Development and corruption are issues many in the aid world prefer keep separate, but recently Irish development work in Uganda has become embroiled in controversy.
Less than a month ago, an internal Ugandan investigation revealed €4 million of Irish Aid funds had been diverted from its destination. The Irish government suspended delivery of any further aid pending investigation.
On receipt of a further report carried out by Irish and Ugandan officials, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has said this suspension to the East African country remains in place.
He described the fraud as “very sophisticated, well-thought-out, involving a high level of collusion at a senior level”.
Where does this leave projects already working in Uganda? Uncomfortable says Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) aid manager, Eric O’Flynn.
RCSI have worked with the College of Surgeons in East, Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA) since 2007 offering financial and academic support. In the last two years they have developed an online training programme through a website, SchoolforSurgeons.net.
Projects also include much-needed professional development through courses or seminars, he says.
Funding for these programmes typically runs in three-year cycles, the current surgery programme receives €500,000 per year.
‘It is important to underline funding from Irish Aid goes in many directions. Our funding and that of any NGO is ring-fenced for very specific things. We are very well audited,’ he says.
Mr O’Flynn says corruption is a reality, but adds ‘it would be a shame’ for Irish people to think that all aid is somehow tainted. At the time of writing it is unclear whether funding for 2013 projects will be forthcoming.
Responding to the funding crisis, a spokeswoman for Irish Aid said in general Ireland has always ranked highly for effective delivery of aid.
The spokeswoman added as Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of obstetrical complications in the world, funding for surgery is a necessary part of development.
“Expanding surgical skills for surgeons and physicians and providing skills to non-surgeon community health workers saves lives. The RCSI/COSECSA programme targets health practitioners in remote health facilities without access to qualified surgeons or even doctors,” she said.
However Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom have also suspended their aid programmes. Earlier this year a Transparency International report found Uganda registered the highest bribery levels in the region.
Hans Zomer, head of Dóchas, the umbrella group for aid agencies in Ireland, said it’s important to avoid making knee-jerk decisions on aid following incidents like this.
‘It’s awful what has happened. However it appears the whole scandal has invigorated citizen action against corruption in Uganda. In terms of a long-term solution, change has to come from Ugandan society,’ he says.
The missing funds were part of a stream given direct to the Ugandan government for use. But Mr Zomer rejects any calls to focus only on NGO work at the expense of working with governments.
“Clearly development co-operation is a high-risk business; this type of situation is likely to arise as a consequence of bad governance. If we want overseas aid to be risk-free, we should invest in Swiss businesses,” he said.
However Mr Zomer said the swift revelation of the fraud, and the efforts by at least one government agency – the Auditor General – to find the perpetrators is a sign change is coming to Uganda.
Overall Ireland’s oversea aid budget has been cut by 30 per cent since 2008, according to Irish Aid.
Niamh Griffin travelled to Uganda with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund The fund was set up in memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers. In June 2004, at the age of 36, Cumbers was shot dead in Saudi Arabia while working with the BBC.