USAID is trying to track down its ventilators, GAO reports

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Representatives of the Indonesian government await the arrival of ventilators provided by USAID. Photo by: State Dept. / Budi Sudarmo / U.S. Embassy, Jakarta

The United States Agency for International Development is trying to locate ventilators it sent to other countries to help them respond to COVID-19 and to verify that they have been put to effective use.

One section of a wide-ranging report published Thursday by the Government Accountability Office found that USAID spent $200 million on its global ventilator push, which saw 8,722 of the breathing assistance machines sent to 43 different countries through Sept. 30, 2020. Former President Donald Trump’s administration rolled out the ventilator distribution effort with significant publicity and coordinated it through the National Security Council, but it has been criticized for lacking a clear plan for matching resources with needs.

“There was seemingly no rhyme or reason. We would ask for prioritization, and we didn’t always get it,” a current USAID official told Devex on condition of anonymity, prior to the publication of GAO’s report.

Funding for ventilators was drawn from supplemental COVID-19 relief funding provided to USAID’s Global Health Programs account and Emergency Reserve Fund, according to GAO. For many countries, ventilators represented a significant portion of the coronavirus-related assistance received from the U.S. government. Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa were the biggest recipients, with 1,000 ventilators each.

“This was very politically driven — but not driven in any one coherent direction.”

— A current USAID official

Several of the countries that received ventilators from the U.S. government had few or no cases of COVID-19 at the time of the transfer. Nauru and Kiribati, which each received 10 ventilators, had still not reported a COVID-19 case as of Dec. 7, 2020, according to the report.

In response to GAO’s report, USAID disputed that the number of cases at the time of transfer is “the most appropriate metric for judging the effectiveness of the ventilator donation program.”

“The GAO must appreciate that the pandemic is not static,” wrote Frederick Nutt, assistant administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Management.

The relationship between the number of ventilators provided and the number of cases reported at the time of the transfer also varied widely, even between countries in the same region, GAO found.

USAID issues 'urgent request' for COVID-19 medical equipment

The agency did not confirm whether medical equipment identified by its implementing partners would be used in USAID's partner countries or inside the U.S.

“For example, in Latin America, El Salvador, which had 74 new cases per day as of the date of its transfer letter, received 600 ventilators, whereas Honduras, which had 161 new cases, received 210,” the report reads.

The current USAID official said that different regional directorates within the NSC would offer different directions about which countries should be prioritized for ventilators.

“When you work at AID, there’s always some stuff that’s going to be political. ... But this was very politically driven — but not driven in any one coherent direction,” the official said.

While GAO noted that nearly all of the ventilators had been distributed, the report found that USAID lacks information about where the ventilators are now located within the countries that received them.

“USAID is working to obtain and compile information from these sources in order to track the location and functionality of each ventilator, as well as any related training provided,” the report reads.

Update, January 29, 2021: This story has been updated to clarify the date when Nauru and Kiribati reported no cases of COVID-19.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.