NAIROBI — The U.S. government this week suspended $21 million in aid funding to the Ministry of Health in Kenya over allegations of corruption.
This is a small portion of the total foreign aid the U.S. provides to Kenya, about $650 million every year, but these frozen funds pay for, among other things, direct salaries, wages and travel expenses at the ministry that the U.S. Embassy claims was not properly accounted for.
“We took this step because of ongoing concern about reports of corruption and weak accounting procedures at the Ministry,” the embassy said in a statement announcing the suspension.
Support for essential services such as supplying HIV drugs and other programs outside the ministry’s remit will continue as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) commitment to strengthening the Kenyan health system, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy to Kenya.
Corruption claims have plagued the Kenyan government for years. In 2015, Kenya’s Auditor General estimated that little more than 1 percent of the government’s overall expenditure is properly audited and accounted for. Around a third of the state’s budget – around $6 billion – is lost to corruption every year, former finance minister, Philip Kinisu claimed last year.
With a long history of state corruption, Kenya ranks poorly when it comes to government and nongovernment accountability – 145 out of 176, according to Transparency International’s corruption rankings.
Last year, the Ministry of Health was embroiled in another corruption scandal. It was accused of misappropriating $50 million from the government budget, floating heavily inflated procurement rates to well-connected business people.
In addition, some funds intended to provide free maternity care – a key policy in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 election pledge – had been diverted to health-care companies to run projects instead of public health clinics.
Concerns about corruption are building in anticipation of Kenya’s elections in August. Corruption is often exacerbated by ethnicity in Kenya, with ethnic groups feeling marginalized by a status quo that sometimes favors tribal identity over a politician’s individual performance in government.
In 2007 tensions boiled over as hundreds of people were killed in post-election violence between the country’s main ethnic groups, an event that brought leaders from government and opposition to trial at the ICC. Division between groups continues to form the backdrop of this year’s election.
More recently, in December, Kenyatta claimed that the USAID-funded independent electoral body, the IEBC, was trying to influence August’s election results, and ordered the project to be closed down.
The IEBC was founded in 2011 to monitor and arbitrate electoral disputes to avoid post-election violence in the aftermath of 2007.
Despite recent disagreements, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec claimed that the relationship has not soured as a result of Tuesday’s U.S. government’s aid suspension, according to the Daily Nation.
“We are working with the Ministry on ways to improve accounting and internal controls and hope to restore the funding when appropriate progress is made,” the statement read.
Kenyan Health Minister Cleopa Mailu also promised his department’s commitment to full transparency and financial accountability.
“We wish to assure development partners and the people of the ministry’s commitment to prudent financial management and accountability for resources placed under our stewardship,” he told the Kenyan newspaper The Star.
As the U.S. is a key donor for building Kenya’s health system, the government is keen to resolve the issue. Corruption diverts funds away from fully funding maternity wards and fully trained and staffed hospitals, health professionals claim. Many voters were infuriated in October when Kenyatta claimed that he could not tackle corruption as his “hands were tied.”
Though the doctors’ strike, which ended in March, resulted in higher pay for staff, many say more fundamental questions around the funding of Kenya’s health system have not been resolved.