GENEVA — Evidence of corruption in a billion-dollar aid program linked to a new maternal and child health initiative illustrates the need for clear accountability rules, the Canadian government said on the eve of a summit in Geneva.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in Switzerland late Tuesday in advance of a one-day meeting to “kickstart” a United Nations commission that will set the template for tracking $40 billion in maternal health spending.
Harper was named co-chair of the committee, along with the president of Tanzania, last month.
Their work, which is to culminate in May with an accountability framework, has been cast into sharp relief by internal investigations of another public-private, UN-linked program, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
A special audit unit studied only a handful of grants under the 10-year-old program and turned up $34 million in losses in some African nations. The revelations prompted Sweden to freeze its contributions to the Geneva-based Global Fund, and the fund itself is withholding more than $22 million in grants to Mali — one of Canada’s preferred aid recipients.
A spokesman for the prime minister said en route to Geneva that the Global Fund audit simply underlines the need for clear accounting rules and procedures on maternal health.
“These are the kinds of incidents that remind us exactly why we need to have accountability — both in terms of what resources have been pledged and actually get delivered, and then once they’re delivered on the ground do they reach the right audience,” said Andrew MacDougall of the Prime Minister’s Office. “Is that money getting to the causes it needs to get to?”
Forty-five per cent of each country’s contribution to the Global Fund is counted as spending toward the new maternal health initiative, so the two programs are intertwined.
Canada contributed $540 million to the Global Fund last year — lifting Canada’s total support to $1.5 billion since the fund was created in 2001 — and Harper explicitly linked the latest cash to his government’s maternal and child health initiative.
Canadian taxpayers pledged $1.1 billion in new funds to the maternal health initiative last June at the G8 summit, and the prime minister’s officials say $270 million has already been committed to projects such as distribution of vitamin and mineral supplements and vaccines.
In a release Tuesday the Liberals said the Harper government is in no position to be “lecturing other countries on donor accountability,” citing statistics that suggest Canada has contributed less than one-third of the $200-million-plus promised to Haiti after last year’s earthquake.
The corruption revelations in the Global Fund add to the urgency and complexity of building a proper accounting system for the overall $40 billion that’s been committed to maternal and child health through the Canadian-led G8 Muskoka initiative of last summer and the UN’s millennium development goal summit of September.
Jill Sheffield, one of 25 experts from civil society, developing countries, academia and the private sector appointed to the accountability commission, wrote an opinion piece in advance of Wednesday’s meeting that explored the depth of the challenge.
Sheffield, the president of Women Deliver, a U.S.-based organization with a decidedly pro-choice stance, acknowledged that Harper ran into turbulence and criticism “from across the global political spectrum” in the lead-up to the Muskoka initiative. Canada initially said it would not fund family planning, then said it won’t fund abortion services.
But Sheffield praised Harper for not walking away.
“In the face of criticism, immense global pressure and a slew of politically sensitive issues, Canada has continued undaunted in its leadership on maternal health,” wrote Sheffield. “I commend the prime minister for his persistence.”
She added that “while we have had good news on several fronts, mountains of work remain.”
With each G8 donor country free to choose which programs it wants to fund, finding a common set of parameters to track the spending and maternal and child health outcomes will require considerable negotiation. Nor will that end the commission’s work.
Once the final framework is in place by May, said a Canadian official speaking on background, “the political leadership will have to continue to try to sell it to all the key donor countries and all the key developing countries as well.”
MacDougall wouldn’t speculate on whether a special audit function will be built into the UN commission’s framework, or how such audits would play with the diverse mix of donors, recipients and non-governmental organizations involved. The aim is to avoid creating another layer of bureaucracy.
“We do expect it will be a fairly robust discussion about these issues. We don’t want to prejudge the outcome.”