Separating fact from damage control: Assessing Catholic Relief Services' defense of its grant to Population Services Internation

July 24, 2015 09:00 AM

By Rob Gasper recently broke a story concerning nearly $3 million in funding from Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to an abortion and contraceptive providing agency named Population Services International (PSI). CRS defended this funding, in part, by pointing out that PSI was chosen independently from CRS by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria as a sub-recipient of a non-fungible, highly targeted program to fight malaria in Guinea. 

This explanation creates the impression that CRS found itself in a moral dilemma caught between continuing lifesaving malaria work or giving up the Global Fund grant due to the surprise inclusion of PSI as a sub-recipient grant partner. Other statements from CRS’ defense of the grant lend to this impression. For example, CRS states, “But we had a choice: We could either accept funding from the Global Fund and save potentially thousands of people’s lives, knowing that the money could in no way go to PSI’s family planning activities, or we could walk away and turn our backs on thousands of people who may die from malaria, the number one public health problem in Guinea.” 

CRS’ explanation also states, “When we were instructed by the donor to work with PSI in Guinea, we went through a very thorough review process to ensure that our local church partners were in agreement with CRS continuing with the grant with PSI included; we also very carefully reviewed the grant agreements and built in checks (mentioned above) to ensure that all messages in this project were focused solely on malaria and did not incorporate family planning.” This gives the impression again that CRS was surprised by PSI’s inclusion and only after that point had to check carefully with local church partners and the grant agreements in order to continue the grant.

However, after reviewing CRS’ internal documents, the grant proposals, and CRS’ history of involvement with PSI in relation to malaria in Guinea, it is found that this defense statement given by CRS is quite puzzling.

First, a bit of history. Beginning in 2008, CRS led a consortium of other organizations, including PSI, for the purpose of fighting malaria in Guinea and to put together a proposal for funding from the Global Fund (p. 16-17). CRS played a large part in putting together a proposal for a Global Fund’s Round 9 malaria grant which was submitted and subsequently rejected by the Global Fund. This grant proposal included CRS as primary recipient and the other consortium members, including PSI, as sub-recipients. According to the FY2012 PMI’s Malaria Operational Plan, CRS, PSI, and other consortium members also worked together distributing mosquito nets in Guinea during this time frame. 

After the grant proposal was rejected, CRS led the effort to revise and resubmit the grant proposal to the Global Fund for the upcoming Round 10 malaria grants. According to CRS Technical Advisor Sarah Weber, “CRS was heavily involved in the proposal development process for the malaria component of the Round 10 proposal that the Guinea CCM [Country Coordinating Mechanism] submitted, and was named co-PR with the Ministry of Health.” Again, CRS, along with Guinea’s Ministry of Health, were selected as primary recipients and, again, PSI was among those selected as a sub-recipient. This time the proposal was accepted by the Global Fund.

The question of who ultimately made the selection of PSI as a sub-recipient for both grant proposals is not quite clear. The Round 10 grant proposal states: “SRs [sub-recipients] have been selected by an independent board made up of a research office, a representative from the CCM, a representative from the WHO, and a representative from the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS based on their experience and ability to intervene in one or more service delivery areas.” However, due to CRS’ heavy involvement, not only in drafting the proposals, but as CRS’ Sarah Weber points out in her presentation, leading the prior consortium, creating a steering committee, and generally leading the Ministry of Health and CCM around by the hand, CRS is at the very least partially responsible for PSI’s selection, and knew well in advance of the actual grant being given that it would be required to grant PSI the required funds. Furthermore, CRS’ position that it was “instructed by the donor” to work with PSI does not fit with the historical account. And finally, if, in fact, CRS only notified its Guinean Catholic partners of PSI’s involvement after the grant was accepted, this would indicate a grave oversight on CRS’ part.

A thorough reading of both grant proposals also calls CRS’ defense of the non-fungibility of the grant into question, as both proposals call for the building up of the sub-recipients’ capabilities beyond fighting malaria. For example, the rejected Round 9 proposal states on p.28: “The proposal intends to improve the organisation of NGOs and CBOs and strengthen their technical and management capacities. They will be equipped with logistics and equipment and their operating expenses will be covered so they will be capable of intervening in areas other than malaria control activities.” (emphasis added) And the accepted Round 10 proposal on p.31 states: “The strengthening of national OCBs and ONGs in terms of training (SDA 1.3 and 2.1), computer equipment, and logistics (SDA 4.2) will make it possible to enable them to conduct malaria-fighting activities (caring for cases by CAs, awareness-building, leadership, etc.). The final goal is to make these organizations capable of connecting interventions beyond malaria-fighting activities.” (emphasis added) Clarification by CRS is warranted on these points.

In conclusion, the historical record as garnered from the grant proposals and CRS’ own documentation establishes the following points:

In 2008, CRS helped form and lead an anti-malaria consortium which included PSI.

Prior to being awarded the Round 10 Global Fund grant, CRS worked with PSI in Guinea by distributing mosquito nets. 

CRS was heavily involved in the effort to draft both Global Fund grant proposals, which included PSI as sub-recipient.

Both grant proposals indicate that PSI and other sub-recipients were to be built up for work beyond malaria activities, contrary to CRS’ claims of non-fungibility.

CRS’ official statement concerning its grant to PSI does not seem to be in line with this historical record. CRS would be well advised to clarify its involvement with this grant, reassess the fungibility of this grant, and issue a corrected statement that is less focused on damage control and more in line with the truth. 

Rob Gasper is a senior research analyst for American Life League and is the editor of ALL News.

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