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Unsettling for the wrong reasons

06 December 2013

Paul Vallely questions the standards applied in the Panorama report on aid

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 Cambodia.

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 be encouraged."

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.

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