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Australia keeping tabs on Cambodia's Global Fund probe

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Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/Phnom Penh Post

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday that her government had its eye on a Global Fund corruption investigation into Cambodia’s malaria program as it emerged that AusAid, a major donor to the fund, had sought answers about the probe after finding out about it more than five months ago.

Gillard, speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, was asked why Australia had not pushed harder to tackle the long-known allegations given the potential threat posed to people’s lives.

“Well, I believe we can be very proud of the work of Aus-Aid and very proud of the diligence that they show in distributing Australian aid dollars. I am aware of the allegation that you refer to and they are being worked through,” she said.

Australia took a “very rigorous approach to the expenditure of Australian dollars” and had systems in place to monitor aid money, Gillard said.

Two Fairfax newspapers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, will reveal tomorrow that AusAid, which has confirmed it was aware of the investigation and took the allegations seriously – though has remained mum on the details – first found out about the investigation in May.

The newspapers will report that AusAid had since sought updates regarding the status of the investigation.

Officials at the multi-billion dollar Global Fund have also been tight-lipped about their investigation, but have revealed in a statement that they had uncovered “serious financial wrongdoing” committed by Cambodian health service providers they donate to as well.

Though donors, aid agencies and the Ministry of Health have remained tight-lipped about the scope of the investigation, gradually details have emerged of how Cambodian officials allegedly wrought money out of procurement dollars approved by the fund.

On Monday, the Post revealed that Sumitomo Chemical Singapore, which supplied bed nets to the Cambodian government, had launched its own internal corruption investigation immediately after learning of the Global Fund probe.

News agency AFP later put the money embezzled out of the malaria program at under $1 million, citing an anonymous source.

Sources in the Phnom Penh diplomatic and healthcare community had also told AFP that the Global Fund had launched a second probe into the possible use of counterfeit drugs in programs it sponsored, while Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng told AFP that he had received no information about the corruption claims.  

Gillard said yesterday that she was proud of the work Aus-Aid had done combating diseases such as malaria, pointing to immunisation programs and a malaria conference that Australia hosted earlier this month – which officials from Cambodia’s National Malaria Centre attended.

Gillard also announced Australia had committed $100 million more to fight malaria in the Asia-Pacific region.

“This is going to build on the kind of experiences we have already had fighting disease in our region and around the world,” Gillard said.

To contact the reporters on this story: David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com
Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com

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