Some countries cut budgets after receiving health aid, study says

By Maria Cheng
Associated Press / April 10, 2010

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LONDON — After getting millions of dollars to fight AIDS, some African countries responded by slashing their health budgets, new research says.

For years, the international community has forked over billions in health aid, believing the donations supplemented health budgets in poor countries. It now turns out development money prompted some governments to spend on entirely different things, which cannot be tracked. The research was published yesterday in the medical journal Lancet.

Specialists analyzed all available data for government spending on health in poor countries and the aid they received. International health aid jumped from about $8 billion in 1995 to almost $19 billion in 2006, with the United States being the biggest donor.

Most countries in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East doubled their health budgets. But many in Africa — including those with the worst AIDS outbreaks — trimmed their health spending instead. In the Lancet study, for every dollar received from donors, poor countries transferred up to $1.14 originally slated for their health budgets elsewhere. The research was paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We don’t know what countries are doing with their own money once the donor money comes in,’’ said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and one of the paper’s authors. Murray said health aid saves millions of lives, but governments need to be more transparent about what they’re spending on.

The research raises questions about whether international aid is sometimes detrimental. Previous studies have found that pricey United Nations health initiatives haven’t paid off and occasionally hurt health systems. Specialists estimate about half of international health aid can’t be traced in the budgets of receiving countries.