As part of the Bush administration's $15 billion plan to combat the HIV virus and AIDS in Africa and elsewhere, the U.S. Agency for International Development is strengthening its ties with faith-based organizations that provide health care in the developing world.
The U.S. Agency for International Development recently hosted a conference in Washington for representatives of faith-based organizations that are active in the worldwide battle against AIDS. President Bush's Global AIDS Coordinator, Randall Tobias, said religious groups have an essential role to play in combating the HIV virus, and in alleviating the suffering of those who are infected, and will be eligible for U.S. Government funding.
"The goal of the president's initiative is compassionate results," he said. "And faith and community-based organizations should have the fullest opportunity permitted by law to compete on a level playing field, striving to achieve the objectives that we all have in mind."
USAID Health Development Officer Kate Crawford says, in many developing countries, faith-based organizations are the only resource available to poor people in need of health care, and that to exclude them from the AIDS battle would be unthinkable.
"Generally, the poorer the country the more prominent the faith-based groups are in providing care and social services. And they have a reach into communities, particularly isolated and poor communities, that no one else has," she said. "Most governments in Africa are not awash in funds. And it is really the faith-based groups that provide most of the health care and the social services."
One such organization is Catholic Relief Services, which has HIV-AIDS projects in 30 nations in Africa and elsewhere. Project advisor Carl Stecker says, not only are faith-based groups at the forefront of efforts to contain AIDS in the developing world, they are a resource that does not depend on the budgetary whims of governments and other donors in order to continue their work.
"We were there before [the AIDS crisis]; we are there now; we are going to be there afterwards," he stressed. "And when funding levels drop from private organizations, from governments, from multilateral and bilateral donors, we are still going to be there for the long haul."
In May, Congress approved President Bush's "Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief." The five-year, $15 billion initiative focuses on AIDS-ravaged nations in Africa and the Caribbean. Its goals include providing life-saving treatment to two million people infected with the HIV virus, preventing at least 60 percent of projected new infections in target countries, and caring for 10-million HIV infected people and children orphaned by AIDS.
At the core of the USAID's prevention effort is the so-called "ABC" concept: "A" for promoting sexual Abstinence, "B" for encouraging people to Be faithful to their sexual partners, and "C" for promoting Condom use. The Bush administration believes that combining the three strategies provides the best hope for stopping the spread of HIV.
But not all groups are comfortable with all elements of the "ABC" concept, particularly religious groups when it comes to condom use. According to USAID, in the past, organizations had to embrace all three in order to receive federal funds. Kate Crawford says that is no longer the case.
"If a church group is comfortable with abstinence and partner reduction/monogamy messages, that is fine," she said. "We do ask that they do not provide disinformation about condoms. But they are not required to discuss condoms. And, likewise, if other groups feel more comfortable doing condoms [promoting condom use], they are not required to give abstinence messages. The idea is that we can work with everybody [all groups]."
Ms. Crawford says, when it comes to AIDS and attempts to modify social behavior, ideology and political considerations inevitably enter the debate. She says not only do groups with a conservative social leaning often object to condom distribution, but non-religious entities sometimes shy from "preaching" about being monogamous or abstaining from sex altogether. She says the goal of USAID is to make use of the strengths of each organization, without forcing them to embrace strategies that make them uncomfortable.
At the same time, USAID says, there are clear rules governing how funds may be spent. For faith-based groups, that means no money provided by the U.S. government can be devoted to religious activities. In addition, health care provided by faith-based groups must be open to all, regardless of religious affiliation.
Carl Stecker points out that Catholic Relief Services has no problem with the restrictions. "Regardless of faith, we reach across to everybody - every individual that shows up and qualifies for the care being offered," he said.
AIDS workers say developed, prosperous countries like the United States have the luxury of being able to debate the merits and potential pitfalls about giving faith-based groups access to public funds. But, they say, such concerns are virtually meaningless in impoverished, AIDS-ridden African nations, where as much as 40 percent of the population is infected with the HIV virus.
Kristen Kalla, who directs the AIDS program for the international relief organization, CARE, said, "When we talk about faith-based responses here in the United States, certainly there is more of a political discussion in terms of the role of faith-based organizations. But at the community level, I can tell you, after [spending] 10 years in Africa, it is really difficult to tell the difference between community and faith-based responses. Because they are there, working in the communities, working with all kinds of groups."
The Bush administration aims to launch the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief next year, with an initial expenditure of $2 billion.