Cambodia can now access millions of dollars in aid money to fight malaria after a months-long dispute with the Global Fund over travel expenses was resolved, with the fund ultimately giving up on its demand that officials submit receipts.
Last October, the Post reported that the National Malaria Centre (CNM) was refusing to sign a $12 million Global Fund grant it could have accessed since July because it declined to provide detailed travel expenses, while a $9 million grant from August 2014 was almost untouched.
The news came amidst fears that potentially drug-resistant malaria strains were developing in the Kingdom.
The impasse ended in December, according to Dr Luciano Tuseo, head of the WHO’s malaria programme in Cambodia. However, details on the agreement itself were scant.
But in an interview with the Post yesterday, Ieng Mouly, chairman of the country coordinating committee of the Global Fund for Cambodia and the National Aids Authority, said the agreement included a range of financial requirements – except receipts.
“For the national programmes, to not complicate things, we asked the Global Fund to follow the same procedures as government trips to the field. These government missions require no receipts,” he said.
Mouly said Cambodian officials did not want to provide receipts because of the difficulty of obtaining them in remote corners of Cambodia.
The agreement does include stipulations for travel plans to be submitted and spot checks to verify travellers’ locations. Personnel will also have expenses sent directly to their bank accounts and will be required to reimburse any “irregular” funds.
“There is no one who can falsify or steal the money,” Mouly said.The resistance to filing receipts seems to run counter to a government push for just that in July, when Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon sent a letter demanding government officials reveal just how much they are spending on state-funded trips overseas in a bid for accountability.
The other main component of the Global Fund accord is a requirement for the government to progressively eliminate its dependence on aid money to pay programme contractors and award incentives by 2018, said Mouly.
The fund’s demands for fiscal transparency came after officials at the CNM and the Health Ministry were ordered to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars after they allegedly set up fake bank accounts to receive bribes from entities seeking Global Fund contracts in 2013.
“I think that with the way the Global Fund operates, it will be very difficult to create a new scandal,” said Mouly.
The agreement comes just as an ambitious new programme was announced yesterday to eliminate a malaria strain susceptible to drug resistance in Cambodia by 2020. The Global Fund is listed as a major donor.
Speaking to the Post at the conference, CNM director Huy Rekol hailed the end of the impasse but implied the Global Fund’s reporting requirements had imperiled past anti-malaria efforts.
In a presentation, Rekol said that Village Malaria Workers (VMWs), who are paid to alert authorities about local malaria cases, could not be paid during the deadlock and stopped reporting. Rekol also noted that three of the 10 malaria deaths in 2015 took place in October.
“What happens if we don’t go into the field? Look at what happened,” he said after the presentation.
When asked if he was tying the deaths to the impasse, Rekol said, “Let the past be the past.”
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether corruption scandals can be avoided without receipts.
“I hope [the Global Fund] has reliable measures to verify the trips by agreeing to this with the government, otherwise it could worsen the problem,” said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International in Cambodia.
Global Fund spokesman Seth Faison responded by stressing that the new agreement “includes several measures for improved financial supervision”.
Faison also addressed officials’ suggestions that the impasse imperiled anti-malaria efforts.
“When the criticism comes from both directions, that often suggests that we are forging a sensible approach.”