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Foreign AIDS Assistance Negatively Impacting Botswana, says President - 2003-11-13

The president of Botswana says outside help in his country's battle against HIV/AIDS is having unintended negative consequences for the nation's economy. President Festus Mogai says non-governmental organizations (NGO) providing aid are actually draining the government of its skilled labor.

Botswana's President Mogai was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to open a day long conference on his country's efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, in the hopes Botswana could provide an example for other African nations coping with the deadly virus.

President Mogai acknowledged that Botswana is among the nations most severely affected by the AIDS pandemic. Thirty-five percent of the population is infected with HIV. The president says the disease is hurting the nation's productivity because it affects many people in the prime of their lives, between the ages of 15 and 49. That has an impact on the nation's workforce in more ways than one.

"Our cemeteries are starting to fill with the headstones of people in their 20s and 30s," said president Mogai. "Our health and social services are struggling to cope with the strain."

The need for physicians, pharmacists, and health care technicians to treat the illness is rising, and Botswana has no medical school. The government has anti-AIDS programs in place, but it has a hard time keeping people on staff.

"We lost our skilled health and other workers to the corporations and partners including NGO's, all of whom pay better than the government," said president Mogai. "When our development partners require expertise, they too recruit from the government and other national institutions."

President Mogai says non-governmental organizations hire locals because they work cheaply. But he says the government can't afford to import replacements from the United States or Europe. So in the long run, the corporations and aid organizations can actually impede progress by draining government resources.

For the short term, Botswana is trying to compensate by hiring health care workers from other parts of Africa and from Cuba, whose doctors are allowed to work in Botswana for two years at a time. For the long term, President Mogai says, Botswana is building a medical school and trying to train more of its own people.

Meanwhile, Botswana's program for AIDS control and prevention is seen as a model for other African countries. The government conducts public awareness campaigns to promote abstinence and condom use, gives free drug care for those who are infected with HIV and plans to introduce routine HIV testing in health care facilities next year - meaning people getting blood tests are automatically tested for HIV unless they specifically ask not to be.

Botswana is slated to receive some of the $15 million President Bush has promised over the next five years to help with AIDS prevention and control in 12 African and two Caribbean nations.

Republican Senator Bill Frist, himself a medical doctor and a member of a U.S. task force on AIDS, told conference participants Wednesday how he traveled to Botswana and several other African nations in August to get a better idea of how the U.S. funds should be used. "We met with doctors, patients, clinics, voluntary counseling and testing clinics, we went out in the bush, we went out in the rural areas to learn," he explained. "And we met with government officials and leadership to learn what we can and should be doing as a global community."

The U.S. Senate majority leader said as a result of his trip he feels optimistic about Africa's future and U.S. efforts to help.