Investigation: The Rise of Fake Social Workers and NGOs in Plateau State
In Jos, Plateau State, there is a growing trend of “professional beggars” who pose as social workers and collect money from individuals, with the promise of treating some health related problems encountered by some indigents. Esther Onyinyechi Mark writes on this development:
“Support to save the little boy; nothing is too small, nothing is too big. Show mercy, show concern. A giver never lacks. Your one naira, Two Naira can help to save the little boy. Don’t say I don’t have. If this condition is yours, what will you do…?”
And so goes the chants of a lady campaigner, clad in a white T Shirt and a face cap that perches on a hair draped in a green coloured hair net. She has no jewelries adorning her ears, and her legs rest on a blue pair of slippers. Her hand carries a mini white coloured mega phone into which she chants the memorized lines that run like an advert. Standing before her, is her Unique Selling Point, eleven-year-old Aondonzu who cannot urinate freely because he suffers from a genital organ disease.
Aondonzu Zaki, from Benue state, had followed some groups of people down to Jos, because they promised to help treat his problem. He has been in Jos for some weeks, and his daily routine includes coming out daily to stand unclad from his waist down, in the sun, begging for alms alongside his benefactors. People can only donate to his cause when they see his challenge.
For over three weeks, there has been an influx of similar groups in town. While nobody seeks to identify them as part and parcel of Jos residents, people have been wondering where they come from. They identify themselves as charitable organizations with a mission of helping the poor. What is their aim, how do they realize their mission and why the choice of Jos?
Giving a “helping” hand
The Humanitarian City of Refuge Foundation, HCRF , an NGO said to be registered in 2010 with the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC is one of such organizations. When this reporter met with one of the foundation’s representative in Jos- the group treating Aondonzu’s case and asked for their certificate and other legal groundings, he declined, saying “I am not allowed to talk on certain issues.”
He was reluctant in dishing out certain information pertaining to the foundation, and kept asking this reporter to “contact our head office in Port Harcourt for any information”. He however, gave some details about the company, but declined any photo shoots. The foundation’s areas of focus include “helping the sick and indigent people by raising funds to cater for their medical bills, and also seeing them through school”
The foundation has hundreds of people in its employment payroll. Though it has no presence on the Internet, its modus operandi appears very covert. Employers are recruited, after going through some screening processes, which involves the availability of a guarantor amongst others. The employers are made to sign an undertaking that they could be sent anywhere, to source for funds.
To raise funds, they travel to various states with the patients, lodge in hotels for a period of time, and go out daily, to scout for funds. When they realize enough proceeds, they move to another state, and the cycle continues. Sometimes they are made to relocate immediately if they sense danger ahead, or have problems with the Police or social welfare office in that town.
For an organization that seeks to help treat and sponsor sick and indigent persons, one wonders how the employers get paid for their services. To raise funds, selected persons are grouped into units of 3 or 4, with one person called the group leader who oversees the group’s affairs, the strikers who collect the free will donations, and a campaigner who calls out to the public, informing them of the problem at hand. And of course, the sick person who depending on the severity of his condition, maybe strapped on a wheel barrow and carried round, or made to walk alongside the group, not minding his/her condition.
These people open for work each morning by 9;00AM, tour round a particular vicinity, especially crowded markets, solicit for funds by using very captivating words to appeal to ones emphatic conscience, collect donations in forms of money and retire for the day by 4;00pm. The sick is also made to join them in begging, as he appears the best unique selling point to drive home the message.
This reporter also caught up with another campaigner from a different organization in a shop. He is a lone ranger. Wearing a blue and white stripped long sleeve shirt tucked in a faded black trouser, with a white face cap over his head, he had brandished an A4 sized laminated paper bearing very faint images of burns and bruises, a fallout of major accidents. As quickly as he raised the paper to the face of this reporter and placed it back into his file, he introduced himself.
The long and short, was that he sought money to treat accident victims. The shop owner declined parting with his money and as the campaigner made way to move to the next shop, this reporter called him back and gradually engaged him in a discussion to find out more about his operations. He was very reluctant in providing any information.
This reporter had to follow him round some streets in the market, while he appeared very uncomfortable. A man in his mid thirties, he went round seeking for help. Some willingly dropped their token into his palms, while he “registered” the said donation in a paper he held. The paper had four columns for name, amount donated, signature and date. “Nelson” played all roles. He entered the names, donations, and equally “signed” on behalf of each donor.
Divine Favour Foundation with head office at Alimosho LGA, Lagos State is his employer. He had called himself Nelson, but in the cause of our interaction, he had to bring out his International Passport, which carried a different name. The foundation, he said, scouts different hospitals every last week of the month to identify severe cases that seek urgent attention, and thereafter, “beg” for money to enable them treat the patient. Since 2010 the organization came into existence, Nelson claims they have treated over 26 cases with the highest gulping over N500,000 for an operation at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH.
After following him for some time, this reporter had to leave him, when she noticed he was no longer comfortable and appeared a bit restless. When asked how he gets paid, and how he accounts for the funds he realizes daily, he quipped, “no man can satisfy me, except God. You can’t know how I get paid. But God blesses us continuously”
But, little is known by many on what happens to such funds generated daily by these foundations, and if the sick actually get to benefit from the largesse of passers-by. When this reporter sought to know from the representatives of these organizations how much they make daily, and how they are paid, they all declined giving any information, while referring her to their headquarters. They all claimed it is a charitable work. Upon further questioning, one responded thus: “Any venture that does not yield returns cannot be continued. If we are still doing this, it means it yields returns”
When asked if they could not employ the services of the media in publicizing these situations, David Udechukwu, of HCRF, said the media is not always the best means, as the cost of placing such adverts therein are high. But when told of the Social Responsibility of the media in helping its citizens with such issues, he emphasized “we do so sometimes but coming out here to face the people is better off, because the funds come in directly to us. We realize more here.”
Why do people support the cause?
This reporter sought to know from some people in the market, on reasons they donate to these organizations and if they tend to verify the authenticity of claims by these foundations.
Most people opined they donate daily because of God. But none seemed to have questioned the foundations’ source, authenticity and the likes. They just believe they are helping out in their little way, and there are no point asking questions, even when they keep seeing strange faces of able bodied young men and ladies parading various people with health problems, each week.
Mrs. Blessing Akanu however, narrated an incidence where some people posing as indigent and very sick people were discovered to be faking it, and immediately they knew their bubbles had been burst, they quickly left the area before people could take any action. That incident according to her changed her perspective on the issue. Now she gives only ‘when I’m moved to’
Continuous Rise of Fake NGOs
Over years in Plateau state, there has been a rise in the number of NGOs and social workers who abscond with peoples’ money after realizing heavy contributions. In 2012 while this reporter was a student, many people were affected, students alike, after they were duped of thousands and hundreds of naira by these agencies.
In Nepal, Neesha Bremner, a journalist, reports that Privately run homes in Nepal are taking children and presenting them as orphans to obtain lucrative funding from Western volunteers and donors. With a rise in such, some people are becoming very careful in parting with their money while others appear indifferent. Poverty and greed, the need for fast money, might have given rise to this trend. While many might have genuinely used the funds to improve lots, there are no readily available statistics on its success stories.
Do these sick people face more health challenges due to constant exposure in the open, not minding their health condition? Dr George Daniel, a resident Doctor with the Bingham University Teaching Hospital, Plateau State, sheds more light on the issue:
“Most people that claim to work in collaboration with hospitals are actually lying. Rarely do we see some of these foundations enter an MOU with medical institutions. Having worked with both the private and public health sector, I can authoritatively tell you most of them are scammers”
“People can do anything for money. They do more of exploitation. They exploit vulnerable people based on their disability. And most times, the very people they claim to help end up suffering more harm due to the unnecessary exposure. From Psychological to health risks, the patients face stress, anxiety, exposure to respiratory tract infections, muscle pain, arthritis, and so on. They may also suffer malnutrition, skin infections and the likes, because of undue exposure to dust and other harsh weather conditions, when they ought to be resting”
The Role Of The Real Social Welfare Officers
Most of these organizations are not registered with the right bodies that ought to give them the legal backing, such as the Ministry of health and the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC
But, isn’t there a body that handles such? Why do people seek to help the disabled and sick people mainly through street begging? Cant publicity be done other ways? Is there not a body responsible for regulating such movements?
Findings show that every state of the federation has a social welfare department, under the auspices of the Ministry of Women and Social Development. This ministry caters for the needs of such sick, disabled and indigent persons and tries to provide succor to their troubled worlds. More so, most Federal and state hospitals, mostly teaching hospitals have such departments. But to what extent are they functional, this reporter sought to know.
“There are social workers who are trained psychologically and medically in most hospitals. They act as mediators between those needing their services and the government, and thus help to reduce the problems faced daily”, replied the Director, Social Welfare, Ministry of Women and Social Development, Plateau State.
“Most times, these people coming around to beg have chosen such as a career or business and are greedy, exploitative, adamant and very ticklish, she said. Citing the example of one Mrs Mary (not real name) from Enugu, she recounts:” we had met her, a nursing mother looking very unkempt, in Terminus market. We picked her up, took her to our centre, catered for her needs and thereafter, she opened up. Her problem was finance, as she needed some funds to start up a business. After some consultations, we gave her about N30,000 to go back to her home town and start up a business. We even took her to the park. Three weeks later, I was going home after work, and sighted someone begging for alms, with a baby strapped on her back. I went closer and who did I see? Madam Mary! I was in shock. This time around, we made sure someone took her to the social welfare office in Enugu, and on sighting her, the staff there all exclaimed—You Again!!!. Hers was an issue that had left them thinking of best solutions to tackle such problems.
She said, “These people have resorted to specialized begging as a means of livelihood. They come around, appeal to your conscience, bring in religion, and before you realize it, your money is gone. Meanwhile, the next day, they locate another street, and business continues. It’s that bad!”
However, we are taking a decisive stand to keep them off the streets, for good. But the state is already having such an influx of Internally Displaced Persons from the states affected by the Boko Haram menace. If we decide to arrest these persons, where do we keep them? And don’t forget that we can’t all be in place at the same time. So monitoring and arresting these people coming in from other town and operating such NGO’s and Foundations, might be difficult. We will look into it, and come up with a decisive action”
These people may have genuine intentions. But the realities of the economy may be pushing them too far. And David of HCRF, says” I believe anything you do in life, comes back to you”
And while the government “looks into the issue”, Dr. George Daniel offers this to Nigerians:
“Real NGO’s do not need to go begging. Ask questions when people come up to you with various claims and stories, while hoping you part with some money in their favour. Don’t just be gullible. Ask and ask more questions, until you verify their claims. When we learn to question situations bedeviling us, we will help in putting things in place. When these people see it’s no longer business as usual, you will notice the change. You don’t need to tell a blind man that it’s raining.”