Sick of it all

October 19, 2015

Here is a story that in many ways typifies some of the things that are wrong with modern Cambodia; a story that would make you cry if you weren’t already laughing in disbelief.

Millions of dollars in aid given to Cambodia by The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have reportedly been left sitting in a bank account for more than a year.

The money remains untouched because Cambodia’s National Malaria Centre is refusing to sign a funding agreement, because it objects to a request to provide detailed accounts of its spending.

What this means is that the NMC won’t spend the money it has been given, some $21 million over the past two years, because the Global Fund doesn’t want to see it all stolen.

The money was awarded as part of an urgent initiative to combat drug-resistant malaria in the Mekong region. A source close to the Global Fund told a local newspaper that the NMC’s decision could potentially put thousands of lives at risk.

“The management team at NMC has downed tools and taken the grant-making process hostage,” the source told the newspaper. “They have frustrated attempts to finalise grant negotiations because they don’t want to provide receipts for travel and hotel expenses. The government is sitting on a heap of money, crying there is a malaria outbreak, but refusing to do anything about it, unless they are allowed to steal the money.”

Officials at the NMC and Cambodia’s Ministry of Health have been ordered in the past to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Global Fund after they set up fake bank accounts to receive bribes and kickbacks.

The NMC’s impact on efforts to combat malaria has reportedly been severe. Malaria testing kits and drugs are running out. Earlier this year, $2 million worth of mosquito nets were purchased with Global Fund money, but have not been handed out because of the dispute over expenses transparency.

At the same time, figures show that the number of cases of malaria in Cambodia has increased by 35 percent in the first six months of this year.

The NMC’s alleged failure to carry out planned anti-malarial work could have global consequences. Millions of Africans died in the 1990s when a malaria parasite that had developed resistance to chloroquine spread to Africa from Cambodia.

In 2013 the Global Fund threatened to suspend or reduce more than $100 million of grants to Cambodia if it failed to meet a 30-day deadline to return funds identified as “misused.” It later changed its mind, saying that because a fraction of the money had been returned, it showed a desire to cooperate.

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