Defending the Global Fund

In case you missed it, two weeks ago the Associated Press wrote a scathing investigative report alleging that “fraud plagues the global fund.”   According to the AP, as much as two thirds of fund’s expenditures in some countries have been misspent.  In response to these allegations, the governments of Germany and Sweden are looking to suspend their contributions to the Global Fund–which is a mechanism by which governments, philanthropies and the private sector that pool financial resources for fighting HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria in the developing world.

As many as two thirds of everyone in the world who receives Malaria and TB treatment treatment because of the global fund.  To date, programs supported by the Global Fund since it was created in 2002 “have saved 6.5 million lives through providing AIDS treatment for 3 million people, anti-tuberculosis treatment for 7.7 million people and the distribution of 160 million insecticide-treated bed nets for the prevention of malaria.”

Needless to say, a mass walkout by donors would have terrible health consequences worldwide.  At the same time, in an era of budget austerity, donors are right to want to ensure that their dollars are not wasted to fraud.

The thing is, the AP story is very much alarmist. It downplays the fact that this information was publicly available for months and that the cases of fraud were relatively small and isolated.

Fortunately, this brilliant piece of commentary from Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, offers some context to the allegations by the AP.  He finds it is much ado about nothing.  From WaPo:

When scandals fit preexisting ideological narratives, they assume a life of their own. This particular narrative – the story of useless, wasted aid – is durable. It is also misleading and might be deadly.

The Global Fund controversy illustrates the point. The two-thirds figure applies to one element of one country’s grant – the single most extreme example in the world. Investigations are ongoing, but the $34 million in fraud that has been exposed represents about three-tenths of 1 percent of the money the fund has distributed. The targeting of these particular cases was not random; they were the most obviously problematic, not the most typical. One might as well judge every member of Congress by the cases currently before the ethics committee.

The irony here is thick. These cases of corruption were not exposed by an enterprising journalist. They were revealed by the fund itself. The inspector general’s office reviewed 59,000 documents in the case of Mali alone, then provided the findings to prosecutors in that country. Fifteen officials in Mali have been arrested and imprisoned. The outrage at corruption in foreign aid is justified. But this is what accountability and transparency in foreign aid look like. The true scandal is decades of assistance in which such corruption was assumed instead of investigated and exposed.

What is important to keep in mind that Michael Gerson is a conservative, talking to conservatives.  The Global Fund could very well end up on the congressional chopping block. But having someone like Gerson emerge as such a staunch defender of the Fund may go a long way to preserving America’s commitment to the fund–and to the global fight against these terrible diseases.  Credit where credit is due.