New guidance from the Charity Commission says facilitation payments given by charities operating overseas to local individuals who enable aid work to take place are "an unacceptable use of charity funds".
The guidance, published yesterday, says some charities work in local cultures in which these payments are the norm. But it warns that they constitute bribery under the Bribery Act 2010, which came into force this month, and could result in prosecution.
The commission’s guidance says that in "exceptional situations", in which such payments "protect against loss of life, limb or liberty", facilitation payments might be allowed because a charity could use the legal defence that they were made under duress.
Separate guidance recently published by Bond, the network of UK-based international aid charities, gives two examples of facilitation payments: paying a customs official to release imported goods; and paying a government official to register a charity. It says charities should have "a zero-tolerance policy" towards these payments.
The commission’s guidance says: "Charities may encounter corruption wherever they operate. However, in some areas of activity and in some parts of the world, bribery can be found to be more deeply embedded in cultures, and charity officials might be tempted to adopt and conform to prevailing custom or local standards and values.
"As a matter of general principle and to comply with the trustees’ legal duties, trustees should avoid any situation where there is an expectation of a gift or payment in return for an advantage of any kind."
Melissa Lawson, a public policy adviser on governance and corruption for the relief and development charity Tearfund, told Third Sector: "Facilitation payments are a big issue in many poor communities and they have a very damaging effect. Charities have got to stand firm and not make these payments, because if you agree once, you will be expected to pay in future."