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How we uncovered what happened with the $1bn in crypto donations to the Indian Covid Relief Fund

Investigative journalism, like genius, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Isabel Hunter’s story of what happened to Vitalik Buterin’s billion-dollar donation to fighting Covid in India perfectly illustrates the point.

She spent four months talking to dozens of sources and trawling through financial audits submitted by relief agencies.

She also had to perfect the unfamiliar art of blockchain analysis as part of her quest to discover how more than half the original donation seemed to evaporate and why only $58 million of the rest has so far been disbursed.

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Isabel previously spent about four years covering aid organisations working in Syria early in the war there.

“It’s not an easy thing to report on because the assumption is that everyone is doing good works,” she says. “If you scrutinise it or the way it’s being done, you’re seen as being anti-aid.”

But, she says, “there’s always the chance for money to go down the cracks – and especially with such a large amount of money that hasn’t been audited or regulated by any authority. Charitable giving in crypto is a hot topic, but it’s not straightforward – especially in countries that aren’t crypto friendly.”

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Isabel wanted to be able to understand what happened with the Indian Covid Relief Fund. In one sense this was easier than in her previous experience.

“They have a transparency page, where the funds are updated, how much they have spent,” she says. “There were tables showing which charities they gave to, the dates and all that sort of stuff. It was an amazing opportunity. [It’s] not often you get that level of transparency [with traditional aid organisations.]”

Isabel lived in Turkey from 2011 until 2015 and reported on Syria as a stringer for The Independent. She later worked as a producer for the BBC’s Panorama programme and on other BBC stories and visited northern Syria in 2016.

A graduate in Arabic and international relations from St Andrews University in Scotland, she decided to become a journalist after spending a year in Nablus in the occupied Palestinian Territories, where she taught English to primary-school kids.

Tracking the Indian Covid aid was meant to be easier because the donation was in crypto. But Indian NGOs are not allowed to receive contributions in crypto.

“You can only track it so far, because once the crypto comes off the blockchain and into real world money you’re back to trusting traditional banking,” Isabel says.

“You look at it on the blockchain,” she says. “You can go into their wallet and see when and where they are moving the crypto, and they were announcing things on Twitter. I just wanted to scratch and make sure that it was all there.”

Every investigation requires getting deep into often muddy waters, but for Isabel there was an added complication because she had not previously reported on crypto.

“There were so many different coins, so many angles, and lots of different theories floating around on the web,” she says.

“Trying to pin down what actually happened as opposed to what people said might have happened – at the end of the day it’s a fact-checking story. This is a narrative, is it really true? What happened?”

Some of the fact-checking was done by Mohit Rao, a freelancer contracted by DL News in India. “He was the one who was tracing all the charities,” Isabel notes.

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Many reporters would have been more than satisfied with a dozen sources. Mohit managed to track and verify 57 out of the 60 organisations which received money from the Covid Fund.

“The ones we couldn’t get to were either very rural, or didn’t have a website, or simply didn’t respond to calls,” Isabel says.

The Fund might have given all the money to an international organisation such as UNICEF. Instead, it worked with many smaller NGOs working in rural areas. The $58 million which they received was almost as much as the British government donated in aid to India at the same time, £55.3 million, equivalent to $65.3 million at today’s exchange rate.

“It was an amazing effort,” Isabel says.

Most of the volunteers agreed to talk to DL News, but a couple of them did not get back or would speak only on background, apparently because they preferred Sandeep Naiwal, the head of the Fund, to answer on the record.

“He didn’t want give an interview,” Isabel says. “His communications team said he was too busy, so I wrote very detailed questions. He took about two and a half weeks to get back and he didn’t answer all of them as on the nose as I would have liked.”

She sent lots of follow-up questions about bank transfers and receipts but all were handled through Sandeep’s communications people. That, she says, was “a frustrating way of doing things” but no-one was actually obstructive.

At one point, $1.5 million was transferred to Alameda Research, owned by Sam Bankman-Fried, the now ruined and disgraced founder-owner of FTX who is awaiting trial for his role in the defunct exchange.

“On the face of it they were a highly reputable player at the time,” Isabel says. “If I had been told at any point ‘we just wanted to get the money off the chain quickly because ‘there was an urgent need in India for the money to reach the people who need it, that would have been a very legit scenario.”

But, she added, “at some point you just have to say I can’t figure it out.”

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Alameda has become such a toxic name since Bankman-Fried’s arrest, it could be argued that it has a duty to the charitable organisations to explain what happened to the $1.5 million. Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to all criminal charges.

The Alameda connection is probably the most nagging question that remains, but there are others.

“An investigative journalist’s work is never done,” Isabel says.

“Once you start pulling threads you want to keep going. But there comes a point when you have to publish.”

She is unlikely to return to this particular story, but says: “I went down a few other rabbit holes and I found lots of leads to other stories which I am following up.”