Foreign aid for government health projects in Zambia, where most of the national health budget is donor-funded, was frozen last week after allegations of corruption.
The governments of the Netherlands and Sweden announced they had suspended aid after a whistleblower alerted Zambia's Anti-Corruption Commission [ACC] to the embezzlement of over US$2 million from the health ministry by top government officials.
"The misuse of Dutch taxpayers' money is unacceptable," said Development Cooperation Minister Bert Koenders in a statement, adding that Dutch aid would be put on hold until the ACC and Zambia's Auditor General released the findings from their investigations.
Donors fund 55 percent of the country's health budget. The Dutch government, the largest supporter of Zambia's tuberculosis (TB) programme, contributes about 13 million euros (US$18 million) annually to rural healthcare, preventing malaria, TB and HIV, and training medical staff.
The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) had earmarked 88 million kroner (about $12 million) for Zambia's health ministry before the scandal broke, but will now await the ACC's findings before releasing the funds. "SIDA will not accept any abuse of development money," Charlotta Norrby, head of SIDA in Zambia, told local media.
Nkandu Luo, a former health minister, told IRIN/PlusNews that the suspension of funding could compromise the health of many Zambians: "This decision by donors is a crisis and it's important [to] address the concerns of the donors ... and restore support to the Ministry of Health."
But government spokesperson Ronnie Shikapwasha said it was still not clear whether the money in question included donor funds. "Government is currently engaging donors on the revelations concerning the plunder of public resources in the Ministry of Health," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "We want to ensure that operations go on smoothly and the poor people, for whom that aid is meant, do not suffer."
He said the government was working hard to make certain that all the culprits were brought to book and the stolen money recovered, and urged the donor community to "help us to make our system more transparent ... to ensure that this sad development does not repeat itself in the future."
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About 14 percent of Zambia's 11.7 million people are HIV positive, and about half the estimated 300,000 people in need of antiretroviral (ARV) medication obtain it from government clinics and hospitals.
"HIV/AIDS is one of the biggest challenges that we have in the country, and the programmes will be affected - there is very little money coming from our government," said Luo.
"The suspension of donor aid ... will affect service delivery," agreed Swebby Macha, president of the Zambia Medical Association. "Especially in the areas of drug supply and equipment, preventive programmes of HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB, and the rural retention scheme for our health workers. As things stand ... the government will have to run the health sector with 45 percent funding."
Shikapwasha said it was too soon to say what impact the suspension of donor funding would have on the health sector, but Georgina Mutila, an HIV-positive widow in the capital, Lusaka, said she was "very much afraid" that the supply of free ARV and TB drugs would be affected. "Our friends who have money might afford to buy ARVs, but for some of us that will be a problem."
President Rupiah Banda, who was voted into office in October 2008 after the death of his predecessor, Levy Mwanawasa, has repeatedly been accused of being soft on corruption.
Mwanawasa's anti-corruption drive endeared him to Western donors and in 2005 Zambia's $7.2 billion external debt was slashed to barely $500 million after his government achieved the benchmarks for fiscal discipline and good governance set by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.