Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Foreign donors block aid for Malawi; Questions over Scottish cash after African nation found to be squandering money.

By Mark Macaskill and Mabvuto Banda

The Sunday Times

April 3, 2011

THE UK government withheld £500,000 of aid to Malawi after an audit found large amounts of taxpayers' money had been squandered in the povertystricken country.

Officials at the Department for International Development (DFID) decided to punish the Malawi government for its failure to ensure that best value for money was achieved when spending British aid.

A grant awarded in January was reduced by £500,000 after a detailed investigation by DFID identified examples of "poor procurement" by the African nation.

Sources close to DFID said auditors felt officials in Malawi did not achieve best value for money when buying goods such as hospital equipment, drugs and stationery.

The disclosure will raise questions over how efficiently £13m of aid awarded to Malawi since 2005 by the Scottish government has been spent. In total, about £30m has been handed over in the last six years by a range of Scottish individuals and organisations, including schools, charities and churches.

"Our detailed audit found no evidence of fraud but did find some areas of poor procurement," a DFID spokesman said last week.

"The government of Malawi, along with other donors, has now implemented measures to ensure the situation is not repeated. The UK government is committed to ensuring that we get maximum impact from taxpayers' money, and where we find poor performance we will take action."

There is mounting international concern over human rights abuses and corruption in Malawi.

International donors grouped under the Common Approach to Budgetary Support, including Britain, Germany and Norway, have only disbursed £60m of the £95m slated for Malawi this year.

The money has been withheld amid concerns over a new media law that allows ministers in Malawi to ban publications deemed "contrary to the public interest", as well as concerns over a ban on public demonstrations and same-sex marriages.

In January, the US government withheld a £200m grant to rehabilitate Malawi's energy sector, demanding that it respects the rights of minorities and that a media law allowing ministers to ban publications deemed "contrary to the public interest" is repealed.

Last month, it emerged that plans by Madonna, the pop singer, to build an academy in Malawi to educate young girls had been abandoned.

An audit claimed the management team employed to build the school spent a big chunk of £2.4m on expensive architects, large salaries and a private chauffeur and golf course membership for the school's director.

Eight charity workers are suing the pop icon for unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits.

Opposition politicians in Malawi have also reacted angrily after it emerged that the wife of Binguwa Mutharika, the Malawian president, enjoys a substantial salary as the country's ambassador for safe motherhood.

The role was previously held by one of Mutharika's ministers but did not attract special remuneration.

Leaked documents reveal that Callista Mutharika is paid the equivalent of £4,500 a month for the position, about double that paid to cabinet ministers.

"This is unprecedented because in our history no first lady has ever been put on a payroll for doing charity work," said John Tembo, president of the Malawi Congress Party, the country's main opposition party.

"The money that government is now paying the first lady could go a long way to saving the lives of many women dying in our hospitals from preventable pregnancy complications."

Hetherwick Ntaba, a spokesman for Mutharika, said the first lady was justified in getting paid for her work to improve the lives of vulnerable women.

"What she is doing is work and therefore she has to get remuneration for that. There is nothing wrong in the president putting the first lady on the payroll for her work."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government, said: "Scottish government funds go directly to Scottish organisations who have demonstrated that they have the relevant skills, capacity and expertise to deliver services on the ground to the people of Malawi. Funding does not go to the Malawian government. Rigorous monitoring is in place and shows that funding is having a positive impact on the lives of Malawians."

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