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African graft stings donors

A recent inquiry revealed gross misuse of AIDS donations in Uganda.

By Rachel ScheierContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2006


Uganda - a small, poor country still best known for its infamous former dictator, Idi Amin - isn't used to being first in much. But in the 1990s, it became the first African country to substantially bring down its AIDS rate.

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It has since become a darling of international donors, especially in the health sector. So no one was surprised when, in 2003, Uganda became one of the first countries to receive a multimillion-dollar grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

But three years later, the phrase "Global Fund" has become synonymous with graft in Uganda. A government inquiry recently revealed that tens of millions of dollars of the country's Global Fund grants have gone missing, much of it plundered by high-ranking public officials. Through months of hearings, which began in September and concluded just a few weeks ago, a disgusted Ugandan public heard how monies meant for lifesaving AIDS drugs were spent on personal phone bills, lavish "Christmas packages," and fancy four-wheel drive vehicles.

Along with increasing an already high level of cynicism here, the scandal highlights the corrosive nature of corruption in Africa and demonstrates the difficulties donors face in giving recipient governments the autonomy needed to spend aid money efficiently while also making sure the funds are used appropriately.

Problems with Global Fund monies have surfaced recently in other countries as well. Kenya was warned by Fund officials in March to report the whereabouts of $10 million that was unaccounted for or see its grants yanked. Some Fund grants in Nigeria were recently suspended for mismanagement.

Aside from Uganda, graft in connection with Global Fund monies has not been substantiated in any of these countries. Still, the questions raised reflect a growing emphasis in international circles on combating corruption around the world, especially in Africa. A survey quoted by the African Development Bank last month put the cost of graft on the continent at $148 billion per year.

And as the West tries harder than ever before to end poverty in Africa - the Group of Eight industrialized countries (G-8) last year agreed to double aid to the continent to $50 billion annually - the Global Fund scandal in Uganda also calls into question the fashionable idea that all that's needed to promote development in poor countries is more money.

"In hindsight, maybe we were a bit naive," says Victor Bampoe, the Fund's portfolio manager for East Africa. "But I struggle to see how we would have done things differently."

The Global Fund, a Geneva-based public-private partnership set up in 2002, was to be a new transparent, efficient aid model that would avoid the politics and delays that have long hamstrung development efforts. The idea was that the Fund would be strictly a financing mechanism; decisions about how to spend the money would be decided by local players.

"There is increasing recognition that aid has to be more than putting a bunch of white doctors on a plane and telling them to hand out pills," says Bernard Rivers of AIDSPAN, a Global Fund watchdog group. But, he added, "There is a tension between efficiency and accountability."