WASHINGTON -- Digging in the garden of a health official in Mali, investigators discover more than 30 counterfeit "stamps" used to validate fraudulent invoices to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The inspector general of the fund reports serious corruption in the programs of four countries -- Mali, Mauritania, Zambia and Djibouti. A breathless Associated Press story concludes that "as much as two-thirds" of some Global Fund expenditures are being misspent. Germany and Sweden suspend their support. Some conservatives run with the story, which reinforces their preconceptions about foreign aid and fits the need for budget cuts. After all, in this view, two-thirds of Global Fund money is thrown down a rathole of corruption.
When scandals fit pre-existing ideological narratives, they assume a life of their own. This particular narrative -- the story of useless, wasted aid -- is durable. It is also misleading and might be deadly.
The current Global Fund controversy illustrates the point. The two-thirds figure applies to one element of one country's grant -- the single most extreme example in the world. Investigations are ongoing, but the $34 million in fraud that has been exposed represents about three-tenths of 1 percent of the money the fund has distributed. The targeting of these particular cases was not random; they were the most obviously problematic, not the most typical. One might as well judge every member of Congress by the cases currently before the ethics committee.
The irony here is thick. These cases of corruption were not exposed by an enterprising journalist. They were revealed by the fund itself. The inspector general's office reviewed 59,000 documents in the case of Mali alone, then provided the findings to prosecutors within that country. Fifteen officials in Mali have been arrested and imprisoned. The outrage at corruption in foreign aid is justified. But this is what accountability and transparency in foreign aid look like. The true scandal is decades of assistance in which such corruption was assumed instead of investigated and exposed.