Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 May 2001
Issue No.532
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Wolves in sheep's clothing

The World Bank and the IMF announce a war chest to combat AIDS. Their hypocrisy leaves a sour taste, argues Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal Nkrumah Nothing betrays more the hollowness of official Western concern for the plight of Africa's sick and poor than their hypocritical attitude towards the 5,000 Africans who die of AIDS each day. At the end of a two-day meeting in Washington of the Development Committee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), the HIV/AIDS pandemic was put on the global development agenda. On Tuesday, the two Bretton Woods institutions conceded at last that poverty and AIDS are linked. World Bank President James Wolfensohn promised a multi-million dollar "war chest" to buy cheap drugs to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. "A well directed programme on AIDS is now possible," explained an exuberant Wolfensohn.

For Africa's sick and dying such sanctimonious statements ring hollow. The two Bretton Woods institutions are reluctant to do anything about the seven million children who die as a result of the US$400 billion African debt crisis every year. The IMF and WB nudge the flow of wealth from the poor to the rich world. Between 1986 and 1990, the IMF and the WB helped themselves to US$4.7 billion of the poor world's earnings. So to boast of a multi-million dollar war chest is a little "rich." There's more. The WB and IMF have remorselessly prescribed the same lethal medicine for poor countries for over three decades: a heavy dose of privatisation and economic deregulation; monetary austerity; financial liberalisation and the removal of restrictions on inflows and outflows of international capital. What this means is that money can be more easily siphoned from poor to rich countries and state spending on health, social welfare and education is slashed. Let's be blunt: those policies kill.

The hypocrisy does not end there. The IMF and WB insist on democratisation as a condition for increased borrowing and development assistance. But they are no exemplars. They are shamelessly undemocratic. Despite a membership of over 150 member countries, the United States controls almost 20 per cent of the vote in the IMF. The US, by virtue of its political clout, sets the rules of the development game. The same international financial institutions that direct "Third World" policies in order to improve the commercial opportunities available to wealthy multinationals now offer a pittance as a token of their "compassion."

Corporate profit-seeking reigns. The billions of profits reaped by international pharmaceutical companies are of far more importance to the IMF and WB than the well-being of the world's impoverished millions. Small wonder: 52 of the world's largest 100 economies are actually transnational corporations, not countries. Profits from selling patented AIDS treatment drugs, which only the very wealthy can afford, are more important to the WB-IMF cabal than the suffering of 27 million Africans with HIV/AIDS. Cheaper generic AIDS treatment drugs produced in countries like India and Brazil are available. But the multinationals, and therefore the IMF/WB oppose them. That is a grievous wrong.

There is no place for prevarication in the struggle against HIV/AIDS in Africa. Some facts must be plain: even to the world's bankers. Sweeping poverty and the alarming prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa are closely linked. This was the conclusion reached at a two-day summit on HIV/AIDS organised by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which took place in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, last weekend. On Saturday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared the HIV/AIDS pandemic the gravest challenge facing the African continent.

"When you look at the numbers, it's like a third world war," said Annan, keynote speaker at the Abuja AIDS meeting. Annan declared the battle against AIDS his personal priority for the rest of his time in office. AIDS, Annan reminded his audience, kills more Africans than all the conflicts raging in the continent combined. He called for a "Marshall Plan" to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. "More people have died of AIDS than in World War II," Annan explained. "The war on AIDS will not be won without a war chest, of a size far beyond what is available now," he added.

Experts estimate that US$10 billion is needed to combat AIDS effectively. Current spending on AIDS in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and South America and the Caribbean is below US$1 billion. Annan, alas, did not openly say that the institutions from which he hopes to solicit funds are the real murderers in Africa.

But other African leaders more daring had their turn at the podium. "We are an endangered continent," host Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo succinctly said. Africa has 70 per cent of the world's HIV sufferers. Africa is the only continent where more women are HIV positive than men. That means a much faster rate of infection among the population at large and among children in particular. The prevalence of infection among women has particularly malign consequences. Families break. Social bonds dissolve. This will continue. In some African countries, for every teenage boy with AIDS, six teenage girls are infected. In 16 African countries, more than one adult in every 10 has the HIV virus. Africa is home to 80 per cent of the children suffering from AIDS. Tragically, some 700, 000 children will die of the disease without being able to afford any palliative drugs. In Botswana a third of the population is HIV positive. The facts are heartrending.

"We are ready to do business with those who are ready to show compassion," Obasanjo told the Abuja conference. Nigeria recently ordered four million dollars worth of AIDS treatment drugs from India. The drugs will be used in a pilot programme to treat 10,000 Nigerian AIDS sufferers. The African heads of state present pledged to reserve at least 15 per cent of their national budgets for health care.

Present were the Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Malian President and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Chairman Omar Alpha Konare, Togolese President and OAU Chairman Gnasingbe Eyadema and a host of other dignitaries including World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Gro Burundtland and UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. Also present was former United States President Bill Clinton. US officials boycotted the conference to protest Gaddafi's attendance. Clinton, on his second visit to Nigeria in nine months, said "I am here because I care about Africa which is where humanity began."

The question of origins arose repeatedly at the summit. With his characteristic flair, the Libyan leader accused the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of spreading AIDS. "CIA laboratories lost control over the virus which they were testing on black Haitian prisoners in (the US)," he explained. Gaddafi added that 400 Libyan children were deliberately infected with HIV/AIDS at a teaching hospital in Libya by Bulgarian doctors and nurses, at the behest of the CIA. Libyan authorities have detained the Bulgarian medics. In his peppery speech, Gaddafi warned of a "malevolent plot by capitalists" to prevent the continent's AIDS victims from having access to branded drugs and vaccines. He said that Western pharmaceutical companies "exploit this human catastrophe in order to enrich themselves." And he accused the pharmaceutical industry of conducting an "odious trade."

Many of the continent's leaders gathered in Abuja shared Gaddafi's sentiments. No doubt the Western media will paint his speech as the maunderings of a lunatic. But Gaddafi is not the only African leader branded a deranged maniac by the Western media. South African President Thabo Mbeki has come under intense fire in the Western media for questioning received wisdom on HIV/AIDS. Mbeki can take comfort from the fact that Mandela himself, now virtually canonised by liberals and progressives the world over, was criticised late in his administration for defending Gaddafi's position on this and other issues pertaining to Africa.

Cancelling Africa's $400 billion debt will instantly boost the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. But action to contain the pandemic is needed now, before more die. A concerted global effort is imperative. It is disingenuous to argue that debt and HIV/AIDS crises in Africa are not linked.

For progress to happen, a change of attitude in the club of rich countries is needed. Even Annan admitted so: "There is no question that the rich countries of North America, Europe and Japan must take a completely different view of global health. And the country that needs to come first in doing it differently is the United States. The US has grossly underperformed in terms of the level of assistance that it gives the rest of the world, especially the poorest countries."

Let us hope that African leaders have indeed made a serious effort to help the victims of AIDS/HIV in Africa, not merely spouted hollow political rhetoric. The disease hurts so many - not only the sick and dying but the families the dead leave behind, too. They all need care. Western powers must accept partial blame and vigorously help repair the damage. But they can never successfully do the latter until they've had the grace to own to the former.

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