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Fund abruptly halts AIDS money to Uganda

An international agency on Wednesday halted millions of dollars in AIDS funding for Uganda, a nation usually praised for its fight against HIV, saying it had found evidence of mismanagement in distributing the money.
/ Source: Reuters

An international agency on Wednesday halted millions of dollars in AIDS funding for Uganda, a nation usually praised for its fight against HIV, saying it had found evidence of mismanagement in distributing the money.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said its auditors had serious concerns about the operations of the special agency set up by the Ugandan government to handle cash disbursed by the organization.

Although there was no clear indication of corruption or fraud, there was evidence of “inappropriate expenditure and improper accounting,” the Geneva-based body said.

“The Global Fund has decided to suspend its five grants to Uganda because there is evidence of serious mismanagement by the Project Management Unit,” it said in reference to the Ugandan government agency.

Drug supply not affected
But the fund stressed the suspension would not affect the supply of drugs and other vital assistance to AIDS patients which could be monitored directly from Geneva.

“All necessary measures will be taken to ensure that life-saving treatment as well as prevention activities such as condom procurement ... will not be disrupted,” it said.

Ugandan Health Minister Jim Muhwezi told Reuters in Kampala the fund’s fears were based on a small amount of missing paperwork from non-governmental organizations running health programs in remote corners of the country.

“When you suspend all grants because there is no document from some small group, it is really not fair on the country, or the people who gave the money,” he said.

The fund has given Uganda until Oct. 14 to present reforms for all grant-funded programs, he said.

“We received the report yesterday and we said we would study it, make our own findings and reach solutions together,” the minister added.

“We thought that was fair enough, but now they have announced a suspension. We are still talking to them and we will find a way forward, so there is no cause for alarm.”

AIDS a top policy priority
The suspension would initially last for two months, during which time the fund was asking the Ugandan authorities to set up a fresh system for handling funds that excluded the PMU.

Onee Ugandan AIDS activist, retired Major Rubaramira Ruranga, executive director of the National Guidance and Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, said civil society groups could handle health funds better than government.

“With this corrupt Uganda as we know it, a lot is really desired in the management of such resources,” he told a Ugandan radio station. “But I do believe the Global Fund will not punish individual Ugandans because of this failure.”

So far Uganda has received some $45 million out of $201 million earmarked for the country by the fund over two years.

Uganda has made AIDS a top policy priority and has been held up as an example to other African states after a government education campaign cut HIV/AIDS infection rates to around 6 percent, from as high as 30 percent in the early 1990s.

Many Ugandans have attributed the reversal in what was once seen as the epicenter of the disease to President Yoweri Museveni’s rare frankness about the role of condoms in tackling the disease.

But his administration has recently come under pressure for seeming to focus more on abstinence in what critics say is a bid to win funds from U.S. conservatives.

The move to block cash for Uganda is the second time in a week that the fund, which has made financial transparency a key selling point for donors, has suspended help to a state.

On Aug. 19 it stopped funding for Myanmar because of travel and other restrictions imposed by the military junta there.

Since being launched in 2002, the Global Fund has earmarked some $3.7 billion, of which $1.4 million has been disbursed, to 316 programs for fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in 127 countries. The United States is a major donor, along with other rich nations.

Africa is home to some 25 million of the world’s 38 million people living with HIV/AIDS, but only some 310,000 people are receiving life-prolonging treatment in sub-Saharan countries.