Thursday, 27 January 2011

How rife is 'rife'?

The AP ran a story last week about corruption in the Global Fund, the huge UN-sponsored agency that tackles AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and the story landed in dozens of big media outlets around the world. As often happens, the headlines featured an easily understood corruption narrative but missed the real story.

The easy shots were way up in the first paragraphs: millions misused in several African countries, donated anti-malaria drugs appearing for sale in secondary markets, falsified records, money spent on government vehicles instead of care, cash simply disappearing from accounts without a trace. All of which seems to justify the headline, ‘Fraud plagues global health fund’.

Except that it doesn’t. In fact, the Global Fund has been such a strict auditor of its quite generous grants that the inspection teams are sometimes accused of an overly prosecutorial approach. Theft and embezzlement clearly occur, but the GF has a far shinier record than its peer development agencies in rooting out corrupt practices and sometimes forcing countries to send the money back.

A development officer from a UN agency dealing with the Caribbean once told me that his bosses expected a certain amount of skimming from international cooperation projects and that if it didn’t exceed 15 or 20 percent, no one would say much. They considered it the price of doing business—the business of international aid—just as Exxon Mobil or Lockheed would understand the need to keep a bunch of Saudi princes well stocked in Gucci loafers.

By contrast, Bernard Rivers, who tracks GF affairs fulltime at his Global Fund Observer, estimates that corruption-related losses to the GF run to about 1% of its total outlays. While infuriating (1% of $13 billion is a lot of money), he notes that it hardly means the GF is ‘rife with fraud’ as many news articles alleged based on the AP account. Commentators on Fox immediately ran with the idea that the GF was a hopeless pit of corruption as it fits the driving right-wing narrative that public health and all public action is pointless and wasteful (except war-making, of course).

Stealing from the Global Fund is also rather risky, compared to stealing from, say, your clients if you work for Goldman Sachs. Thirteen people in Mali have been arrested on GF-related charges, and the health minister suddenly resigned. Countries have been forced to pay back misused monies or face exclusion from future grants.
Rivers argues that the GF can do a lot more to exercise vigilance over its grant-making so that corrupt practices are stymied before reaching grotesque levels. Local review bodies could have more authority to intervene early on, for example, without establishing a permanent external watchdog that would offend any country’s pride.

But a granting agency that saves an estimated 4,500 lives a day of people who would otherwise face a horrific death and that is trying hard not to be complicit with corrupt practices could reasonably expect a tad more circumspection and rigor from the world’s news media and its reporters looking for a good story. Let’s see the scribes go after the grants handed out by Gates, USAID and the European ‘development’ agencies with equal spunk and see if those outfits end up called ‘rife with corruption’ at the first sign of trouble.

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