numbers weren’t growing to support the budget as fast as they needed to.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have invested as much in those functions either, because there was so much else going on. But I can see it, looking back. I think everyone in the organisation can see that.”

‘Steady the ship’

Sitting in her small, bare office in Dun Laoghaire, Fitzgerald describes her task as being to “steady the ship” after a turbulent nine months. She is working to rebuild trust among Goal’s base of international donors, principally the Irish, British and US governments and the European Union. An action plan drawn up by the charity on foot of an analysis by the accounting firm BDO is also being implemented.

Fitzgerald has wide experience in Ireland’s corporate world. An expert in change management, she is a consultant and non-executive director on the board of VHI and Ervia. She also held management roles at Eircell, Vodafone and outsourcing business Rigney Dolphin, where she was chief executive from 2007 to 2012.

In her first two months in the job at Goal, Fitzgerald has been leading a root-and-branch reorganisation. Twenty five redundancies are being sought between now and early March. Five influential senior managers, including chief executive Barry Andrews, chief operating officer Jonathan Edgar and head of Goal USA Mark Bartolini, have left the organisation, and resources are being redirected to new compliance, internal audit and investigations functions.

One of the most recent recruits is Denis O’Leary, who previously worked at the Garda Criminal Assets Bureau and will lead a new investigations unit at Goal.

It is understood that at the heart of the ongoing investigation by the US Office of the Inspector General is one former employee of Goal and a single transaction worth $172,000. Could different internal structures have detected this in advance? It’s a question Goal and other charities have wrestled with in the past year.

“It’s about early warning,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s about training staff very intensively to watch out for anything that might be unusual, and reporting it.” A new, heavily-advertised whistleblower mechanism results in “thousands” of reports each month, she says, and although “99 per cent” do not uncover suspected wrongdoing, each one has to be investigated.

Trauma

Fitzgerald does not play down the scale of the trauma Goal has experienced. Asked whether she has examined the option of winding up Goal, however, she says no. “I believe that we can put Goal on a sustainable footing and we are focused on that task. That said, we are somewhat vulnerable to external shocks. In any case I think there are a lot of other options you would explore before you considered winding the organisation down.”

At the heart of the Goal crisis is the question of how a single suspect transaction involving one individual could threaten a huge multinational organisation. “They take a very serious view of taxpayers’ dollars,” Fitzgerald says of USAID, the US government’s aid arm. “They have to be seen to be taking it seriously. It has to be visible.

“We probably made the mistake of not understanding that sufficiently at the outset . . . It’s about public confidence.”

At a time when the value of development aid is being loudly debated in the US and the UK, the bar for transparency and governance standards is higher than ever. “From their point of view it’s zero tolerance, because it raises questions that nobody wants to be raised, which are about the very fundamentals of the sector.”

Last summer, Irish Aid responded to the US investigation by withholding €7 million in funding for Goal. The first tranche was eventually released last month and the remainder is expected to be paid in February. Even though Irish Aid funding had become a smaller proportion of Goal’s funding as the agency expanded rapidly in recent years, Fitzgerald says she prioritised the relationship with the Government’s overseas development division.

“I did focus on engaging with Irish Aid, because of the importance and the symbolism of the relationship. They have been massively supportive.

Conditions

“They had a number of conditions they wanted to see met. We met those conditions and they released the funding in December.”

Goal was not included in Irish Aid’s latest round of funding for 2017-2021, but Fitzgerald expects talks to begin soon on funding for 2017. Just as Irish Aid’s decision to withhold money last summer was “a big signal”, so too was its decision to release the funds last month.

“It was very important from a confidence-building perspective,” she says. She is also encouraged by a recent decision by USAID to grant Goal funding for programmes in Ethiopia, Sudan and Honduras.

“If Goal had been an agency that . . . did the same as every other agency, I think we would have been more disposable. Goal has a reputation for a unique set of skills, a unique delivery mechanism, and quality monitoring and measurement. That’s acknowledged and recognised.

“I have had at least two donors say to us: ‘We need Goal. Goal is part of our plan. When we are distributing funds, we have identified Goal as a partner.’ Donors have said: ‘If we don’t have Goal, who is going to do this?’ It’s not like there’s a queue of other agencies that can do this. There isn’t.”

a