The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe; throwing even the most advanced health care systems into disarray, halting the economy and impacting the health of over 9 million individuals. In the midst of this catastrophe which brought the world to a standstill by the end of March, flights grounded and work from home in effect, the StAR Initiative has been working around the clock to ascertain the best means for delivering on its country engagements.
In February, StAR conducted a six-day workshop on financial investigations in an agreement with the Independent Authority against Corruption of Mongolia (IAAC) with plans for the delivery of intermediate-level financial investigations trainings in Ulaanbaatar, in April and May. The course material was designed around an actual grand corruption and money laundering case involving the movement of funds through multiple jurisdictions.
In adapting the training to a COVID-compliant structure, the participants were required to complete the case using an excel based case management system. The course focus was on reconstructing the financial flows and the steps to secure the supporting evidence from foreign jurisdictions, including drafting the contents of informal enquiries and formal requests. As a result of this training, the participants were given the opportunity to develop their skills in financial analysis and strategizing an investigation including establishing subject and financial profiles, collection of evidentiary documents, illustrating the financial flow in charts and consider the benefits of transitioning to an electronic system to manage their investigation file.
The organizers chose Microsoft Teams as the digital platform through which to deliver the workshops, scheduling the sessions for the late evening Eastern Standard Time, to coincide with the start of the workday for participants in Mongolia.
Following delivery of this first course, further customization took place to enable the delivery of the introductory and intermediate workshop over a two-week period. This program is seeing back to back courses being delivered to participants responsible for corruption and money laundering investigations and prosecutions through July – with further dates to be confirmed though the coming months. An additional program focusing on the work of the prosecutors are also currently being adapted and schedule for delivery in late July.
Participation in the course is currently limited to around 12 persons, which complies with domestic restrictions on social distancing and the number of people who can gather. Additionally, the program paired up the participants to assist in completing the post-session self-study tasks and enabled the few individuals to catch up when they were required to attend to operational matters. The online program allowed for trainers to share screens and monitor exercises conducted by participants, whilst simultaneously demonstrating key elements and commenting on documents throughout the session.
The success of trainings in Mongolia can also be attributed to the ability for attendees to be present in the same room which eliminated the need for multiple translators and the vagaries of network connections. Technical issues did however occur prior to and during the training related to set-up and implementation through the online system. The need for an effective in-country facilitator / interpreter with subject matter expertise enabled many of these challenges to be overcome. This has also enabled additional sessions to be led by the local expert to ensure participants were upskilled on the use of excel to sort and analyze data tables.
Given the continued engagement, and multiple trainings and demand from other StAR client countries scheduled for the coming months, the StAR team will continue to expand the scope of the programs being delivered and further hone its abilities in delivering remote technical assistance to counterparts.
In Ecuador, the StAR team had a few advantages which were unavailable to us for Mongolia; native-speaker experts, better connectivity and easier time zones. The team was scheduled to travel to Quito at the end of March to deliver a training on financial investigations; plans which had to be halted given the rapidly changing situation due to COVID-19. Turning parts of the scheduled in-person training into an online activity, the team has successfully completed four webinars for staff of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) in Ecuador since May, in a series of trainings focused on characteristics of financial offences and their investigation. The separate sessions covered specific topics such as corruption offences as a source of illicit assets, non bis in idem in corruption offences, self-laundering and strategies for the tracing and recovery of assets and the profile and role of financial experts in investigations for offences established in accordance with UNCAC. The aim of the training sessions was to enhance capacity of states to systematically and in a timely manner trace, seize, freeze, confiscate and return assets stolen by officials through acts of corruption, under the framework of UNCAC.
The structure adopted by the team allowed for flexibility and creativity in the delivery of these webinars. Starting from engaging Spanish speaking experts, the StAR team also created and sent out guides prior to the webinar to facilitate participation. Each webinar was run by multiple organizers taking on different responsibilities including one verifying and granting access to registered participants, one Spanish speaking member troubleshooting technical issues, a moderator and the experts presenting during each session; the presentations either interspersed or followed by interactive Q&A period with the participants.
The virtual delivery structure adopted in Ecuador’s case (which did not include completion of exercises by participants during the training session) opened up additional advantages to the organizers foremost being the ability to present sessions to up to 45 participants in one go. Given that connectivity issues are not prevalent in Ecuador, members of the AGO were able to individually connect to Microsoft Teams, resulting in a wider audience for each webinar. The trainings were kept to two-hour sessions to fit into the participants’ busy schedules and facilitate interaction, which is difficult to maintain in virtual settings. Most noticeably, online accessibility allowed the StAR team to engage experts from various jurisdictions which provided a broad spectrum of expertise, case studies, and regional overview. Presenters hailed from Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina and as far away as Spain. The relatively concentrated time zones (Europe and South America) further increased the viability of this method.
In an interesting turn of events, a possibility only available through virtual engagements, the Ecuadorian officials agreed for members of Argentina’s Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público Fiscal Argentina) to join the fourth webinar series upon the Argentinian expert’s request after she completed her presentation for the preceding session. This underscores the untapped opportunities present in providing cross-border capacity building trainings which is more difficult, and much more costly, to coordinate in-person.
These similar, yet disparate methodologies for delivering training in Mongolia and Ecuador (and to some extent, Argentina) have provided a strong foundation during the nascent stages of this continuing pandemic. As every facet of life adjusts to the changes necessary to ensure safety, these examples are excellent springboards for further development and adaptation as we navigate the next year.