Monday, March 31, 2008

Are Donors Promoting Corruption in Malawi?

As larger amounts of money flow into global health, greater attention must be paid to tracking where the cash flows in both poor and rich countries. Although doesn't focus on global health per se, it provides an intriguing model for how that task might be accomplished.

I was in Washington, DC last week with my fellow Nieman global health fellows. Had drinks at the Mayflower Hotel with Charles Lewis, one of the co-founders of the Center for Public Integrity. (No sign of disgraced New York governor Elliot Spitzer).

It was great to hear how enthusiastic Lewis is about the prospects for non-profit investigative reporting. Also learned about a more recent project he had a hand in shaping--an outfit called Global Integrity--that Lewis says is giving Transparency International a run for its money.

Global Integrity, according to its website, is "an independent, non-profit organization tracking governance and corruption trends around the world. [The organization] works with local teams of researchers and journalists to monitor openness and accountability."

What most impressed me was how they are able to pull together official data from the World Bank, UN Development Program as well as local groups and non-government agencies. They are, in essence, creating a database of corruption indicators that draws on the full range of local as well as international inputs.

The result is an incredibly useful blend of qualitative and quantitative data. Individual country reports are concise and mercifully devoid of jargon--like the one on Malawi written by journalist Suzanne Marmion.

While the whole Malawi report is well-worth reading (it will take you maybe three minutes), there's one part that really made me sit up and take notice. Marmion writes:

When it comes to corruption, foreign donors are increasingly a part of the problem. Many donors show "results" by how much they have managed to spend in a country, not necessarily by how many people have benefited from the help. Inadvertently, this spending sets up an environment for corruption by providing incentives for simply using up money without showing any positive outcomes. Money either doesn't get spent or winds up being used to pay for expensive hotels and redundant workshops in a rush to use up funds by the end of the fiscal year.

Approximately three quarters of the government's income comes from foreign aid. The senior Malawian official in the Accountant General's office says that unlike government money, which is now centrally tracked, money donated to various public officials is not monitored. Nobody tracks which donor has paid whom, and for what.

Asked whether Malawi's problem is due more to corruption than to dysfunction, [David] Gilmour [the outgoing U.S. deputy chief of mission to Malawi] laughs and says, "No, unfortunately there's plenty of both."

And while the Malawian government today is trying to starve its corrupt members, a Malawian official says, "Now they're just eating from donors."

No comments: