In 2014, Sofia Tzitzikou represented the Hellenic National Committee for UNICEF on a trip to Chad. It was a dangerous journey that saw the mission’s members accused of espionage by a local judge armed with an assault rifle. The matter was soon settled, but it was a terrifying experience nonetheless. “That’s part of the job when you’re out in the field,” she told her son in Athens via Skype later that evening.
Some two years later Tzitzikou was to read a report by an independent firm of auditors stating that the 15,000 euros that had been left over from the money granted by UNICEF for that mission had gone into the pockets of staff at the organization’s Greek chapter.
The retired pharmacist and former UNICEF Greece president never said so out loud, but was obviously thinking it: UNICEF’s volunteers were putting their lives on the line as a group of profiteers dragged the organization’s name through the mud.
I met Tzitzikou recently for an interview at a downtown Athens hotel. We had been served our coffee but she left hers untouched, eager to speak, to remember the details of a terrible tale that ended with UNICEF Greece being shut down after 40 years of operation.
Closure was the only option after the local chapter was exposed for abusing its very purpose: collecting money to carry out programs assigned by UNICEF International. But instead of turning over 70 percent of the funds it collected to UNICEF headquarters in Geneva and keeping 30 percent to cover its operational costs, a group of employees at the Greek branch did just the opposite, using the money donated by citizens to give themselves cushy salaries and a generous expense account.
The disgraceful goings-on started coming to light in September 2015, following the sudden death of Lambros Kanellopoulos, UNICEF Greece’s president since 2000. At the time, Tzitzikou was serving as vice president (an unpaid position, like that of the president and the nine members of the executive board) so it came to her to head the national committee. The context is important. “It was just as the refugee flows into Greece had started taking on uncontrollable proportions. I was already dealing with the economic crisis, having opened in 2013 the social pharmacy for people who did not have health coverage, who would have died in the streets without their medicine,” says Tzitzikou.
“Then the refugees started arriving. In my 37 years as a pharmacist, I had never imagined that I would encounter situations that I have only seen in developing nations in my own country.”
UNICEF International had not come to Greece yet to assess the situation, a fact that Tzitzikou stressed at the annual general meeting of UNICEF’s 34 national committee chiefs in Boston, Massachusetts a couple of months later. “How can UNICEF be absent from Greece?” she asked. Her plea was heard and a team from the international organization was sent to Athens, as she was busy traveling to Idomeni and Thessaloniki in northern Greece and to the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos, which were receiving the bulk of refugee arrivals. “It was a really intense time and physically exhausting, but it was also rewarding,” she says.
She had received a tip-off, however, that made her very worried: “I had a friend who was high up in the banking system and who told me when I formally took over the presidency of UNICEF Greece, ‘Check the payroll.’ I had asked for the lists in May when I was elected and didn’t receive them until October. There was a lot of resistance,” she remembers.
UNICEF Greece had payroll costs of 1.5 million euros a year for a staff of 32. “There was a specific group that was receiving outrageous salaries, while others with higher qualifications were getting 1,600 euros a month. There was one official getting an average of 7,000 euros a month and another on 6,000… more than the Greek president,” she says.
Her examination of the payroll list also uncovered a cleaner on a salary of 2,200 euros while a colleague with more seniority was getting 900 euros. “The former belonged to the ‘protected’ group,” says Tzitzikou, describing her disgust at the situation. “I was living on a pension of 1,100 euros, my son’s friends were unemployed and I knew young people who were working for 500 euros a month. I immediately informed the executive board that I would not sign off on such salaries, especially at such a time. It was a matter of principle.”
And the deeper she dug, the more dirt she found. “We had spouses giving each other promotions without merit, a department chief who had appointed his son to the accounting office, another executive who gave a job to his sister and yet another whose secretary was his niece. All of this was forbidden by UNICEF, but they kept it secret. I immediately informed Geneva, reminding them that this national committee had never been inspected.”
UNICEF headquarters gave Tzitzikou the green light to order an audit by an accounting firm. “We needed to know what we were taking on, why we were suddenly in so much trouble. In the meantime, a high-ranking executive in the accounts department asked to meet me outside the premises, where he gave me documents showing that another executive had been taking money out of our accounts without providing a reason. When we and the auditors questioned that official, he said he had been acting on the verbal orders of the president [Kanellopoulos]. I was then accused of sullying his reputation,” says Tzitzikou, who was sued by the dead president’s wife for slander. “I never spoke in a slanderous manner about the president. Quite the opposite,” she says.
The initial findings of the audit, which was carried out by Deloitte, were nothing short of alarming and UNICEF HQ approved Tzitzikou’s request for a more in-depth inspection of the national committee’s finances, going back 15 years. The final report was a bombshell.
“In their presentation they told us they had never seen such gross mismanagement taking place over such an extended period of time and involving so much money and so many people. It was shocking, especially on a personal level. I had worked as a volunteer for so many years attracting donations and talking about transparency. Everything I had believed in was being challenged. We had received donations from Parliament and from all the political parties; our telethons were attended by church officials and even Patriarch Anastasios of Tirana had spoken in UNICEF’s support. I was mortified.”
Despite these scandalous findings, Tzitzikou still met with resistance from the majority of the executive board. “There were three of us on the board who were in favor of catharsis and we were all subjected to an incredible amount of pressure and bullying, to attacks, to a guy throwing a statue at us, screaming vulgarities. I was an active unionist throughout my career as a pharmacist, but I had never experienced anything like that,” she says.
UNICEF HQ decided to pull the plug on the local chapter in April 2018 until the situation cleared up, and Tzitzikou, as was her duty as president of the national chapter, sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office informing it of developments. This was at the same time as the financial police were expected to issue their own findings.
“After I testified I was asked whether I wanted criminal charges brought against the suspects if such a possibility arose. I said I wanted to see justice done. Beyond that, I wanted any money found to go where it was supposed to have gone in the first place,” says Tzitzikou.
Once the case passed into the hand of the authorities, Tzitzikou returned to her work at the social pharmacy. “It’s not a job, it’s a duty,” she says. “I also saw my work at UNICEF as my duty.”
“Looking back, I have thought about what mistakes I also made,” the former UNICEF Greece president says.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would make sure that the people involved all spoke the same language. You can’t have people in the organization who have no background in human rights, volunteerism or child protection, because they don’t understand that the cost is very real and comes down to children’s lives. Every euro that does not go into the program is a euro less for vaccinations. Some children’s lives could have been saved, some children could have been spared from malnutrition with a plate of food,” she says.
Asked why she hadn’t realized anything was amiss when she was serving on the executive board, Tzitzikou says that the committee was not “informed about the numbers.”
“There was a firm responsible for the annual accounts, while reports were sent every three months to Geneva and teams from UNICEF HQ made systematic visits to Athens. There was never any indication of anything being wrong. You may ask if I was that naive. If that means I never thought to question the accountants and UNICEF, then yes, I was.”