Audit of the COVID-19 Response Mechanism 2021
Article Number: 5
This worthy mechanism has still to be fashioned to respond effectively to emergency crises
ABSTRACT This article summarises the Office of the Inspector General audit report of the COVID-19 Response Mechanism. It is a long article because the audit report is lengthy and contains a lot of detail, hardly surprising since the amount of money involved, more than $ 4 billion, was considerable and the operation of the mechanism is intrinsically complex. There is a balance of achievements and issues but, given the many findings, the Agreed Management Actions are few. That said, by the time those actions are completed according to the agreed timescale, they may not materially improve the outcomes of the mechanism.
In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Fund developed a new funding modality, the COVID-19 Response Mechanism (C19RM) with the objectives of funding interventions at country level that focused on:
- COVID-19 control and containment interventions (e.g., personal protective equipment (PPE), diagnostics, treatment, and communication – as per World Health Organization (WHO) guidance).
- COVID-19-related risk mitigation measures for programs to fight the three diseases (HIV, tuberculosis and malaria).
- Expanded reinforcement of key aspects of health systems, such as laboratory networks, supply chains, and community-led systems.
In tackling these objectives, many different activities and interventions were funded. Overall, the mechanism focused on investments in commodities at country level, with a strong reliance on the Global Fund’s existing procurement mechanisms.
The success of this C19RM version 1.0 led to its extension in 2021 to version 2.0. While created with the same overall goal in mind – supporting countries in their fight against COVID-19 and to preserve HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria gains – there are key differences in the nature and context of C19RM 1.0 and C19RM 2.0.
C19RM 1.0 was designed and rolled out in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the pandemic. It considered the Global Fund’s past experience/existing guidelines related to emergency funding and was adapted for speed, with a clear focus on a rapid response. In comparison, C19RM 2.0 was a much more significant investment, with a longer implementation timeframe. It was designed in part through leveraging lessons learnt from its predecessor.
Given that C19RM 2.0 investments were four times greater than C19RM 1.0, the Board emphasized the need to balance speed with robustness, to match the level of investment, risk, and ambition.
The key changes were:
- A longer time horizon in which requests could be approved, with implementation to be completed by end of December 2023.
- The establishment of a more comprehensive allocation model (including qualitative adjustment considerations).
- A tiered review process to support urgent needs for COVID-19 health products (Fast Track) and more comprehensive requests for additional interventions (Full Funding and Supplementary Funding).
- Creation of more processes and support mechanisms to increase Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM), civil society organization (CSO) and key population engagement, to require engagement with the national COVID-19 response coordinator, and to align National Strategic Preparedness and Response Plans for COVID-19.
- An additional technical review process with key partners (known as GAC-CTAG).
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audit report GF-OIG-21-008 published on 15 April can be downloaded here.
Key considerations Impacting C19RM 2.0
C19RM 2.0 was designed considering a number of inherent tensions in terms of how it would be implemented and how it would be monitored.
Design decisions were often made under pressure and with incomplete information. In responding to countries’ urgent needs, the Global Fund had to balance considerations of speed, robustness, equity and inclusiveness in its investment decisions. There is no absolute “correct” balance between these considerations.
Here are some examples provided by OIG of trade-offs required in deploying significant resources at pace:
A total of $3.54 billion was made available for C19RM 2021. Of this, the Investment Committee approved amounts totalling $3.194 billion, the split across the key objectives being as follows:
Of the approved amounts $2.12 billion was spent on health products. The biggest health cost categories were: oxygen-related costs (24%), PPE (23%) and diagnostic products (21%).
Audit objectives, scope and ratings
This audit assessed the adequacy of C19RM in providing support to countries through C19RM funding approved by the Global Fund Board. The audit assessed:
- The design and effectiveness of the C19RM 2021 approval process and related reporting to the Global Fund Board; this includes the governance, processes, systems, tools, and people in place to ensure that funding requests are processed in a robust manner, that funds are made available at country level and that the Global Fund Board is continuously informed of progress.
- The design, and where possible implementation, of monitoring and oversight mechanisms to ensure effective and proper utilization of additional funds at the country level.
- The timely utilization of C19RM 2020 funds made available at country level, where possible; this includes identifying challenges and root causes preventing the effective utilization of these funds.
The audit focused on the design and effectiveness of components that support the forward-looking implementation phase. Where possible, the audit assessed C19RM 2020 funds utilization and in-country challenges by leveraging OIG country audits.
The audit scope excluded the following processes:
- C19RM 2021 allocation methodology, except for qualitative adjustments made as part of the funding request review and approval.
- The recording of contingent liabilities.
- The in-country supply chains processes that relate to C19RM investments.
It was not possible for OIG to fully review the implementation and utilization of C19RM 2021, or the effectiveness of the Monitoring & Oversight (M&O) framework whose implementation was not complete at the time of the audit.
CR19RM grant request and approval processes were examined across ten countries: Guinea, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, and Ukraine.
The audit ratings of objectives were as follows:
Key Achievements and Good Practice
- C19RM 2.0 maintained a rapid pace in approving requests: Within three months of its launch, it had awarded more funds than the entire 2020 allocation. The approval rates of both C19RM 1.0 and 2.0 were similar, a significant achievement given C19RM 2.0 had to process and approve four times the $ amount of funding requests than C19RM 1.0 – see the following graph:
Award Rates of C19RM 1.0 vs C19RM 2.0 (as of December 2021)
- Improved inclusiveness: The Global Fund Secretariat made significant efforts to enhance the inclusiveness of the C19RM 2.0 process through: (i) increasing CCM budgets in 2021 to support improved engagement of CSO and key and vulnerable populations (KVPs); (ii) improvements to application material and guidelines, including mandatory lists of communities’ priorities in funding requests (FRs); and (iii) increasing funding from Centrally Managed Limited Investment funds, which were used to strengthen CSO and KVP engagement.
- Well-designed M&O framework: There was a clear positive evolution in 2021 compared to 2020. For C19RM 2.0, the Secretariat developed a broad framework for M&O to address Board requirements and support internal decision making. Its main pillars are the risk & control matrix, a monitoring & evaluation framework, and Local Fund Agent (LFA) assurance. The Secretariat also put significant effort into developing data processes that feed into the framework. The framework goes beyond what was in place for core disease grants and aims to strengthen oversight of the entire portfolio.
- Fast implementation exposed challenges with external review processes: In line with a Board Decisions, an external review by the Grant Approval Committee (GAC) and the COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group (CTAG) partners was established for C19RM 2.0, and met all requirements set in the Board Paper. Its application led to tensions in implementation: two-thirds (67%) of all GAC-CTAG respondents to the OIG survey said that insufficient time was given to robustly review funding requests, and 25% of respondents were not able to review and submit comments on time.
- Data quality issues in procurement reporting due to reliance on manual tools and processes: Procurements represent 66% of total C19RM 2.0 investments. As such, monitoring the Pooled Procurement Mechanism (PPM) and local procurement is critical. New reporting processes and requirements were put in place, including country-level processes/ tools and new Secretariat key performance indicators (KPIs). However, data quality issues hindered effective oversight. For local procurement reporting across the ten sampled countries, the amount reported as locally procured was ten times higher than actual. For PPM, reporting issues were noted in the calculation of KPIs that are reported to the Secretariat. These issues are linked to reporting being heavily dependent on excel templates and labour-intensive manual processes to collate and analyse data.
- Sub-optimal utilization of C19RM 2020 funding, due to in-country procurement and supply chain management issues.
- Processes to support effective cross-portfolio optimization of funds are needed: These would help to maximize future savings and to respond to significant changes in initial assumptions or changes in the external environment.
- In future, the current operating model needs significant and careful assessment when responding to acute emergencies.
- COVID-related funding was reviewed and approved quickly, but at the expense of robustness in some key areas:
1A .C19RM maintained a rapid pace in approving grant requests.
1B. The mechanism had been strengthened when compared with C19RM 1.0.The robustness of the review and approval process was enhanced in: internal finance review, Investment Committee approvals, Board reporting, C19RM integration into existing grants, procurement, disbursements, guidance and tools, and alignment of investment categories.
1C. The process of allocating funds across portfolios has been strengthened. However, there are some limitations in the design of the process and in the data used to inform the qualitative adjustment process.
1D. There was a strong perception of inclusion in the C19RM 2.0 request and approval process. The positive impact of inclusion efforts was noted in the OIG survey of CCM stakeholders:
These are good results compared to C19RM 1.0, when only 56% of CSO/KVP respondents said there had been sufficient consultation:
1E.The External Review process was established and well-executed but fast implementation exposed challenges.
To put this into context, the report explains that External Reviews were conducted by GAC and CTAG partners (including WHO, GAVI, Stop TB and UNICEF) in parallel with the internal reviews performed by Global Fund Secretariat teams. The External Reviews assessed: (a) the technical robustness of applications; (b) the alignment/coordination of investments across donors and national stakeholders; and (c) alignment with WHO technical guidance and national preparedness plans. The overall approach was to: (i) notify External Reviewers that a new Funding Request was ready for review and request them to provide their input within three working days; (ii) share Funding Request documents via an online platform; (iii) collect External Reviewers’ inputs using online tools and consolidate them into a summary that was shared with Country Teams; and (iv) synthesize the External Reviewers’ inputs and Country Team responses and provide the synthesis to the Investment Committee (IC) to inform the award decision.
The implementation challenges noted in the audit report were:
- The lack of minimum requirements for the GAC-CTAG review which resulted in differences in the quality of the reviews.
- The technical review process was designed with a 72-hour window, as per the approved Board Decision, emphasizing the speed of review. In implementation, however, this impacted the robustness of the review, something which may not have been foreseen when initially designed. GAC-CTAG respondents to the OIG survey highlighted that there was insufficient time to review funding requests: