How well have international and national institutions performed in fighting the AIDS epidemic? Have they kept their promises to provide increased funding and better programs? These are among the questions asked by AIDS activists participating in last week’s World AIDS Day campaign, which had as its slogan, “Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise.”
Marcel Van Soest is the executive director of the organization facilitating World AIDS Day, the World AIDS Campaign (www.worldaidscampaign.info), based in Amsterdam. He’s concerned that many institutions are not living up to their promises.
Less Rhetoric, More Action
For example, African leaders, in meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2001, declared that they would work to ensure that 15 percent of their national budgets went to improving health care and AIDS. Unfortunately, said Van Soest, “Many countries have not even started to increase their (budgetary allowance), and only two have reached the goal of 15 percent, Gambia and Botswana.”
Meanwhile, he said in relatively wealthy South Africa, “There have been a lot of discussions between civil society and the minister of health. [The government of South Africa has made] commitments that it should adhere to, like the UN promise of universal access…[but] South Africa has not shown they were keeping the promises, and that has resulted in a lot of tension and uproar, especially from civil society.”
Van Soest also questions the ability of international community to meet benchmarks for making progress against the disease. The leading industrialized countries, the G8, are calling for universal access to drug treatment and prevention programs within the next five years. “The G8,” he said, “has made a lot of AIDS promises since 2000. But there is not system to hold them accountable….or guarantee that AIDS is on the agenda to, for example, report progress on their own commitment. So we’ve been fighting over last two years together with labor and other civil society groups to show we want AIDS on the agenda and that the G8 should have a progress report or a high level working group to report on the progress made on their own commitments.”
In 2001, a special session of the UN General Assembly promised to address the problem of HIV/AIDS in all its aspects and to secure a global commitment to combat it in a comprehensive manner.” It had set benchmarks for progress by 2005 and 2010 on a number of issues, including progress on mother-to-child transmission of the disease and guarantees of universal access to treatment for those who need it. Meanwhile, the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations are designed to cut AIDS infection rates in half and reverse them by 2015. Van Soest doubts the goals will be reached by the target dates.
He also said he is concerned about the emphasis the US government has put on abstinence education as a means of fighting AIDS. He says in some cases, African leaders may be getting the wrong message or not using money in the most effective way.
He said, “Africa, as you know, is very religious continent and some of the African heads of state as well as religious leaders have been transforming that message that came out of Washington and related the money to a very political agenda within their own AIDS response within a country.“ He says “Often you see donors coming up with some of these conditions on how the money should be used like prevention. Often the money is linked to very technical or medical related issues but not what is really needed.”
Positive News Amid Frustration
There has been progress.
He mentioned two religious groups that are open to spending prevention money on greater reproductive health education: “the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (www.e-alliance.ch) (in Geneva), which is related to World Council on Churches, [is] really changing the agenda among many of the ecumenical believers, including Catholics. The other group is Anerela, a pan-African community of HIV-positive religious leaders (based in Johannesburg) (www.anerela.org). They play an incredible role in [influencing] the agenda…in the faith communities and around the world.”
Van Soest said the World AIDS Campaign has also been focusing on the workplace to reduce the stigma of infected workers and to promote care and prevention. He says, “We‘ve been working especially with the business sector and trade unions to see how we can overcome their skepticism to work together with programs. (That’s) because where employers have been showing leadership like Beneton or Damler Chrysler or Anglo American, they have introduced fantastic programs in the workplace with testing and treatment, but it could have been faster if the trust of the employees was taken on board from the start, and you can do that with trade unions. So we’re looking at how we can have partnerships between trade unions and employers on these work place issues.”
In another improvement, 37 public and private broadcasters in Africa are working to devote five percent of their airtime, about one hour per day, to AIDS (http://www.broadcasthivafrica.org/). It’s part of a larger UN-backed Global Media AIDS Initiative that includes a commitment by more than 100 companies in 62 nations to place AIDS awareness messages in soap opera, talk shows, news, phone-ins and public service announcements.
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