Why Did the Global Fund Fire its Inspector General?

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria continues to struggle with the issue of health care corruption, an issue we noted here and here in 2011. 

Now as a news story in Nature put it,

It has been a rough couple of years for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the world’s largest funder of international health programmes. Since its creation in 2002, the organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, has channelled US$24.7 billion to delivering disease-control measures such as drugs, diagnostics and bed nets, saving millions of lives. But the global financial crisis has hit the fund hard, and its troubles mounted in 2011 when allegations of corruption among its grant recipients tarnished its reputation and alarmed donors.

Last week, the Global Fund tried to move on, announcing a new leader and unveiling major changes to its funding programme.
The Nature news story suggested that the troubles of the Fund all seemed so unfair.  After all,
the fraud allegations, ... [were] largely rehashed audits already made public by the fund itself. A retrospective audit published in July this year suggests that the allegations may have been overblown. It found that, in a sample of grants worth $3.8 billion that were awarded from 2005 to 2012 in 27 countries, just 0.5% of grant funding was lost to outright fraud. Experts say that figure is not exceptional for funding programmes in poor nations that often struggle with corruption.
Yet the Nature story suggested that the Fund's intrepid new later "could signal a fresh start, and has been broadly welcomed," leaving the impression that all things may turn out well.

Firing the Inspector General

However, the Nature story left out one nagging detail.  At the same time the Fund board announced the appointment of Dr Mark Dybul as its new director, it also announced that it had fired the Fund's Inspector General.  A report in the Financial Times only included,

It also dismissed John Parsons, its inspector general. Some directors believed Mr Parsons had been too outspoken in conducting public audits that sparked criticism of relatively small amounts of mismanagement and corruption.
The impression left was that Mr Parson was mainly guilty of rocking the boat.

The New York Times version, which started by recounting the hiring of Dr Dybul, also made it sound that Mr Parsons was generating too much bad publicity,

The fund also dismissed its inspector general, John Parsons, on Thursday, citing unsatisfactory work.

Mr. Parsons and Dr. Kazatchkine had privately clashed. Mr. Parsons’s teams aggressively pursued theft and fraud, and found it in Mali, Mauritania and elsewhere. But the total amount stolen — $10 million to $20 million — was relatively small, and aides to Dr. Kazatchkine said the fund cut off those countries and sought to retrieve the money. The aides claimed that Mr. Parsons, who reported only to the board, went to news outlets and left the impression that the fund was covering up rampant theft.

The fuss scared off some donor countries....
The AP version also cited the Board's accusation that Mr Parson's performance was "unsatisfactory," but included,

The inspector general's office is supposed to function independently. It was created in 2005 at the urging of the fund's biggest donor, the United States, which has contributed $7.3 billion to date.

The board held a contentious closed-door session with Parsons on Wednesday then deliberated into the night after he stormed out.

The board chairman, Simon Bland, and the head of its audit committee, Graham Joscelyne, each said they were unconcerned whether U.S. lawmakers might perceive the firing as an infringement on the office. Joscelyne would not elaborate on what Parsons did wrong but cited several reviews of him that were not disclosed.

In its latest 6-month progress report, Parsons' office said it had a growing caseload of 142 active investigations, up more than 70 percent from just two years ago.

Summary and Comment

We posted about the allegations of corruption at the Global Fund here and here in 2011.  At that time the scope of the problem was  unclear.  Now, at least according to the latest news report, it still is not clear.  On one hand, maybe no more than 0.5% of the budget was compromised.  On the other hand, would that caseload of 142 active investigations reveal more? 

Even less clear is the reason that Investigator General Parsons was fired.  The Board did not clarify what about his performance was unsatisfactory.  The AP report implies that doing too little was not the issue.  Most disturbing is lack of any mention of a possible replacement.

As we mentioned previously, the authoritative 2006 Global Corruption Report from Transparency International stated that corruption is a major global health problem.  Furthermore, Transparency International's IACC (International Anti-Corruption Conference) in Brasilia just wrapped up.  It's final declaration included,

We call on leaders everywhere to embrace not only transparency in public life but a culture of transparency leading to a participatory society in which leaders are accountable.

We call on the anti-corruption movement to support and protect the activists, whistleblowers and journalists who speak out against corruption, often at great risk.

It is up to all of us in government, business and society to embrace transparency so that it ensures full participation of all people, bringing us together to send a clear message: We are watching those who act with impunity and we will not let them get away with it.

Yet, corruption as a global health problem is still mostly ignored. In particular, global health aid programs almost never include pro-active measures to address corruption. In this case, the Global Fund, the world's largest source of such aid, was initially pushed into defensively addressing corruption, but now seems not to be so transparent about the problem. In my humble opinion, unless more transparency soon becomes evident, donors may continue to find reasons not to support the fund.

So the leaders of the Global Fund might want to consider becoming more transparent, and making some assurances that they are not out to get whistleblowers, including their own internal watchdogs.  At this point a more pro-active approach might be too much to ask for.