November 4, 2008

Where's the Global Fund money?

Zimbabwe's AIDS organisations have condemned the government for failing to account for more than US$7 million provided by the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The money was held by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), but allocations were released "erratically and only partially", the Fund said, and warned that no future grants would be approved until all of the remaining US$7.3 million was transferred to commercial banks and "we are satisfied that our funds are safe". Executive director of the Fund, Prof Michel Kazatchkine, said the dribble of money released by the RBZ, along with Zimbabwe's wider economic crisis, had affected the implementation of programmes, "including the supply and distribution of drugs". "A full audit of both the financial bottlenecks and programme implementation issues has been carried out by the [Fund's] Office of the Inspector General over the last three weeks and a report will be issued soon," Kazatchkine said. The Fund said it had been assured by the RBZ the money would be transferred by 6 November.

The chairperson of the Zimbabwe Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, Benjamin Mazhindu, told IRIN he feared the cash-strapped government, which ordered in 2007 that all foreign exchange accounts be lodged with the RBZ, could have dipped into those funds. "Our suspicions are that the RBZ was diverting money, meant for people and organisations fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, towards buying fertiliser, seed and the national football team. That, for people living with HIV/AIDS, is unacceptable, evil and insensitive, as it means somebody is gambling with our lives."

Tinashe Mundawarara, programme manager of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and an expert on AIDS and human rights law, told IRIN his organisation would wait for the audit before commenting. "However, should it turn out that some fraudulent activities were taking place, then we will demand that the [Zimbabwean] House of Assembly should institute an urgent audit of all Global Fund money. If the RBZ is found on the wrong side of the law, then there will be grave consequences for people living with HIV/AIDS because money from the Global Fund occupies critical space in the fight against HIV/AIDS," Mundawarara said.

The Global Fund has five ongoing grants in Zimbabwe worth US$88 million, and between 2004 and 2007 disbursed just over US$39 million, which has helped to enrol 13,000 people in AIDS treatment programmes and supply 330,000 insecticide-treated bed nets to combat malaria. Zimbabwe has had a fraught history with the Fund, but excitement was mounting that a US$500 million proposal made earlier this year would be approved after the application was ruled "technically sound", the penultimate step to final approval by the Fund's board of directors. In seven rounds of funding disbursements, Zimbabwe's applications have been successful in only two. Health Minister David Parirenyatwa has frequently accused the agency of political bias, which the Global Fund has strongly denied.

Maxwell Kapachawo, the head of a network of religious leaders living with HIV/AIDS, said failure by the RBZ to account for the Global Fund grant money underlined the disregard the authorities had for HIV-positive people. "What they may not know is that we may lose the US$500 million which had [almost] been approved for Zimbabwe. The implications for people living with HIV/AIDS are dire because those funds go a long way in assisting us where the government cannot do anything." Of the 1.7 million people living with HIV in Zimbabwe, 320,000 are in need of antiretroviral drugs but only 100,000 are accessing free government treatment. (IRIN)

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