By Mulengera Reporters
Reliable sources have revealed that Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng this Thursday put off her gloves and went bare knuckles on representatives of Western interests operating in Kampala. She had the backing of the entire Ugandan government which sent Deputy Prime Minister Rukia Isanga Nakadama who excelled in giving her effective back up.
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That the two ladies sat in the closed meeting at a top Kampala hotel where a large number of donor representatives, involved in the current fight against Ebola, gathered. The group included US, UK, EU and German Ambassadors who were joined by UN agencies that claim to be involved in implementing Uganda’s overall Ebola response plan.
Sources say that the usually level headed Aceng didn’t mince words regarding what she considered to be the transgressions and curious activities of the US Ambassador Brown Natalie plus the USAID and American CDC agency heads working under her supervision. She accused these of working towards demonizing Uganda’s overall Ebola response while exaggerating the financial contributions and support their country (US) has so far extended to the country in the last 52 days since the current Ebola outbreak was confirmed in the twin districts of Mubende and Kasanda.
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Aceng, who sources say sat within spitting distance of where a stone-faced Natalie was seated, demanded to know why the Ambassador of the richest and most powerful country on the planet would issue social media messages and press releases claiming her country had invested so much money yet in actual sense there is nothing on the ground. Sources say that a fire-breathing Aceng demanded to know the exact districts of Uganda where the US funding had been deployed against Ebola. She referred to the 4W Matrix which WHO developed indicating that development partners were collectively working in 52 districts of Uganda fighting Ebola yet, as far the GoU is concerned, the outbreak is currently only epic-centered in just 8 districts.
Sources say that Health Ministry officials like Commissioner Richard Kabanda and DG Henry Mwebesa demanded that Natalie and other partners at the meeting explain who authorized them to go into Uganda’s districts and begin taking samples and implementing many other Ebola prevention-related activities without being expressly permitted to do so by the MoH or the GoU for that matter.
Before plunging into specifics, a tough-talking Aceng explained that her work was increasingly becoming complicated as Minister of Health because the people of Uganda, Parliament and even officials at the Finance Ministry don’t want her Health Ministry to be given any specific funding to fight Ebola because an impression has been created that partners like the US have already invested billions of shillings whereas not. She said it was bad manners for the American officials to announce money which hasn’t even been released or even made available by their superiors in Washington because in most cases such money ends up not coming.
She also registered her displeasure as to why such partners give their money to NGOs, technically called implementing partners, and yet report the same in the media as having been invested in the health sector through her Ministry. “In actual sense we haven’t touched nor seen any such money yet citizens are out on social media saying donors have given us a lot of money. I didn’t consider it prudent to disown and contradict you out there in the open. That’s why I have organized this accountability forum to hear from you. How much has each one you invested so far and on which activities? Who authorized those activities? Are they aligned to be part of our priorities in Uganda’s national response to the current Ebola outbreak? If I have 7 priorities, why would you rush to priority 7 when there is one and two?” wondered Aceng whose displeasure was to later be corroborated by Deputy Premier Nakadama.
She (Nakadama) made it clear that even when donors decide to contribute through their preferred NGOs because maybe they don’t trust the government, it wouldn’t be asking for too much to be required to disclose to the GoU through the MoH how much has been given and for which interventions. Aceng said that emboldened by the US embassy, some of the UN agencies and other international partners had ended up establishing their own response plans which are parallel to the one the GoU put in place through MoH.
Aceng explained that this had resulted into duplication of work and misapplication of the very scarce financial resources. She wondered why everyone was investing in the so-called risk communication (basically adverts creating awareness about Ebola and the appropriate behavioral change), surveillance, community engagement and availing the required logistics. She said there are many pillars comprising Uganda’s Ebola response but donors were curiously avoiding investing into areas where the government of Uganda requires urgent help.
Sources say that the Ministry teams that came with Aceng went as far disputing work some of the donors and their implementing partners like Baylor and IDI claimed to have done in the community regarding surveillance, community engagements and training of village health teams members. DG Mwebesa wondered why community members would still engage in risky practices such as exhuming dead bodies for re-burial and seeking help from witchdoctors if indeed awareness had been created to the levels each of the more than 20 implementing partners at the meeting kept claiming to have done.
The Health Ministry, through Commissioner Richard Kabanda, recently escalated things when donor-funded Red Cross volunteers had to be pulled out of the field in Mubende and Kasanda where they had plunged to effect sample collection and Ebola-related research without being cleared by the MoH as required by law and under rules of prudent practice.
At the beginning of the meeting, Aceng demanded that each of the funders/donors and implementing partners takes to the podium and explain how much they have invested in the last 52 days and the specific interventions they have funded. Sources say she was only satisfied with what UNICEF, African CDC and WHO presented. With active backing of officials from her MoH, Aceng ended up trashing the accountability all the others presented. These include USAID, CDC, WFP, MSF (was required to share pictures showing ITU infrastructure they claimed to have erected in Mubende), Baylor, Makerere-based IDI, IOM, Mildmay, UNHCR, FHI/SBCA, IRC, MTI and Uganda Red Cross Society/IFRC.
Having attentively listened to what ladies from American CDC and USAID had presented to be areas their money has been invested (through implementing partners), Aceng turned to furiously face Natalie (who sat to her right) and furiously said: “Ambassador Natalie I have been attentively listening to what CDC and USAID presented to us and I have noted it down. The figures they have given us don’t come to the $85m which you announced in the media to have been invested by your country into Uganda’s current Ebola response. I have heard a total of $11.9m and another of $22m which comes to something like Shs85bn. Now if I heard them right, what they have just presented to us doesn’t come to the $85m you declared in the media.”
Sources say as Aceng roared on with her characteristic firmness, Ambassador Natalie uneasily turned in her seat as some of her assistants wished the ground swallowed her. The Minister said the best way to avoid such contradictions is for the Americans and other Ebola response funders to work with the Ministry by disclosing everything through the established Ebola response Committees to which they are formally represented. She advised that such investments be transparently declared as opposed to the Ambassador using social media and press releases to put out such information. She made it clear that the Uganda, which her mentor Gen YK Museveni leads, wasn’t prepared to accept nor tolerate such conduct going forward.
Not yet done, Aceng also demanded to know why a lot of money ends up going into operational costs and overheads instead of doing the real work. She gave the example of an intervention the US agencies claimed to be funding through an implementing partner ostensibly to support health care waste management at selected regional referral hospitals. She revealed that, in one instance, the US officials claimed to have invested up to $1.5m yet she eventually obtained records indicating that up to $0.75m (which is 50%) had been expended on overheads. A woman who introduced herself as the General Manager for the organization the Americans contracted to serve as their implementing partner on that specific intervention, shouted from the audience trying to contradict what Aceng had just said. She was given chance to speak but Aceng stuck to her facts as American officials pensively looked on.
The Health Ministry officials also accused the donors of trying to hide behind funding awareness creation (risk communication) through running radio and TV adverts without adequately involving the MoH or consulting it for its input. In the end, it was asserted, such messages end up costing too much money while not creating the desired impact or outcomes.
A furious Aceng also accused partners especially US for going into the field to fund Ebola-related research without involving the Ministry yet such “research conducted on our soil and on our people is the property of the GoU.” Going forward, she demanded that every research undertaking must be approved by her Ministry so that it’s led by Ugandan scientists. Non-compliance to this, she revealed, would amount to crossing the red line for which there will be severe consequences.
She also accused the funding agencies of inflating the price at which they procure things, something that deprives the Ugandan people value for money. She wondered why donors insist on procuring from expensive sources while rejecting more affordable service providers who are transparently available. Some of the development partners agreed that Aceng was right to convene this accountability forum and demanded that it becomes a monthly engagement.
But some fought back suggesting it was belittling for Aceng to call them demanding they reveal details of what they have been doing in the field on Ebola. They preferred that such meetings be used to discuss more strategic things and to exchange documents profiling what each partner has been funding. A very unrepentant Aceng furiously responded: “I like figures and I have liked today’s presentations because that’s how we are going to know where the problem is and do better going forward. For those who are allergic to figures, too bad. I feel sorry for you but that’s the way we are going to be operating going forward if we are to continue with this partnership.”
Sources say that earlier on the UK Ambassador to Uganda had dared Aceng demanding that she withdraws her accusation that Western officials working in Kampala are involved in anonymously planting negative stories about Uganda’s Ebola response in the powerful global media outlets. She told Aceng it wasn’t cool for her to just ring “shouting” at them each time she sees negative publicity about Uganda on the media platforms operating in their countries.
“Incidentally, in my case I don’t even know who they are. They do their work and they never speak to me. I just see the media reports just like you see them,” the UK Ambassador asserted in the meeting, a thing sources say finally emboldened others to begin pushing back against Aceng’s accusations. After registering her concerns on news leaks, the UK Ambassador recognized Aceng’s leadership credentials asserting that she sometimes envies Ugandans having such an effective Minister of Health who always knows what to do and how to do it at a right time. She added that this is something she has many times confessed to Natalie in their private conversations.
Sources at the meeting say that the body language between Aceng and Natalie clearly betrayed two powerful ladies who aren’t very likely going to be able to harmoniously work together going forward. We can only pray they harmonize so that tensions are finally deescalated someday. (For comments on this story, call, text or whatsapp us on 0705579994 [whatsapp line], 0779411734, 0200900416 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org).