The HIV/AIDS Enron?

Guyana Chronicle
December 29, 2006

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ONE supposes that it was only a matter of time before some aspect of the frenzied HIV/AIDS cirque caved in on itself.

That time seems to be now. The recent publication of an article on potential fraud in the America's PEPFAR programme almost tangentially highlights Guyana's troubles with implementing the multi-million dollar prevention and care programmes which have been created under the project.

The specific report which may shed a brighter light on the PEPFAR's problems in Guyana is one entitled "Audit of USAID/Guyana's Progress in Implementing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief [PEPFAR]". The report was submitted to USAID/Guyana's Director, Dr. Fenton Sands, in May of this year.

It cites, for example, the shifting goalposts of success indicators held by the main implementing agency in Guyana. It also mentions an average of 83% of information coming from top local HIV/AIDS NGOs as either inaccurate or unverifiable.

The problem with this document is its sheer thoroughness. The official report is in fact a revised one which takes into account the objections made by various agencies involved. But even with that consideration, the fact that the programme has fallen short in so many areas still comes through as clear as day.

What could have gone wrong? The answer can be told two-fold.

Firstly, the sheer enormous amount of money and the relative short timeframe in which it is supposed to be spent virtually cries out for fraud, abuse and the wastage of funding. Not-for-profit organisations exist to provide much needed services to humanity yes; but there is nothing in the rulebook which says that you can't earn a fabulous income while providing said services.

Do a comparative analysis of the salaries of NGO employees and public servants and you may get a clear picture of the amount of funding which goes into salaries alone for this sector. PEPFAR funding has created as much a feeding frenzy, among public health NGOS, as Iraq reconstruction funding has done among civilian contractors.

The second major reason, in itself an extension of the first, has to do with Guyana's antiquated and inefficient registration machinery for NGOs. Most NGOs are registered under the Friendly Societies Act. It basically takes a couple of unverified signatures and a constitution to create an organisation which is open to virtually no public accountability or scrutiny but which can earn potentially millions of dollars in funding from various sources. Many of the organisations involved in soliciting funding, PEPFAR or otherwise, cannot bear up to the requirements and restrictions that other agencies have to adhere to.

Put another way, if many of the organisations receiving public funding as NGOs were treated as countries by USAID required to show accountability, democratic practices, and good governance very few would be given any funding at all. Read the report as one might an audit of a major corporation and the word "Enron" comes to mind.

This report could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg as it were, with a lot of fallout expected over the upcoming weeks. The government, foreign donors and others need to deal with this issue thoroughly and efficiently.

The Guyanese public has traditionally demanded very little from public organisations supposedly acting for their good. It is time that changes, particularly on an issue as serious as this.