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COLUMN

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Gretchen Aleks

This week, “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of the television show Sesame Street, introduced a new character, Kami. What separates Kami from other Sesame Street characters is that she is HIV positive, a fact that is not so unusual among South Africans. One in nine people in the country is infected with HIV, and the rate of infection is increasing. It is reprehensible that five-year-olds around the world have to deal with the harsh realities of HIV and AIDS, but it is perhaps much worse that some countries, such as the United States, have long had the power to abate the impacts of the disease, and yet refuse to take substantial action against the pandemic.

The United States recently has made its “commitment to fighting AIDS” its poster-issue to show the world that it cares. AIDS funding was the only example Colin Powell could give in his speech at the World Summit in Johannesberg, in which he tried to show that, despite our shirking on Kyoto and other international treaties, the United States was still a team player interested in saving the world.

Right. The United States’ commitment to fighting AIDS is about as strong as Bush’s command of the English language. The United Nations General Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria estimates that it will take a yearly commitment of $10 billion to implement the necessary treatment and education reforms in under-developed countries; the United States’ contribution to this fund should work out to be over two billion dollars each year. The United States, however, has only spent $2.3 billion in the past sixteen years combined on international aid for HIV/AIDS treatment. With this pitiful quantity as its baseline, the United States can get away with saying that it has expanded its commitment to fighting AIDS by biblical proportions.

Despite its tight-fistedness, the United States is still trying to make itself out to be progressive and generous when it comes to funding international relief. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) displays prominently on its Web page that it has spent more on AIDS relief than any agency, public or private, in the world. It neglects to state that the budget of the United States government eclipses by a much larger amount the budget of any other agency, public or private, in the world.

Before the United States can go around tooting its horn as the AIDS savior, it should make some real contributions to the cause. Giving the appropriate $2.5 billion annual grant to the United Nations AIDS fund would be a good first step. Providing some incentive for drug companies to sell anti-retroviral drugs at cost to governments of AIDS-ravaged countries would be another good move. The World Health Organization issued guidelines earlier this year which listed anti-retrovirals as essential in AIDS treatment, despite the fact that many United States government officials maintain incorrectly that an anti-retroviral regimen is simply too complex for people in developing nations to handle. In fact, this was the first year in history that government funds have gone towards medication for infected people in the Third World. It looks like a lot of the money that USAID claims to have used for fighting AIDS has gone towards the fluffy abstinence-education programs that Bush advocates even though they’re largely ineffective.

In the meantime, before South Africa sees any results from this influx of money being trumpeted by Colin Powell and Tommy Thompson, creators of “Takalani Sesame” hope that Kami will alleviate the social strain caused by AIDS by demonstrating to South African children that people with AIDS are normal and should not be stigmatized by their illness. In reality, it would seem that President Bush and his pals in Washington need the puppet more. Perhaps only Sesame Street will be able to bring the AIDS crisis down to a level Bush is capable of understanding. Maybe then his administration will drop the rhetoric about the United States’ generosity in fighting AIDS and something will actually get done.