Bush Plays Shell Game with African Lives

On the eve of a meeting of rich country leaders in Canada, President Bush has brought out a “new initiative” promising $500 million to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS from mothers to children. Intended to stave off the embarrassment of coming empty-handed to a summit trumpeted as focusing on Africa, the White House initiative is in fact a cynical move to derail more effective action against AIDS.

With a bipartisan congressional coalition poised to approve an additional $500 million or more in AIDS funding for fiscal year 2002, President Bush first put the squeeze on Republican senators to cut the total back to $200 million, half of which could go to the Global AIDS Fund and half for bilateral programs to cut mother-to-child transmission. Then he offered his plan, which claims the $200 million as his own while only promising to ask Congress for another $300 million two years from now. His plan would allow no additional money for the Global Fund.

The administration justifies the smaller amounts and the go-slow timetable by the need to first show “results.” But, with 8,000 people around the world dying of AIDS daily (some 6,000 of them in sub-Saharan Africa), the results of Bush’s stalling action are crystal-clear: more dead people.

Demonstrably successful anti-AIDS programs run by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and mission hospitals are starved for funds. Fewer than 2% of AIDS sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa, including pregnant mothers, have access to anti-retroviral drugs that can save lives. The Global AIDS Fund, which is estimated to require some $10 billion a year, is already out of funds less than halfway through its first year, while the U.S. has supplied less than a tenth of the $3.5 billion a year that would be its fair share.

When the issue is saving African lives, the administration says “Let’s wait.” In contrast, there is no hesitation in shelling out more than $5 billion a year in new subsidies for rich U.S. farmers, or more than $6 billion a year to pay for suspending the estate taxes on the richest Americans.

President Bush has also recently announced a trip to Africa for next year and $20 million a year for African education (beginning in 2004). But public relations gestures and budget shell games do not save lives. The American public–and Congress–need to tell the President to change course.

Salih Booker is executive director of Africa Action, which is based in Washington, DC, and is FPIF’s (online at www.fpif.org) policy adviser on U.S.-Africa affairs.