THERE was an unsettling piece of journalism from
Panorama this week. But, unlike that programme's best
offerings, it unsettled for the wrong reasons. Where's Our Aid
Money Gone? was very shaky journalism. It was pegged to a
fund-raising meeting of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and
Malaria, in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, which sought to raise $15
billion to support its work for the next three years. The British
Government has already pledged $1 billion of this.
The main premise of the programme was that something was
seriously amiss at the Global Fund. It made allegations of fraud,
and suggested the Fund's chief inspector had been sacked because he
was too diligent in uncovering corruption. The trouble was that it
failed to establish either of these facts, but threw a great deal
of mud in the process.
The first sign that something was wrong came with the reporter
Richard Bilton's criticism of the model of international donors'
using local organisations to deliver services. This, he said, came
with risks, because money might go astray. True: but what he didn't
say is that the opposite model, bringing in expats to do
everything, brings the far greater risk that gains on the ground
are not sustainable once the foreigners have gone.
Next, it failed to set its report in a proper context. One of
Panorama's expert witnesses, Amanda Glassman, of the
Centre for Global Development, had to resort to a blog to point out
that in the programme's prime example, in Cambodia, "the total
amount of misused funds was modest - $431,567 out of $86.9 million"
that the Fund had dispersed in that country.
Then Mr Bilton compared a draft report on the alleged fraud, by
the Fund's own investigators, with the final report that the Fund
published. A number of serious allegations were dropped in the
published version. This was clearly a cover-up, Panorama
suggested. Perhaps it was.
Or perhaps it was simply that senior Fund officials and lawyers
found that the investigators' allegations were not backed by
sufficient evidence - a process familiar to any reporter whose
editor pronounces that the facts are too thin for him or her to
print a putative story.
The irony was that the primary evidence against the Global Fund
was information that had been turned up by its own internal
monitoring processes. The Fund has suspended two companies for
paying improper commissions, and has increased scrutiny in
Panorama's criticisms of Fund investigations elsewhere
were nothing more than that they were taking too long to carry out
- despite the fact that the country at the top of the list of
inquiries, Niger, is at war. Again, as Ms Glassman concluded: "The
Global Fund's continued commitment to open investigations and
reporting should be praised, not slammed, and improvements should
The most egregious fault of the documentary was naïveté. Money
does go astray in aid operations, and it is an important function
of journalism to investigate that. But responsible journalism sets
that in proportion.
This programme opened with ad hominem attacks on the
Global Fund's chief promoters, the rock star Bono and the
politician Tony Blair, and with the curious suggestion that the
Fund has "only" saved four to five million lives, not the 8.7
million claimed by the World Health organisation.
Its tabloid title, Where's Our Aid Money Gone?, invited
viewers to generalise from the particular, which, as a visit to
Twitter revealed, a number did. "Panorama makes me
seriously doubt that money given to charities ever gets there,"
said one Twit. "Corruption damages trust," Mr Bilton concluded. So
does dubious journalism.
Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty
Institute at the University of Manchester.