“Fraud plagues global health fund,” screamed the title of an article published last month by the Associated Press, which alleged that: “A $21.7 billion development fund backed by celebrities and hailed as an alternative to the bureaucracy of the United Nations sees as much as two-thirds of some grants eaten up by corruption, The Associated Press has learned.”

Journalistic scrutiny of aid is welcome and revelations of widespread and large-scale fraud by recipients of grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria would be a big deal. The fund, created by the highly industrialized countries of the G8 forum in 2002, now accounts for one-quarter of all international financing to fight AIDS, two-thirds of that for tuberculosis, and three-quarters of that for malaria. But despite using the phrase “has learned” — journalist shorthand for a scoop — the Associated Press (AP) article's central claims contained no new revelations. The frauds mentioned — involving grants to Mali, Mauritania, Djibouti and Zambia — had already been made public by the fund itself.

The sums involved in the reported fraud cases amount to US$39 million, of $13 billion that the fund has disbursed, but other fraud cases have no doubt so far gone undetected. Although any corruption is too much, to keep it down to these levels would be an achievement, given the realities of putting large amounts of money into any country or project, not least those where corruption can be rife.

Nonetheless, Sweden, Germany and Ireland have responded with suggestions they may suspend their pledges to the fund for the period covering 2011–13. As fund members they are well aware of how it handles corruption, so their response is probably partly a reaction to the wide publicity that the AP article received in the international media, and the sensationalist and exaggerated claims about the scale of the problem — no government, accountable as it is to taxpayers, wants to be seen as lax on corruption. As Nature went to press, reports suggested that funding from these countries would be restored, while Sweden has also since said that it is happy with the way the Global Fund is dealing with the problem.

The reputation of the fund — which by its own estimates saved more than 4.9 million lives by 2009 — has been unfairly tarnished, and its fund-raising efforts perhaps hampered at a time when the economic crisis is already making donors reconsider the size of their contributions.

When it comes to being transparent over problems of corruption in recipient countries the Global Fund has been far better than most aid donors or agencies. It has openly tackled corruption — with a 'zero tolerance' policy, suspending grants at the first whiff of wrong-doing, and working with recipient countries to bring fraudsters to justice and recover what misdirected money it can. Could it do more? Yes: for example, by strengthening oversight further. But it is already well down the road to effectively tackling corruption.

The same cannot be said for many of the alphabet-soup of aid agencies, which choose not to publicise their own uncovered fraud cases, perhaps out of fear of damaging their image, and losing donors. Several observers have been quick to point out that if the AP article has an upside, it is to have drawn renewed attention to fraudulent use of funds by such agencies. The fight against aid corruption has generally improved markedly since the 1990s, but many agencies still fall far below the high bar set by the Global Fund. Meanwhile, astonishingly, the fund's own fraud investigations have been hampered because the United Nations Development Programme, which manages some of its grants, has refused to allow the fund access to its records. Scrutiny should be welcomed, but honesty should not carry so high a price.