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Corruption Aggravates Flailing Ugandan AIDS Fight

May 18, 2010

corruption kills by heatherlyone.

Photo Credit: Flickr user heatherlyone

A recent New York Times article examined Uganda’s deteriorating war against AIDS. Major clinics have begun to deny treatment as funds from the U.S. and other international donors have dried up due to both the global economic recession’s impact on donors and frustration with the course of the war against the incurable disease, which now affects 33 million people worldwide. In the face of this fatiguing challenge, major donors such as the United States and Great Britain have shifted their attention to diseases that are more treatable and cheaper to combat, especially child-killers like diarrhea and measles. However, another reason for the freeze on U.S. funding for AIDS in Uganda is the lack of transparency in the distribution of funds. In fact, the U.S. considered increasing Uganda’s funding by $38 million, but decided against it after Ugandan ministers were found to be siphoning off funds received from other donors. Although the ministers were forced to pay back the money, they were not jailed for their crimes. The entire situation is a particularly tragic example of Uganda’s serious corruption problem and its deleterious effects.

Corruption in Uganda is endemic, especially within the public sector, where the line between the official and private interests of government officers is blurred. Several high profile abuse of office cases have surfaced in Uganda in the past few years, many of which involved the theft of public health funds. From 2006-2009, several Ugandan ministers were accused of diverting money donated by global health organizations, prompting an important lender, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, to end two grants. However, the problem is not unique to the public health sector. Ugandan officials have also been implicated in the diversion of funds from the army and the National Social Security Fund. Public corruption is also strongly linked to shoddy procurement practices, which are estimated to cost the government roughly $100 million a year and recently led important donors such as the U.S., the EU, and the World Bank to voice concerns that Uganda’s newly discovered oil reserves will not trickle down to Ugandan citizens but instead be lost to corruption. Furthermore, graft occurs not only at the high levels of government, but extends to local government institutions, where district councils are prone to misusing government money earmarked for rural development and demanding bribes in return for basic services. All of these facets of Uganda’s corruption problem serious harm the country’s development prospects. 

According to the Countries at the Crossroads report on Uganda, the government has made some preliminary attempts to address this problem, largely by reinforcing its institutional anticorruption framework through such measures as the creation of the Anti-Corruption Division of the High Court. The government of President Yoweri Museveni has also for the most part allowed the Inspectorate of Government, the main anticorruption body, to act independently in an energetic recent campaign against corruption, during which it arrested 37 officials and seized public assets that were diverted by officials for their personal use. However, laws governing corruption in Uganda are unevenly enforced, with justice dispensed according to political considerations and thereby failing to challenge a culture in which high-level corruption is generally tolerated. Hence the country’s abysmal performance in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranked Uganda 130 out of 180 countries.

As the current shortage of funding for AIDS demonstrates, the consequences of Uganda’s failure to promote a climate of transparency and accountability are severe. In this case and in others, Uganda’s corruption problem has had a concrete effect on citizens’ lives and well being. Ugandans with AIDS have been turned away from hospitals due to drug shortages, with the attendant ill effects on their personal health but also indirect effects: denied coverage leads to drug sharing among family members and accelerated development of drug-resistant AIDS strains. Given foreign aid’s perennial political unpopularity in many donor nations, recession-induced fiscal retrenchment might well have caused a reduction in funds regardless. However, tales of graft and misdirected funds provide a basis for arguments that such assistance is a “waste” of taxpayer money. Moreover, Uganda’s failure to increase its efforts to combat corruption may lead donors to reconsider a broader range of assistance efforts, including the fight against other diseases as well as other social or economic projects. 

Unfortunately, similar corruption issues were identified in most of the African countries examined in Crossroads’ 2010 edition. While the gravity of these countries’ graft problems varies, comprehensive steps towards uprooting corruption have generally been absent. Indeed, from 2006-2010, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya, and South Africa all registered declines in their Anticorruption and Transparency scores. Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe improved their scores slightly, but both remain at extremely low levels. Only Tanzania was singled out as having made notable progress, and even then, it remains highly vulnerable to ongoing graft. Other countries may thus soon find themselves in the same situation as Uganda as donors take pause before disbursing scarce funds to countries with poor transparency and corruption records. The course of the global economy is largely out of the hands of most developing countries, so economic downturns will always carry the risk of donor cutbacks. But states that fail to adequately assure clean government allow donors to more easily rationalize such decisions. Due to the particularly daunting challenge posed by AIDS, funds for treatment could be especially at risk. In the New York Times article cited above, Ambassador Eric Goosby, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, stated, “I’m worried we’ll be in a ‘Kampala situation’ in other countries soon.” One can only hope that part of the Kampala lesson is that other countries’ domestic effort to encourage corruption-free governance is seen as an essential part of the fight.

From → Africa, Corruption

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