George W. Bush signed a five-year, $15 billion global AIDS relief bill to much fanfare last week in advance of the G8 Summit in Evian, France. Besides giving Bush a PR boost, the measure may turn out to be of more help to U.S. pharmaceutical companies, faith-based religious groups and the biotech industry than to the citizens of 14 African and Caribbean countries covered by the initiative.
The new law designates more than half of the relief money for treatment. With the Bush Administration largely circumventing the multilateral Global AIDS Fund, this is likely to be a thinly disguised giveaway to drug companies, which have fought a losing battle to prevent countries in the Global South from manufacturing generic versions of life-saving AIDS medications.
Any U.S. program that doesnt go through the Global AIDS Fund would have to buy U.S. products from U.S. companies and have to pay inflated prices for drugs that will go to fewer people and save fewer lives, said Salih Booker of Africa Action, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
An amendment by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) to guarantee that drugs of assured quality were purchased at the lowest possible price was rejected by the Republican majority. The GOP received $20 million from the pharmaceutical industry in the 2002 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Another 20 percent of Bushs relief funding goes to prevention. One-third of the prevention money must be spent on abstinence before marriage programs, even though public health officials widely consider them to be ineffective. An additional 10 percent of the funding will go to assist orphans and vulnerable children. Faith-based groups will be eligible for at least half of that money. Its just giving an increased role to faith-based organizations that is inappropriate, Booker said. Its not like African countries dont have their own AIDS programs.
To receive any assistance at all, the 14 beneficiary countries from Africa and the Caribbean may first have to accept genetically engineered U.S. foods. Many African nations currently follow the European Unions lead in rejecting transgenic foods. At a May 21 commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, Bush blasted the Europeans for thwarting the advance of biotech in Africa. Likewise, the AIDS bill chastises African countries that have large populations of HIV- or AIDS-infected citizens and who have rejected shipments of food aid fearing that it might be genetically engineered.
The U.S. spends 0.12% of its GNP (or about $12 billion) on foreign aid, the stingiest of any major industrial country. Theres no guarantee how much of the $15 billion in AIDS money will actually be disbursed. Congress has to reallocate the money each year until 2008 during what is likely to be a time of soaring budget deficits. The fact that Bush is only asking for $1.7 billion in AIDS relief funding for Fiscal Year 2004 suggests where his administrations priorities may lay. A House amendment that would have mandated full funding of Bushs initiative was decisively rejected.
"The devil is really in the details. Between the tax cuts and all the money being spent on terrorism, there's little discretionary money left," Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation policy director Fred Dillon told The San Francisco Chronicle. "It will be extremely difficult."
Upon signing the AIDS relief bill, Bush vowed to challenge America's key allies at the G8 summit in Evian, France to increase their spending in the fight against AIDS in line with the boosted U.S. program. This is one promise he was able to keep.
Two years ago, during massive anti-G8 demonstrations in Genoa, leaders from the worlds wealthiest nations (U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Italy plus Russia) sought to deflect protesters anger by pledging to create a fund that would supply $10 billion annually to the AIDS fight. The U.S. alone was going to supply $3.5 billion per year. To date, the G8 countries have contributed only a small fraction of that.
The 2001 version of the bold new AIDS relief plan received lots of favorable press, especially in the U.S. So, why not try it again? The anti-G8 demonstrations were large and contentious again this year with Bush as Target #1. While tens of thousands of protesters rallied miles away, Bush calmly repeated his AIDS-fighting mantra calling it a moral duty to fight the disease. French President Jacques Chirac urged European leaders to match the U.S. initiative and praised Bush saying [He] took a decision in this area that I would not hesitate to call historic.
If Bush and company wish to alleviate Africas AIDS crisis, they could begin by canceling the continents unpayable foreign debt. IMF and World Bank austerity programs have decimated Africas public health systems over the past two decades. The $15 billion plus per year in interest African nations are currently paying on debts accumulated under various military dictatorships dwarfs the size of any donations real or fictitious that Western countries have bestowed on them.