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Democracy "Better Suited" To Fighting HIV/AIDS - 2002-11-15

A South African organization says good governance and democratic principles are necessary to stop the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The Institute for Democracy in South Africa is calling on African governments to treat the pandemic as a social problem and not just a health issue.

A report issued earlier this year on AIDS and democracy says in Africa, “AIDS is being imposed on a continent already in crisis. Amidst the many challenges faced by African countries, AIDS has the potential to add to the devastation.” However, the report goes on to say that the pandemic also poses “the opportunity to create a more caring society.”

The Institute for Democracy in South Africa – IDASA – helped write the report. It says HIV/AIDS is a challenge for Africa’s leadership and for democracy itself. Executive Director Paul Graham says tackling the pandemic must begin at the highest levels of government.

He says, "There’s no doubt that key leadership in the country has to take the lead and, indeed, that they have to develop a vision for dealing with AIDS, which is across all sectors of society and preferably non-partisan or in American terms bi-partisan so that AIDS is not embroiled in the daily politics. Now, there is no doubt that in some countries that has not happened."

IDASA is working with groups and officials in Malawi, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa on the impact the disease is having on good governance.

He says, "We ask all government institutions to try and put this on their agenda. So that the education department comes to terms with the impact on the teacher profession and on students. That defense forces deal with it, the police and so on and so forth. And until people see AIDS as a priority, a social priority rather than a health priority, we are not really going to tackle the problem."

Mr. Graham says many African countries have attempted a complex approach to HIV/AIDS – an approach they may not be able to carry out.

"In African countries, they have developed what are called multi-sectoral approaches to AIDS," he says. "They’ve created national AIDS councils and so on. But these require very complex arrangements at a governance level and most states here are weak. They have difficulty enough delivering water or infrastructure – but when they now try and add to that medication, prevention, educational messages – and also dealing with the impact of AIDS – they really do battle. And this is where we think the challenge is."

In the report on AIDS and Democracy, some question “whether democracy is better suited” to responding to the disease. Some doubt that democracy “will help combat the epidemic, noting that non-democratic states actually seem to be proving more successful in many cases.” Uganda, Senegal and Thailand have been praised for their success against HIV/AIDS. Yet, the report says they “are hardly the world’s most democratic states.” Others, like Mr. Graham, disagree, saying stable democracies – such as those in the West – have done a good job in slowing the spread of the disease.

He says, "Our feeling is that if you’ve got healthy government, democratic government, in which people are involved, committed and responsive, you’re more likely to deal with the AIDS pandemic. It would be a very sad day if people think there can be an authoritarian response. That will be a mistake. And if you have a healthy democratic government you can cope with most crises even if they are as devastating as AIDS. Without one, your society becomes fragile and far more prone to disruptions and so on. And I think if you look at the food crisis, for example, the countries, which are struggling for the moment with democracies, are also struggling with dealing with the food crisis in a positive way."

However, Mr. Graham warns that while good governance is needed to battle HIV/AIDS – good governance itself is also vulnerable to the disease.

"For example, in South Africa, if indeed a cure is not found and it turns out that people do die our population will stabilize over the next ten years," he says. "And that, of course, has some positive impact, less resource problems. But at the same time, it will stabilize with many aged people and many orphans and that’s going to have an impact on leadership. So we expect there to be disruptions in the democratization process. But whether they will be of a security nature, which is what some people fear. Lots of brigands, lots of crime, lots of young people without a stake in the system - or whether there will merely be a slowdown in development and impoverishment of people, that’s very hard to predict at the moment."

The head of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa says the impact of HIV/AIDS on voter turnout should be seen in the 2004 elections. He says by 2006, it will be clear what the impact of AIDS deaths will be on the entire country.