NGO denies shady dealings

The Greek branch of Doctors without Borders, a humanitarian organization active in all parts of the world, has been plagued by a number of reports, rumors and accusations that have given rise to disputes and accusations between present and former officials of the group and doubts about the way humanitarian movements operate. While the Greek Doctors without Borders branch has succeeded in emerging from its isolation from the international movement caused by its stance during the Kosovo crisis, the branch’s newly elected board is having to respond to a number of accusations of irregularities and poor management that have threatened the group’s reputation. Personal information The branch rejoined the international movement on January 15 of this year. For about a year now, the Greek branch has been troubled by the unexplained provision of the names and addresses of about 5 million Greeks. Former officials refer to the «illegal sale of a list of personal information and the use of a list of subscribers to Doctors without Borders for political purposes.» The Personal Data Protection Authority has been briefed on the issue in order to see whether the confidentiality of sensitive personal information has been violated. The group’s former public relations director, Youla Boura, who was dismissed a year ago while pregnant, had this to say: «The chairman of the board at the time, Costas Papaioannou, had admitted that by a decision of the management, which, by the way, was not recorded in the minutes of any meeting, a list of the personal information of at least 5 million people had been bought for a considerable sum. No legal invoice was issued. Before and after the 2004 elections, signed allegations were lodged concerning the use of the branch’s subscriber list by the former president and then candidate for Parliament Sotiris Papaspyropoulos for his election campaign. The only source of this information was Doctors without Borders.» Allegations denied Papaspyropoulos has denied the charges and made the following statement to Kathimerini: «I have denied these reports twice already and have given the branch precise explanations. Linking my name with actions that have not been taken demeans me and is libelous. As for Mrs Boura… all I have to say is that she did not come to the open general assembly of Doctors without Borders on April 2 and 3, 2005 in order to back up her allegations with evidence.» Boura claims that she did come to the assembly but was not allowed in. When Kathimerini asked Papaioannou about the list, he claimed it was «not unprecedented for a non-governmental organization to use lists of names to inform the Greek people of its activities.» «The lists are drawn up on the basis of information from public sources. As for the allegations, I do not think they are based on hard evidence but are restricted to just a few instances,» he said. In a letter sent on November 19, 2004, Papaioannou claims that in fact the board did decide to buy a list of about 5 million addresses «but although this decision is not in line with current practice within the international movement, there was no malice, nor involvement of illegal funds nor any hidden agenda involved, but was done with the sole purpose of benefitting the organization.» The current administration, headed by Eleni Kakkalou, said that the the issue «is being investigated in depth to ascertain the truth.» She said the international movement had «never asked for Papaioannou’s resignation as a condition for the Greek branch to re-enter the fold.» Boura meanwhile asked Deputy Foreign Minister Evripidis Stylianidis «what the state does when ethics and legality are violated by a non-governmental organisation.» The ministry replied that it was not authorized to deal with internal issues at NGOs. Dismissal To this confusion was added the dismissal in October 2004 and then expulsion of General Director Costas Domvros, who has appealed to the Labor Inspectorate alleging that his dismissal was illegal. He has also sued the organization. The former board accused Domvros of recording a conversation between Papaioannou, Ilias Pavlopoulos (computer department director) and Nikos Kemos (former board member) revealing the illegal purchase of a list of 5 million taxpayers’ names from taxation bureau staff. According to the allegations, repeated questions by the Spanish branch of Doctors without Borders (since it was they who recommended that the international council re-include the Greek branch) regarding the purchase of the list led initially to denials by the former board that such a list existed. However, it was forced to admit its existence when Domvros’s successor Dinos Asproloupos provided the Spanish branch with evidence to that effect, resulting in his own dismissal. Conflicting interests Domvros, who is currently in Indonesia on a mission with the Netherlands branch, told Kathimerini he preferred not to comment until his return to Greece. He did say that there were «conflicting interests» within the organization. On December 3, 2004, 26 staff members and volunteers issued a warning titled «Initiative for Transparency and Truth,» claiming that over the past 14 months three general directors and two public relations directors had been dismissed within a climate of strong conflict and questionable transparency. There has been even harsher criticism. Volunteer Antonis Rigas noted in a letter dated December 9, 2004: «It is hard for me to believe that there is no handling of illegal funds or hidden transactions.» Meanwhile on March 18, the human resources director, Sosi Gazerian, resigned, saying, «It is regrettable that in the branch of such an inspired international organization there should be a lack of credibility, incompetence, arrogance and personal ambitions.» No evidence The organization’s monitoring and evaluation mechanisms ensure legality and transparency, according to the group’s current president, Eleni Kakkalou. «Financial audits are held monthly, and there are set evaluation procedures both by the Greek branch and the international movement. So far no evidence has emerged to back up the charges. The investigation is continuing,» she said. There have even been allegations that public relations work was contracted out «using non-transparent procedures and in violation of ethical practice,» to the Four Side firm whose manager was Nikos Kemos, Doctors without Borders’ public relations manager for a number of years, as well as board member and treasurer from 2000 to 2003. «We never contracted out work directly. For every document, the formal procedure of seeking quotes was followed. We accepted the bid from the firm in question since it meant the organization would not have spent a single euro, but would have received revenue from sales,» Kakkalou said. According to the group’s commitment code for subscribers, «no one in any position of authority within the organization may be a supplier of goods or services (to the organization).» A former president of Doctors without Borders, Odysseas Voudouris, who left the group in 2001, said there were problems with the institutional framework. «Questions are being raised about financial management and no satisfactory replies have been given. Even the financial audits by the relevant committee and by chartered accountants are simply a formality,» he said. «If the NGOs are to safeguard their good reputation in Greece, they will have to be much stricter with themselves,» concluded Voudouris. Even if the allegations are untrue, the cloud they have cast over the group has tarnished the image of a humanitarian organization that has done much hard work among peoples of the world in great need.